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Breaking Bad

Either appropriately or ironically for a show about meth cookers, "Bad" is simply one of TV's great addictions.

With:
Walter White - Bryan Cranston
Jesse Pinkman - Aaron Paul
Skyler White - Anna Gunn
Hank Schrader - Dean Norris
Marie Schrader - Betsy Brandt
Walter, Jr. - RJ Mitte
Gus Fring - Giancarlo Esposito
Saul Goodman - Bob Odenkirk
Mike - Jonathan Banks

Continuing to earn its stripes as TV’s least predictable drama, “Breaking Bad” kicks off its fourth season with the key characters (and this hardly qualifies as a spoiler) managing to stay alive, though for how long remains anybody’s guess. Remarkably, series creator Vince Gilligan has created juicy new roles for virtually every one of the principals, while layering on intriguing new characters through the run — from Jonathan Banks’ weary “fixer” to Bob Odenkirk’s sleazy lawyer. Either appropriately or ironically for a show about meth cookers, “Bad” is simply one of TV’s great addictions.

Three-peat Emmy winner Bryan Cranston has undergone quite a journey as Walter White. Initially faced with a likely-fatal cancer diagnosis, he began cooking crystal meth to provide for his family. Since then, however, he has been drawn deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld along with his former student Jesse (Aaron Paul) and now, to a lesser extent, his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn).

What Gilligan and company have excelled at doing, with tremendous finesse, is to keep bringing Walt as well as others to the edge of the moral abyss, and then dealing with the consequences. And while the show would come to an abrupt halt if Walt got killed, the situations prove so compelling it’s easy to suspend disbelief, largely because it’s hard to see an escape until the writers cleverly reveal one.

That very much applies to the uneasy relationships at the start of season four, after last year’s extraordinary cliffhanger. In fact, the new season’s first three episodes seem as determined as ever to push characters toward the brink, testing whatever loyalty or sympathy they might have earned from the audience.

As I’ve stated before, the tone approximates indie film perhaps more than anything else on television. The creative achievement of “Breaking Bad” is more impressive, however, since like Walt’s wizardry in mixing up meth, it’s such a delicate operation — where each new threat and dilemma takes the series near the brink.

So far, “Breaking Bad” has navigated those perilous waters with admirable skill, pulling one rabbit after another out of its hat, while introducing new layers of complexity in a world where no one is wholly good.

Somehow, one suspects this can’t all end well, but popping in the DVDs like video crack cocaine, I’ve finally succumbed to a TV-junkie mind-set: Don’t ask too many questions, and enjoy the high for however long it lasts.

Popular on Variety

Breaking Bad

AMC, Sun. July 17, 10 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Albuquerque by High Bridge Prods. and Gran Via Prods. in association with Sony Pictures Television. Executive producers, Vince Gilligan, Mark Johnson, Michelle MacLaren; co-executive producers, Melissa Bernstein, Sam Catlin; supervising producers, Peter Gould, George Mastras, Tom Schnauz; producers, Stewart A. Lyons, Moira Walley-Beckett, Diane Mercer, Bryan Cranston; director, Adam Bernstein; writer, Gilligan;

Crew: camera, Michael Slovis; production designer, Mark Freeborn; editor, Skip MacDonald; music, Dave Porter; casting, Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas. 60 MIN.

Cast: Walter White - Bryan Cranston
Jesse Pinkman - Aaron Paul
Skyler White - Anna Gunn
Hank Schrader - Dean Norris
Marie Schrader - Betsy Brandt
Walter, Jr. - RJ Mitte
Gus Fring - Giancarlo Esposito
Saul Goodman - Bob Odenkirk
Mike - Jonathan Banks

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