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Usually right about now, the AMC cable network — or what I like to call TV’s little art house — offers an exciting break from our summer doldrums with a new season of “Mad Men.” Unfortunately, that won’t happen this summer because protracted contract negotiations forced a delay in the Emmy-winning drama’s production schedule.


But at least we can take heart that AMC has another show almost as good as “Mad Men” ready to roll. Season 4 of “Breaking Bad” launches Sunday night and that is cause for celebration.


It’s also cause for some concern. Shows like “Breaking Bad” lug around an inherent problem as they age. With each season, the stakes need to be raised and the danger amplified for our main antihero — in this case, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the chemistry teacher who cooks meth to support his family.


Simultaneously, the writers must find ways to keep said antihero interesting and appealing for viewers, even as he gets involved in darker and more heinous activities. It’s an extremely difficult high-wire act to pull off, and just a few missteps along the way can lead to something as ludicrously out-of-control as, say, “Weeds.”


The good news for “Breaking Bad” fans is that, at least in the early going of Season 4, the show remains as addictive as ever. It picks up just moments after Season 3’s chilling cliffhanger, in which Walter appeared to be on the verge of being killed by Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), his drug-lord boss.


In a desperate attempt to preserve his life, Walt hatched a disturbing plan: Persuade his longtime sidekick, Jesse (Aaron Paul), to kill Gale, Walt’s lab assistant. Walt reasoned that, with Gale out of the picture, Gus would be forced to keep him (and Jesse) alive in order to keep the meth lab running.


In Sunday’s shocking, anxiety-ridden opener, Walt and Jesse grapple with the consequences of their actions, which clearly have affected their relationship. More than ever, Walter has distanced himself from that milquetoast persona of the past. Now, there’s no denying that he’s a hardened criminal. Jesse, meanwhile, seems to be in a detached state of shock. Whatever sense of innocence he clung to is now gone.


Much praise has been justifiably showered upon Cranston and Paul, who have four Emmys between them. They and the entire “Breaking Bad” cast continue to do fearless, electrifying work.


But for a moment, let’s turn some attention to the direction and cinematography, which fall under the guidance of creator/executive producer Vince Gilligan. I constantly marvel at the show’s artful camera work, carried out with a poet’s eye for detail. This visual verve, combined with a great sense of pace and timing, works to build the kind of unsettling mood reminiscent of “The Sopranos.”


Just how long can the “Breaking Bad” gang keep this up? How long can they continue down such a treacherous path and make a show so grim, yet so riveting? The odds against them increase as time goes on, but here’s hoping that Walt and Jesse can keep things cooking for at least one more tension-filled season.


———


THE ‘LIGHTS’ GO OUT: For five years, regular readers of this column have put up with my ongoing, rapturous praise of the high school football drama “Friday Night Lights” (8 p.m. Friday, NBC). Undoubtedly, at times I must have sounded like an obnoxious politician.


Well, the talk ends this week as “Friday Night Lights” airs its series finale — an emotionally powerful hour that brings a fitting close to one of TV’s greatest, yet most underappreciated, dramas.


I believe that one of a TV critic’s main duties is to lead his or her readers to quality shows that might have gone overlooked. So it has been a huge thrill to hear from so many viewers who took the time to write and thank me for introducing them to “Friday Night Lights.” Some of you have called it your most rewarding TV experience in years and that pleases me.


Still, the show’s low ratings are evidence that many of you continue to overlook or avoid it. I can only hope that, somewhere down the line, you discover “Friday Night Lights” on DVD or in reruns on ESPN. You won’t be sorry.


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