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'Breaking Bad' returns for fourth season after cliffhanger close

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, left, Jonathan Banks as Mike, center, and Bryan Cranston as Walter White appear in AMC’s Breaking Bad.

AMC

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, left, Jonathan Banks as Mike, center, and Bryan Cranston as Walter White appear in AMC’s Breaking Bad.

Before we get into the specifics of Breaking Bad's amazing return to new episodes on Sunday, know this:

This series is the best program on television you're probably not watching.

And I know why. Star Bryan Cranston has transformed himself from Malcolm in the Middle's goofball dad into a bald, goateed teacher-turned-drug dealer so ruthless he will let his partner's girlfriend choke on her own vomit to keep his buddy in the trade. That's a tough character to love.

I once told creator-executive producer Vince Gilligan that Breaking Bad seemed to document the slow curdling of a man's soul; a high school teacher forced by cancer into cooking meth with a junkie former student to cover his medical expenses.

Gilligan suggested a different, simpler take. What happens, he said, when all the stuff in society that moderates our behavior falls away? Who do we become when the only limits are ones we make for ourselves?

We may find out this season, which picks up moments after Cranston's increasingly ruthless Walter White has sent partner Jesse Pinkman to kill another meth cook — a nice guy who was, nevertheless, going to allow White's drug dealer boss to kill him and Jesse without disrupting the product flow.

As last season ended, viewers saw an emotionally strung-out Jesse show up on the other cook's doorstep, holding a gun, unsure if he would pull the trigger. And while I'm not about to spoil the cliffhanger, one thing was oddly obvious.

This addict, meth cook and drug dealer had somehow been driven to the ultimate corruption by his former high school chemistry teacher.

"It's the loss of innocence, really," said Aaron Paul, who won an Emmy award playing Pinkman last year. "He was happy dime-bagging it (as a small-time dealer), and then Walt comes into his life and turns it upside down. He's not an evil person; though granted, he does cook and sell crystal meth."

Even Paul laughs at the irony. Cranston's White — a buttoned-down, frustrated chemistry whiz living in suburban Albuquerque, N.M. — is the one who corrupted a longtime drug dealer and junkie.

"Jesse completely shuts down emotionally and throws himself into this chaos and destruction," Paul said of his hard-partying character this season. "He needs to stay distracted because, if he doesn't, he gets lost inside his own head."

Beyond Pinkman's slide, White's estranged wife Skyler works on their plan to buy a carwash together for money laundering and White himself is deciding whether to knock off his boss Gus Fring (played with emotionless cool by Giancarlo Esposito).

So by the series' end, will White become the crystal meth kingpin of the Southwest?

"I think that's his goal," Paul said. "He might not, you know, say it out loud. But he wants to have the power and the control over it all."

After watching the first three episodes of the new season, all I know for sure is that Cranston and Paul better get a few more Emmy speeches ready.

Breaking Bad returns for its fourth season at 10 p.m. Sunday on AMC.

• • •

For years, Father Alberto Cutie had the nickname "Father Oprah" for his emotive, successful Spanish-language TV and radio talk shows.

Now he's got a chance to live up to the name.

The Miami priest's new English-language talk show, Father Albert, debuts on several Fox-owned stations at 11 a.m. today, including WTVT-Ch. 13 in Tampa.

And rather than avoid his own personal peccadilloes — Cutie left the Roman Catholic Church in 2009 after he was spotted on a Miami beach kissing a woman whom he later married — the now-Episcopal priest will center his show on them.

"I think everybody became so interested with my dilemma," said Cutie, 42. "I think, you know, the program basically deals with people's dilemmas. I think this is an opportunity for me to say to people, hey, guess what. I know about being stuck in a place where you don't know exactly where to turn."

Do you worry some fans won't forgive how you left the church?

"For very traditional-minded people, it's scandalous that a celibate priest would allow himself to be involved in a relationship with a secret girlfriend. But, you know, I think in life we evolve and we change our mind, you know."

Was your head turned by all the fame and acclaim?

"I've never looked to work in media. I've always either been assigned by my bishop or been invited. I think the people who really know me, know that my passion is to be a parish priest and that whatever media work I do is always somehow an offshoot of that and not vice versa.

"I was an international celebrity in the Spanish-speaking world, and I was accessible to people. I never lived on a private island where people couldn't get to me if they had to. I still drive my Honda Civic."

Your TV work also never seemed connected to your work as a priest, either.

"In '98, (Spanish language network Telemundo) told me, 'We want a priest to host a talk show.' For me, the idea was outrageous but I understood; if people want to hear me preach, they can come to church on Sunday. My work as a talk-show host was helping people as they are. It's like, you know, why do doctors now host talk shows? Well, there's a role for us in television."

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'Breaking Bad' returns for fourth season after cliffhanger close 07/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 10, 2011 7:34pm]

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