'Life' (And Other Good Things) Premiering On TV

Short-horned chameleon (Calumma brevicornis)

This short-horned chameleon in Madagascar stars in "Reptiles & Amphibians," one of the 11 segments of the Discovery Channel natural history series Life. It premieres simultaneously on TLC, Animal Planet, Science Channel, Investigation Discovery, Planet Green and Discovery Health Channel at 8 p.m. EDT on Sunday, March 21. Inaki Relanzon/naturepl.com/Discovery Channel/BBC hide caption

itoggle caption Inaki Relanzon/naturepl.com/Discovery Channel/BBC

Premiere Info:

Breaking Bad

Network: AMC
Date: Sunday, March 21
Time: 10 p.m. EDT

Life

Network: Discovery Channel
Date: Sunday, March 21
Time: 8 p.m. EDT

Nurse Jackie

Network: Showtime
Date: Monday, March 22
Time: 10 p.m. EDT

United States of Tara

Network: Showtime
Date: Monday, March 22
Time: 10:30 p.m. EDT

It's an exciting season for cable TV, which at this moment is a lot more competitive — and interesting — than broadcast network television. The AMC series Breaking Bad is back for its third season Sunday, and Showtime's Nurse Jackie and The United States of Tara are back to start their sophomore seasons on Monday.

I'll get to them in a minute — but first, a few words about Life, the nonfiction nature miniseries that begins Sunday on the Discovery Channel. It's been promoted (heavily) as a follow-up to Planet Earth, the fabulous miniseries that was likewise co-produced by Discovery and the BBC. And visually, it's every bit as mesmerizing and satisfying. You find yourself in awe of two things simultaneously: the events taking place in the animal kingdom, and the manner in which the camera crews were able to capture them.

Like Planet Earth, Life contains some killer footage — sometimes literally. You get to watch Komodo dragons team up to bring down a much larger water buffalo; humpback whales jockey and fight to be in position to impress a lone female. From the tiniest frogs to the largest mammals, Life captures one fascinating creature and activity after another, and definitely qualifies as must-see television.

But ... there's a big but: Life wasn't produced and directed by the same people who masterminded Planet Earth (though some of the auxiliary producers of individual Life segments were involved in the earlier project). And the major difference between the two is that Planet Earth was written at a higher level, assuming more intelligence on the part of the viewer. Planet Earth talked to us. Life tends to talk down to us — and that's annoying.

So is Discovery's decision, once again, to replace the original narration by David Attenborough, the most reputable nature-TV expert on the planet. With Planet Earth, Sigourney Weaver subbed the narration. This time it's Oprah Winfrey — and while she may be the Queen of All Media, being a captivating narrator is not one of her strengths. Add to that the simplistic writing, and while Life looks great, parts of it sound like the nature-documentary equivalent of the closing narration to Desperate Housewives. My advice regarding this new look at Life: Wait for the DVD with Attenborough, or watch with slightly lowered expectations. Either way, it really is a TV show to behold.

The same goes for the three scripted cable series returning for new seasons. All three have enhanced the reputations of their respective networks, and all three center on deeply flawed yet almost hypnotically fascinating characters.

Edie Falco i i

Highly Medicated: Edie Falco plays Jackie O'Hurley, an emergency-room nurse who relies on off-label doses of painkillers to help her get through grueling shifts. Ken Regan/Showtime hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Regan/Showtime
Edie Falco

Highly Medicated: Edie Falco plays Jackie O'Hurley, an emergency-room nurse who relies on off-label doses of painkillers to help her get through grueling shifts.

Ken Regan/Showtime

Breaking Bad, which returns Sunday on AMC, picks up right where last season ended, with a spectacular unexpected tragedy. All the characters are trying to cope, but in different ways — and the only thing predictable about this series is its unpredictability. After only two seasons, Breaking Bad has established itself as one of TV's very best drama series. And I promise you: If you tune in for the wordless opening scene, you'll be hooked for the duration.

Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a high school science teacher turned crystal meth manufacturer — not a character with whom you'd normally empathize. The same goes for the lead roles in Showtime's United States of Tara and Nurse Jackie, which begin their new seasons Monday. Sopranos veteran Edie Falco stars in Nurse Jackie, playing an RN with a family, an ex-lover and a drug habit. Toni Collette, in The United States of Tara, plays several leading roles, all fractured parts of the same struggling personality.

All three of these stars — Cranston, Falco and Collette — commit so highly to their roles that they not only win our sympathy but disappear within the parts they're playing. When an episode is over, I usually feel bad for Jackie or Tara or Walter. Only afterward does it sink in just how wonderful a performance, and a show, I've just witnessed.

All three programs — Breaking Bad, Nurse Jackie and The United States of Tara — should be on your weekly must-see list, if they aren't already.

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