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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, the TV critic here.

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 highly promoted and eagerly anticipated nonfiction nature miniseries that begins Sunday on the Discovery Channel. "Life" is being promoted as a follow-up to "Planet Earth," the fabulous nature miniseries that also was co-produced by Discovery Channel 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.

Just as in "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, and 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" is not produced and directed by the same people who masterminded "Planet Earth," though some producers of separate segments are involved. And the major difference between "Planet Earth" and "Life" 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 it's annoying.

So is Discovery Channel's decision, once again, to substitute the original narration by Sir David Attenborough, the most reputable nature-TV expert on the planet. With "Planet Earth," Sigourney Weaver replaced the original narration. This time it's Oprah Winfrey. And while Oprah Winfrey may be the Queen of All Media, one of her strengths is not being a captivating narrator. Add to it the simplicity of the writing and while "Life" looks great, parts of it - like this closing minute of Sunday's installment on amphibians and reptiles - sound like the nature documentary equivalent of the closing narration to "Desperate Housewives."

(Soundbite of Discovery Channel's "Life")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Talk show host): It isn't easy to love an amphibian or a reptile. Most modern humans seem to have an innate aversion to them. They inhabit places we would rather not go. Their ways are alien to us. But in the end, they are driven by the same forces to which all animal life must answer: the need to eat, the need to pass on their genes, the need to defend themselves. And in this, they are among the most brilliant of evolutionary improvisers. Hard to kill, tenacious and supremely adaptable, improbable geniuses of survival.

BIANCULLI: My advice regarding this new look at "Life": Wait for the DVD with Attenborough, or watch now with slightly lowered expectations. Either way, it really is a TV show to behold.

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

"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. Edie Falco, from "The Sopranos," stars in "Nurse Jackie," playing a registered nurse 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, they 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.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter, at nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

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