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Nine of spring's best TV shows

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Ken Tucker gives his critical take, and we offer teases as to what’s coming up next

No. 2 – Breaking Bad

AMC, premieres March 21, 10-11PM

Ken’s take

His marriage in crisis, Bryan Cranston’s Walt is driven as never before to turn his life of meth-making crime into something positive, while Aaron Paul’s Jesse is trying to find inner peace via rehab. If you think either of those things will come to pass, you don’t know what you’re missing on TV’s wildest, most unpredictable series.

What’s next

The drama’s third-season premiere is a game changer in the truest sense of the word. ”My wife finds out that I’m a drug dealer,” reveals Cranston, ”and everything [Walt] worked for could come crumbling down.” Meanwhile, Jesse will ”go through a transformation,” Cranston hints, adding that the new season is about Walt and Jesse adjusting to their new reality. ”There is clearly a dark side to both of them, and they have to be willing to accept that.”

No. 3 – Lost

ABC, Tuesdays, 9-10PM

Ken’s take

The final season is taking its shape from not only its much-bruited ”flash-sideways” sequences but also the decision to focus part of each episode on an individual character. So far, the result has been rich storytelling that’s giving up more secrets with every hour, as the series comes to what looks like a triumphant climax.

What’s next

Ding-dong, the Temple’s gone. So now what? Lost‘s castaways will be asking that very question as they decide whether to join Un-Locke/the Monster (Terry O’Quinn) in his quest to flee the Island. Also on tap: a flashback episode for Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell), and a Sideways-world episode for Ben Linus (Michael Emerson).

No. 4 – Friday Night Lights

NBC, premieres April 30, 8-9PM

Ken’s take

Having seen this new season on DIRECTV’s 101 Network, I can say with assurance that you’re going to moan, cry, and cheer at the new obstacles facing Coach Eric (Kyle Chandler) and Tami (Connie Britton) Taylor, that the new characters will steadily work their way into your heart, and that Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is prime-time TV’s key source for the Wisdom of Coolness.

What’s next

The season 4 highlight reel includes a significant death, a major breakup, an abortion scandal, a shocking arrest, and a season-ending showdown between the scrappy underdog East Dillon Lions and the mighty Panthers. Also of note: Tami gets kissed by someone other than Eric, and Kitsch takes his shirt off at least three times.

No. 5 – Fringe

Fox, returns April 1, 9-10PM

Ken’s take

Tension between the alternate universes has only been increasing, even as the emotional through-line of this season — John Noble’s Walter Bishop coming to terms with the (wilder, more aggressive) man he was and the (brilliant but repentant) man he is now?becomes more moving and poignant.

What’s next

The relationship between Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Olivia (Anna Torv) ”will develop a lot” by the end of the season, teases exec producer Jeff Pinkner. But the duo we’re most looking forward to getting together are partners-turned-frenemies William Bell (Leonard Nimoy) and Walter, who finally come face-to-face ”over there” in the big two-part finale.

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No. 6 – Modern Family

ABC, Wednesdays, 9-9:30PM

Ken’s take

There are so many comedy styles in play in this ensemble sitcom that it’s a wonder the tone doesn’t wobble. But from the witty dialogue to the slapstick visual gags (and sometimes Ty Burrell’s motormouthed, motor-skills-impaired Phil Dunphy pulls off both in one scene), Family offers up a feast of laughs every week. It’s the rare new show that has true broad-based appeal.

What’s next

The decision to send the entire family to Hawaii for an episode in May ”is not some cheap ratings ploy,” insists exec producer Steve Levitan. ”It’s just a regular episode that happens to be set on a family vacation.” The fun begins the week before with an episode set entirely at the airport, where, Levitan hints, Rico Rodriguez’s Manny ”is on the no-fly list.” We’re so on board.

No. 7 – Glee

Fox, returns April 13, 9-10PM

Ken’s take

This musical comedy-drama has so firmly established itself in pop culture that it’s hard to believe it’s only just finishing out its first season. Everything from the tricky teen-pregnancy plot to Jane Lynch’s daringly, uniquely arch performance as coach Sue Sylvester are locking into place like the rhythms of one of the show’s fine musical numbers.

What’s next

For the kids of New Directions, the road to regionals will be paved with totally awesome stunts! Among them: an all-Madonna hour, an episode directed by Joss Whedon (featuring his Dr. Horrible muse, Neil Patrick Harris), and the arrival of Molly Shannon as the school’s badminton coach and nemesis to Sue.

No. 8 – Southland

TNT, Tuesdays, 10-11PM

Ken’s take

If you crossed NYPD Blue with Michael Mann’s Heat, you’d get an idea of this cop show’s ambitions. The story lines can sometimes crash into each other and leave you wanting more resolution — but taken with the ever-increasing solidarity of the ensemble cast, this controlled chaos is making for a drama that’s pleasurably stressful, essential viewing.

What’s next

”I wanted to give him the day from hell,” says series creator Ann Biderman of the March 16 episode, which finds Ben (Ben McKenzie) out on patrol alone for the first time and getting a little too invested in a domestic-violence case. Biderman also confirms that Lydia (Regina King) will be reunited with her ex-partner (Tom Everett Scott) in the April 6 finale. Sort of. Hedges Biderman, ”It’s quite surprising.”

No. 9 – Damages

FX, Mondays, 10-11PM

Ken’s take

The initial heavy use of flash-forwards to the death of Tate Donovan’s Tom Shayes proved to be just a tease to get viewers hooked. They’ve now (mostly) been replaced with a wonderfully twisty, often quietly funny season, featuring superb performances by Martin Short, Campbell Scott, and Lily Tomlin, as well as Glenn Close’s brilliantly brittle turn as Patty Hewes.

What’s next

Exec producer Glenn Kessler says Patty’s recurring nightmare will lead to some ”startling revelations” about her past. Additionally, look for the Tobin family to possibly start turning on one another and for Leonard Winstone’s (Short) real agenda to emerge. And the body count? Yep, that’ll be going up. ”This is Damages,” reminds Kessler. ”So, absolutely.” We had a hunch.

No. 10 – Caprica

Syfy, Fridays, 9-10PM

Ken’s take

I didn’t think I’d get hooked on this Battlestar Galactica prequel, but boy, does it ever work as first-rate soap opera. The struggles between the clans of Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales are thoroughly engrossing; the notion of making what is arguably the main character a corpse, an avatar, and a Cylon — not to mention a terrorist sympathizer — is proving to be nothing less than mesmerizing.

What’s next

”Tensions are rising on Caprica in all of our families — the Adamas, the Graystones, and the monotheistic terrorists known as the Soldiers of the One,” says exec producer Jane Espenson. Daniel (Stoltz) risks everything for his daughter, Zoe (Alessandra Torresani), and engages in a bitter standoff with Joseph (Morales), while Lacy (Magda Apanowicz) is pulled into a dangerous orbit that Espenson says will prompt ”more than one character to take desperate actions that change the course of the story entirely.”

What’s Next reporting by Michael Ausiello, Jeff Jensen, and Dan Snierson

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