"Sons of Anarchy" returns to FX on September 6, and based on both a screening of the season 4 premiere and comments made by creator Kurt Sutter and the cast at their press tour panel, I'm feeling much better about the series than I did for much of season 3.

Now, I was already feeling better by the time we got to the season 3 finale, which brought the action back to Charming, let the Sons be more empowered rather than puppets for shadowy outside figures, and set up a lot of potentially fascinating conflicts for the following season. But I'm glad to say that both the premiere and the press tour session only confirmed that reassuring feeling.

Without saying too much about the first episode, it begins on the day Jax, Clay and the bulk of SAMCRO has completed their 14-month prison sentence from their plea deal with Agent Stahl. As the 90-minute episode goes along, we see that both Charming and the club have changed quite a bit while the main characters were away, and that there will be threats both from without (Ray McKinnon plays a clever prosecutor, and Rockmond Dunbar is Charming's new sheriff) and within (Tara has had a lot of time to read and re-read those letters about Jax's father).

Katey Sagal, who plays Gemma and is married to Sutter, noted that in season 3 (which she called "bold and brave")), the characters were so splintered and spread across continents that she didn't get much time to interact with certain co-stars.

"This season feels different, but splintered in another way," she said. "There's a lot of internal struggle that goes on this season."

That was music to my ears, because as good as the season 2 story arc with Adam Arkin and his band of white supremacists was, "Sons" is always at its strongest when the tension arose from differences between the club members - specifically between Jax and Clay.

Sutter explained that episodes are usually structured in a way where the A-story is about the club taking on an outside foe, but the seasons should be about the club itself.

"The expository beats are fun and exciting and testosterone-driven," he said, but "the idea always is to use those external pressures to incubate what's going on inside the club."

Other than McKinnon and Dunbar, the season will be much less guest star-driven than seasons 2 or 3 were. The biggest addition actually comes behind the scenes, where Emmy winner Paris Barclay ("NYPD Blue," "In Treatment") is now an executive producer and the show's lead director. Barclay directed season 2's "Balm," the episode that's arguably the series' high point to date, and he seemed pleased to be with the show full-time now that "In Treatment" is over.

"You only get maybe 2 or 3 chances to find a show where the passion is as good as the writing is as good as the cast," Barclay said, while suggesting that Sutter, David Milch and Aaron Sorkin are "the three great television writers right now."

We'll see how the season plays out (I did, after all, really like the season 3 premiere before growing frustrated with the Abel/Belfast story arc), but this is a good start.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com