(Note: This column contains mild spoilers for the fourth season of "Sons of Anarchy," which premieres tomorrow night at 10 on FX. If you want to know nothing, don't read any further.)

The new season of "Sons of Anarchy" begins with a homecoming: the day that Jax, Clay and several other key members of the motorcycle club known as SAMCRO end a prison stretch after a plea deal they arranged last season. Their friends and lovers are glad to have them home, but prison has changed some of them. Clay is another year older and closer to the day when his arthritis won't let him ride a bike anymore - and therefore no longer lead the Sons - and starts considering his need for a retirement plan. And Jax, having spent more than a year with little to do but think (and chop off his familiar long blonde hair) is again wondering whether he fits into the increasingly violent world of the club.

At the same time, the premiere feels like something of a homecoming for "Sons of Anarchy" itself, after an experimental third season that took both SAMCRO and the show off its usual turf and got everyone involved in a complicated storyline involving the abduction of Jax's son Abel by a faction of the IRA in Belfast. Some liked the season-long arc, many didn't (I was one of the latter), and the start of the fourth season feels like a return to familiar ground on many levels. The Sons are back in their small Northern California hometown of Charming, and the conflicts largely arise from tensions within the club, along with the usual threats from law-enforcement.

It's good to have the show back playing to its strengths, rather than turning its characters into pawns in an elaborate game being played between characters the audience had no investment in. The three episodes I've seen are much more satisfying than all but the first and last episodes of last season.

Yet watching the show go back to this kind of geographical and emotional territory reminds me very much of Jax's continued failure to fix and/or leave SAMCRO for good.

The Belfast storyline came on the heels of a second season for the show that was among the strongest, most critically-acclaimed any drama has had in quite some time. "Sons" creator Kurt Sutter said that he took the Sons to Ireland in season three because he felt the show couldn't just keep telling the same stories in the same way season after season, and it was time to try something different.

I respect that. There are too many shows on TV - not just on the broadcast networks, but even premium cable ("Dexter," anyone?) - that are content to rely on the same formula episode after episode, season after season, and rely on the fact that enough viewers want something familiar every week. Sutter didn't want "Sons" to be one of those, so he took a big swing at something else. It was, unfortunately, a big swing and a miss, but I appreciated the philosophy behind it.

And because reaction to that story was so vocal and negative in some quarters, I understand why Sutter would go back to what worked previously. But what I've seen so far of season four - while effective on a number of levels - definitely bears out the concerns Sutter was expressing when he talked about Belfast.

Sutter has said that he envisions the show as running seven years (which would make this the middle chapter), so we know Jax isn't going to leave the club until at least the finale, if ever, that Clay's arthritis and Wayne Unser's cancer will likely remain in a holding pattern, that the cops won't be able to shut SAMCRO down for good, etc. The fact that seasons two and three took place over less than a month combined allows Sutter some latitude on that front, but it still makes building a season out of these conflicts tricky.



Beyond that, though, we know roughly how a season like this one works, and how episodes within it do. We know that when the music montage starts, violence is usually coming, we know the ways in which the Sons will inevitably get into trouble within each episode (if not always the ways they'll get out), etc.

Obviously, the how and why of this can be and often is interesting. Jax's ongoing presence in the club is a given, but the reasons for his actions are unpredictable. (If a bit convoluted at times.)

And if the start of the season feels formulaic, it's a formula that's worked in the past, and one that gives very good material to key members of the ensemble. As Jax, Charlie Hunnam seems to grow by leaps and bounds each season (the baby storyline was a mess, but Hunnam held the threads of it together far longer than could have been expected), and Jax's emotional arc this year doesn't let him down.  Maggie Siff continues to do strong work as Jax's baby mama Tara, who keeps trying to straddle the world of the club and her other life as a respected doctor. There's also good material for Ryan Hurst, Mark Boone Junior and several other members of the supporting cast, and the show adds two terrific new antagonists in Rockmond Dunbar as the unassailable new sheriff and Ray McKinnon as a federal prosecutor with a comprehensive plan to take down SAMCRO.

Again, it's a vast improvement over nearly everything the series had to offer a year ago. (And, it should go without saying, more compelling than most of the new and returning dramas that the broadcast networks are about to start premiering.) But at the same time the new episodes are serving as an antidote to last season's failed experiment, they're also functioning as a defense of it. I'm glad to have the Sons back in Charming, doing what they do best, but if Sutter gets those additional three seasons he wants, I hope he can find a way to have them do something that's different but also good.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com