Judge Bryan Byun would like to assure viewers that the phrase "anal probe" appears nowhere in this paranormal-abduction TV series.
Our reviews of The 4400: The Complete Third Season (published May 16th, 2007), The 4400: The Fourth Season (published May 16th, 2008), and The 4400: The Complete Second Season (published May 23rd, 2006) are also available.
This July, the missing return.
A pair of government agents, one male, the other female, investigates paranormal events. One's a renegade with a personal stake in finding The Truth. The other's a levelheaded nerd-girl scientist. Conspiracies and government coverups abound.
No, it's not The X-Files, but an amazing simulation!
Facts of the Case
A blazing comet is on a collision course with Earth, causing a worldwide panic. Like most blazing comets on a collision course with Earth, it threatens to cause massive global devastation (hence the panic). Unlike most comets, however, this one screeches to a dead halt over a lake in the Pacific Northwest, then disappears in an enormous flash of light, leaving behind a group of 4,400 extremely confused people.
These people, it is soon discovered, are missing persons who disappeared over the past sixty years. They have no memory of who their abductors were, where they were taken, what happened to them, or why they were returned. None of them has aged a day since their disappearance or has any idea that time has passed in their absence.
With the FBI apparently otherwise occupied, the task falls to the Department of Homeland Security to keep tabs on the returnees, or "the 4400" as they come to be known. When some of the returnees begin to exhibit supernatural powers, Mulder and Scully—er, I mean Tom Baldwin and Diana Skouris—are dispatched to investigate the 4400 and uncover their mysteries.
The 4400: The Complete First Season includes all five episodes of the limited series, which aired in the summer of 2004 on the USA network, on two discs.
Once you get past the whole X-Files knockoff thing, The 4400 turns out to be solidly entertaining, with memorable performances and capable writing. The returnees-with-weird-powers premise makes for an engaging science fiction anthology series, with some excellent stand-alone episodes—my favorite being "The New and Improved Carl Morrissey," in which a good-hearted but wimpy former supermarket employee returns with superhuman abilities, which he uses to become a vigilante crime fighter—tied together with the requisite "conspiracy arc."
Another terrific stand-alone story, from the pilot episode, involves Michael Moriarty (Law & Order, Pale Rider) as a returnee from the 1970s who comes back to find his life and livelihood in ruins. Moriarty delivers a heartbreaking performance as a decent, ordinary guy who loses everything he has, and by the time he unleashes his lethal ability, it's hard not to sympathize with his helpless rage.
Of the ongoing subplots, the most engaging centers around the unlikely romance between Richard Tyler (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), an Army soldier taken from the 1950s, and Lily Moore (Laura Allen), a wife and mother taken just a couple of years before the return—who turns out to be the granddaughter of the soldier's lost love. It's a classic fish-out-of-water story, as Tyler, a black man, finds himself in a very different world from the racially segregated past that he's always known.
The other ongoing storylines don't fare as well. One involves a little girl with an unsettling habit of casually referring to things that haven't happened yet—a mixture of cute and creepy that's been a genre cliché since The Twilight Zone. Another involves Shawn (Patrick Flueger), Agent Baldwin's teenaged nephew, who was abducted the same night that Baldwin's son went into a coma. An obvious attempt to draw in the kids, Shawn's story is predictable teen-soap fluff—he comes back to high school to find the little girl who had a crush on him three years ago grown into a 17-year-old hottie, now the girlfriend of his formerly younger brother—and takes up way too much time in a series that's already way too short for the tale it's trying to tell.
While the two leads, Joel Gretsch (as Tom Baldwin) and Jacqueline McKenzie (as Diana Skouris), turn in competent performances, their standard-issue G-men roles tend to be overshadowed by the more intriguing stories of the returnees, leaving the agents to spend most of their time peering anxiously at computer monitors or knocking on doors, shouting "We just want to help!"
Overall, the series maintains a strong focus on character, thanks in part to the presence of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine vets like René Echevarria, Ira Steven Behr, and Robert Hewitt Wolfe on the production team. While The 4400 might superficially resemble The X-Files, it's really more in the vein of another USA network series, The Dead Zone, with characters struggling to come to terms with a world that's moved on without them, powerful abilities that could be used for good or evil, and hints of an apocalyptic destiny.
The 4400: The Complete First Season gets a competent but disappointingly bare-bones DVD release from Paramount Home Entertainment. On the plus side, video quality is outstanding for a TV series, with excellent clarity, vivid colors, and deep shadows, all wrapped up in anamorphic widescreen. Audio is also impressive, with a choice of Dolby Digital tracks in 5.1 and 2.0 surround, offering up an active soundscape that more than does the job for a show that is mostly dialogue-based, with occasional bursts of action. Music is surprisingly prominent in the series, with a memorable opening theme and engaging songs like Ivy's "Worry About You" used to good effect, and is well presented on the audio tracks, with pleasing depth and range.
On the minus side: no extras whatsoever. No trailers, no behind-the-scenes footage, no cast interviews. You'll have to go to the show's official site to see those things, which of course raises the question of why Paramount couldn't have included this material on the discs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Solid performances and writing elevate The 4400 from the run of the mill of cable network series, but there are some frustrating issues that keep the show from fulfilling its potential. For a series that's trying to tell a fairly complex and heavily populated story in five hours, there's a surprising amount of narrative chaff that drags down the pace. The "Shawn gets caught up in forbidden love" storyline, for instance, should have been pitched over the side at the first story conference. Sure, the country's being overrun with people with mysterious supernatural abilities, and the world itself might be in dire peril from who knows what unknown entity or entities, but what we really want to know is…what's Shawn's brother going to do when he finds out big brother's been shagging his girlfriend?
The upshot of all this time spent on standard-issue TV drama subplots is that, by the time the series reaches its narrative climax, it feels rushed and abrupt, with a maddeningly unsatisfying conclusion. (Fortunately, a second season is on the way.)
The 4400 doesn't exactly eclipse the TV shows and films that it draws inspiration from, but it's above-average genre fare, with a compelling mystery at its heart that will keep viewers hooked from one episode to the next, and an overall story that hints intriguingly at an epic confrontation to come. The DVD presentation isn't exactly a treasure trove for fans of the show, but its high rewatchability makes it a keeper, and worth checking out for anyone looking for solid science fiction entertainment.
All charges against The 4400: The Complete First Season are dismissed, since the prosecution seems to have disappeared in a blinding flash of light.
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