Judge Eric Profancik noticed the resemblance between The 4400 and one of the 2006 newcomers on NBC. Like 30 Rock, it has a number in its name.
Our reviews of The 4400: The Fourth Season (published May 16th, 2008), The 4400: The Complete First Season (published May 25th, 2005), and The 4400: The Complete Second Season (published May 23rd, 2006) are also available.
Previously on DVD Verdict, Judge Eric Profancik reviewed Season Two of The 4400 and made comparisons to the X-Men movie franchise. Those comparisons still hold true but, in the intervening year, television has rapidly evolved, allowing for "closer" comparisons among its relatives. Foremost, NBC debuted a show called Heroes, which follows a formula remarkably similar to both The 4400 and X-Men. They all tell stories of humans who have special abilities and powers. How and why they use their powers are the key drivers of the plot. But one solid difference between them has evolved: The 4400 experienced some growing pains and took a different approach in its third year. How well did it work for the show?
Read on to find out more about The 4400: The Complete Third Season, but be aware that several key plot points of this season—marked by SPOILER tags—are divulged.
Facts of the Case
With their leader, Jordan Collier (Billy Campbell, The Rocketeer), assassinated, The 4400 Center is in flux. Shawn Farrell (Patrick Flueger, The World's Fastest Indian) is in charge, and his tenure is a rocky one. With the public growing more concerned with the new abilities all the 4400 returnees are developing, Shawn must guide the Center and his people down a road of distrust and hate.
Things are greatly complicated by Isabelle (Megalyn Echikunwoke, 24), who suddenly and mysteriously ages from an infant to a beautiful young woman of about 20. Though not technically a 4400, she has abilities like them; in fact, she has many abilities and is easily the most powerful human on the planet. But she believes that she is destined to destroy the 4400. To combat that, she gets close with Shawn in hopes that he can guide her to in a positive direction instead.
On the outside of all this is NTAC and the government, watching the growing conflict. As NTAC and its agents Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch, The Legend of Bagger Vance) and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie, Deep Blue Sea) work to protect the 4400, the government and former head of NTAC Dennis Ryland (Peter Coyote, Erin Brokovich) conspire to take them down.
With the same theme bubbling up in so many places these days, what are fans to do? Does they stick with the comics and movies of X-Men? Do they try that new show Heroes? Or maybe they'll stick with The 4400 and see what happens? As a fan of all the above, my opinion has shifted drastically because of Heroes. At the time of my Season 2 review, X-Men: The Last Stand wasn't in theaters. It soon was released, to overall opinion that it fell flat. The third installment, without Bryan Singer at the helm, just couldn't compare to the superb setup and execution of its predecessors. All the while there was The 4400, which had used its first two seasons well, creating an interesting mythology of characters and events. Season Three came along and had to adjust its storytelling due to extraneous circumstances, and it seemed to work. One watched the season, one episode at a time, and enjoyed the machinations of a brewing conflict between the 4400 and non-4400, all leading up to some awful, impending "catastrophe."
Then Heroes came along. Same idea, different execution, and what an execution it was. Though absolutely a variation on X-Men, Heroes infused its mythology with diverse and engaging characters, all working to prevent its own devastation and potential war. Each episode, or chapter, was captivating. It presented problems and it answered them. The mythology, the characters, and the arc grew with each passing week. It kept you riveted with its ever-evolving storyline, and you relished Monday nights at 9. You loved watching Nathan fly, Sylar absorb other's powers, and so on. But you really loved Hiro and his exuberance for his powers and his situation.
After being on pins and needles because of Heroes, you now have the opportunity to watch the Third Season of The 4400 on DVD. No longer spaced out over 13 weeks, you could sit down and watch it all in a few days. Sadly you discover that the show doesn't seem quite as good as it used to. The mythology seems a bit slow and stale, while the characters are constrained and there's no Hiro. There's no joy in Seattle, home base for the returned 4400. It becomes apparent that while The 4400 is a good show, it's not quite as good as it seemed last year. Its average writing, acting, and direction becomes apparent when the same idea is done better on another network. The 4400 is not a bad show. It's a good show with fun moments and interesting ideas, but now that it's no longer the only television show about humans with abilities, its true place becomes evident. It now plays second fiddle.
Earlier it was mentioned that these three "shows" had some differences, and that The 4400 had to made some changes because of mitigating circumstances. What is that all about? It's all about Billy Campbell. Billy is an avid boater, and he decided to partake in an extended boat race. This race basically ate into the entire production schedule of the Third Season. Whether or not this was the instigation for Collier's assassination at the end of year two is unclear, but it is clear that Shawn couldn't bring him back to life because the actor wouldn't be there to play the part. So what do you do? You change everything to accommodate the main driver of your returnees. You change the show.
First and least, the freak of the week idea goes away. You no longer need to introduce disposable characters with their disposable powers. This is a great plan, as the freak ploy gets old too quickly. Fortunately they jettisoned this quicker than Smallville did. This allows time to focus on the core characters developed over the two previous seasons.
Additionally, some core characters are developed right off the show. As mentioned in my Season Two review, too much time was spent on Lily, Richard, and Isabelle. It appears I wasn't the only one who thought that, so Lily was killed off—in a "nice way." However, that still left a lot of time for Isabelle, who became the main impetus of the show. Was she good or bad? Whose side was she on? Was she there to help or destroy the 4400?
This focus on Isabelle and her powers came because there was no Jordan Collier, and Shawn wasn't a strong enough character to lead the returnees. So, you create this complication of good versus evil, Isabelle versus the world, NTAC versus Dennis Ryland, and you carry on without Collier. But you need Collier, so you set it up so he will be back, and he comes back—100 percent pure resurrection. He even comes with Jesus hair, a supremely scruffy beard, and plenty of graffiti art depicting him as a messiah. You can't kill off your driving impetus of the 4400, so you let him have his boat trip, do ten out of 13 episodes without him, and bring him back to execute his new master plan to prevent the catastrophe.
But it doesn't work. The big payoff in the finale doesn't feel worth the investment, for the entirety of the season has been nothing but one long setup for what Collier plans to do. The season doesn't gel because it is nothing but buildup. Each episode lays down a little piece of setup for the finale and nothing more. Unfortunately, it's just not satisfying. Shows are supposed to do this—create the mythology, set out clues, and lead you to an ultimate goal. Yet along the way, you're supposed to do more: create new situations for your characters, new tangential entanglements, and so forth. The whole mythos needs to move forward. But The 4400, when watched back to back to back, is just spinning its wheels, valiantly trying to get along without Jordan. For ten episodes, you get these little pieces, this brewing struggle with Isabelle, and then, in the last three episodes, Jordan's back and everything zooms forward. It zooms forward too fast, too disjointed, and too incomplete. Was the ending worth it? No, it wasn't. It just doesn't work.
Perhaps the arc works better for you and you want to add Season Three to your collection. What will you find on the DVDs? The 1.78:1 anamorphic print is pleasing with a nice sense of realism—attributable to the HD cameras used in filming the show. Flesh tones are spot on, blacks are deep and rich, and all colors are lush, combining to highlight all the details. Sharpness and contrast are excellent, and I detected no errors across the episodes. Several audio options are available with the primary choice an adequate Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. While dialogue is always clean and clear, there's little use of the surrounds or base throughout.
The bonus materials included are a step up from the previous seasons. This season there are commentary tracks on six episodes: "The New World," "Gone Part 2," "The Ballad of Kevin and Tess," "Terrible Swift Sword," and "Fifty-Fifty." These are by a variety of cast and crew including Ira Steven Behr, Joel Gretsch, and Jacqueline McKenzie. They are all informative, funny, snarky, and worth a listen. (Bonus note: Subtitles in English and Spanish are included for the commentary tracks themselves.) On disc four, you'll find the rest of the bonus materials. First up there is "The Architecture of Series Storytelling" (19 minutes), a general overview of the season, adapting to no Collier, and other intricacies of doing a weekly show. It's average material with nothing earth-shattering revealed. Next is "Powers Grid" (4.5 minutes), which briefly talks about giving what powers to whom. Again, it's more general fodder. "TVFX" (12.5 minutes) talks about the complications of doing special effects for television on a tight and demanding schedule. This one's a little bit deeper and more interesting. Following this is a nice feature called "Character Tree." It's an interactive element that allows you to click on a picture of a 4400 to get some interviews with the actor and how they relate to other characters. Rounding things out is a gag reel (8.5 minutes) with but one funny moment. If you pop this disc into your computer you'll find a PDF file with the first draft screenplay for "Being Tom Baldwin."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I may have been overly negative with this season, yet in spite of the realization that The 4400 is an average show, I'm not giving up on it. I like the characters, I like the mythology, and I like its potential. I'm not giving up on it, and I'm going to start watching Season Four in a few weeks. I look forward to future complications and perhaps an explanation of what the catastrophe is all about. Hopefully then, to make it all the better, Jordan will cut off his Jesus hair and mega beard, and tossaway character-complication Ben will, if he returns, shave.
One other thing I mentioned in my Season Two review was that The 4400 was the only television show I had only watched on DVD. After being engrossed by these two seasons, I decided I couldn't wait for the discs and did watch them on USA. As you can infer by my review, watching it on TV and then on DVD can lead one to two different conclusions about the same material. Yet as you wade through all this, you see that The 4400 has potential and isn't all the bad for a cable show. In the wake of superb competition on other networks, this show begins to pale. Hopefully The 4400 will take a lesson from Heroes, for it's still worth the time to get to know the returnees and see if they can avoid the future's catastrophe. While I'm not completely sold on this season, I'm happy to add it to the other two years in my collection. For the casual fan, I'd say this one's just a rental—so you can stay abreast and ready for Season Four. For the avid fan, this is a nice set of discs with excellent transfers and some quality bonus materials. You too can add it to your collection.
The 4400: The Complete Third Season is hereby found guilty of glowing an unhealthy shade of green. Case adjourned.
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