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"4400" Reasons Why I Love This Show

Well, okay, maybe not 4400 reasons...

Every once in a while, a few series turn up that I wish I watched, but because of scheduling or time constraints (my televisionary obsessions are legion) or lack of space on my TiVo, I just don't get around to watching. USA's fantastic drama The 4400 was one of those series. You'll notice the past tense there.

Fortunately, I have a friend (she knows who she is) who usually beats me senseless until I finally give in and begin to watch the neglected series in question. Nine times out of ten do I end up falling in love with the program. She was right about Battlestar Galactica (now easily one of my favorite series ever) and she was right about The 4400 as well. I bow before her televisionary tastes.

I recently sped through the first two seasons of The 4400 over the past few weeks, hoping to catch up to the general populace's place in the third season. While I haven't quite gotten there quite yet, I did manage to reach the two-hour season premiere of Season Three last night. (Whew.)

For those of you who aren't watching--and after this, you've got no excuse as the first two seasons are available on DVD--The 4400 is a unique twist on that familiar alien abduction series. Over the last century, people were taken from their quotidian lives, in what seemed like a random pattern. A little girl from the 1940s, a soldier in the Korean War, an insurance salesman. But here's the twist: they weren't kidnapped by aliens, but by other humans from the future. And 4400 of them (hence that wacky numerical title) were returned to the present day in a great ball of light, sent back to prevent a great tragedy in mankind's future. Not one of them had aged a day, but many of them were returned with superhuman abilities: the power to see the future, to heal, to kill.

That mysterious ball of light deposited these travellers in the Pacific Northwest and the 4400 quickly became the responsibility of the Seattle branch of the National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC), who quickly took them into quarantine while they decided what to do with these returnees. Two field agents were assigned the task of monitoring the 4400 and investigating any crimes committed against (or by) these returnees. Agent Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) has a personal stake in this ongoing investigation: his nephew Shawn (Patrick Flueger) is one of those returnees (gifted with the power to heal and to kill) and the "abduction" that took Shawn also left Baldwin's son Kyle (Chad Faust) in a three-year-long coma. Baldwin is assigned a partner in Agent Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie), a former scientist drafted into the field who plays yin to Baldwin's yang.

Eventually released into the general public, some returnees attempt to go back to their old lives, with mixed results, while others fall under the spell of the charismatic multimillionaire Jordan Collier (Billy Campbell), an abductee-turned-cult leader who created The 4400 Center, a refuge for any returnee, which quickly turned into a powder keg of unrest and hokey mysticism.

And that's when everything starts to get really interesting. I won't get into the details because I don't want to give away any more deliciously intense plot twists, but let's just say that they involve the creation of alternate universes, assassination attempts, possession, terrorism, and a really creepy 4400 with the ability to spread a fatal plague through blisters on her hands and another who can turn men into adrenaline-fueled killing machines by emitting a pulse. Seriously.

However, The 4400 is not a show about people's wacky abilities and the way they use them to fight crime or gain profits or become superheroes. It might be a series that on the surface seems like science-fiction, but it's most definitely grounded in the real world. Or more specifically, the post-9/11 world that we all inhabit. The 4400 is a brilliant metaphor, in fact, for the age of terrorism and sleeper agents and government involvement in everyday citizens' lives. The 4400 were sent back to the present day with a specific mission to save the future, but the governments of the world have another agenda for these returnees. And, as we all know, it's human instinct to destroy the things we fear or do not understand... and these returnees are no different.

The 4400 is also a series about finding one's way in a confusing and constantly changing world. Many of these 4400 don't understand their own role in this "mission" and the audience is invited along on their journeys of self-discovery. Maia (Conchita Campbell) is a little girl, stolen from sixty years earlier, who has been returned with the rather unsettling gift of precogniton, an ability which has made her an outcast to nearlyt everyone she meets. Like Captain America, Richard (he of the longest screen name ever, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) returns to a world he scarcely comprehends; a solider in the Korean War, he's now a young man while all of his compatriots are dead or old men. He finds a kindred spirit in Lily (Laura Allen), a young mother whose child is now a pre-teen and whose husband has remarried after her disappearance. That Lily has been returned, now pregnant, is one of the most important plot threads in the series and one that sadly is somewhat tied up in that third season premiere in one--no, two twists that I didn't see coming. While I think that one of those twists is a very interesting direction to take the series in, I am deeply saddened by the other and curious as to where that decision came from.

While the producers of The 4400 had hoped to conceal the series' central mystery (namely who took the 4400) until much later in the series (like the fifth season) instead of revealing the future humans connection in, well, the fifth episode or so, I think that it's freed the show from some pitfalls that befell a similar adbuction drama, The X-Files, which buckled under the weight of its own mythology. Instead, we're completely aware of the "who" and the "where" in the series' central conceit, but not the "how" or the "why," and it's those mysteries that I find all the more compelling. Some of the returnees have been given abilities that are more of a curse (blister girl) than a gift; others are innately evil, like the serial killer who can turn others into killers by showing them a single photograph. However, Baldwin and Skouris, aided by techie Marco (Richard Kahan), believe that there's a ripple effect going on, that each of these 4400 somehow affects everything around them in a way that's not always immediately clear. However, these future humans must have been able to see this intricate butterfly effect from their vantage point in the future, even if their machinations aren't so apparent to Baldwin and Skouris.

While the entire cast of The 4400 is top-notch, the series is anchored by the subtle performances from Gretsch and McKenzie, who gracefully inhabit their roles as unorthodox federal agents while never deviating into familiar Mulder-and-Scully territory. While Gretsch's Tom Baldwin is all action and movement, McKenzie's Diana Skouris is pure methodology, parsing connections between disparate ideas or events. While Skouris was a bit of a wet blanket in Season One, the producers have fleshed out her character beautifully, giving the audience a look at her home life. Additionally, her relationship with adopted daughter Maia has given her character added depth and allowed her someone to bounce ideas and emotions off of. Linking them together was one of the most important moves that the producers did and through that relationship I've come to not only understand Skouris' motivations but also fallen in love with her along the way. To me, Diana Skouris is the heart of The 4400, even moreso than Maia or Shawn or Lily.

I'm really curious to see where Season Three takes our federal agents and our returnees. That third season opener alone is filled with so many potential storylines for The 4400 that I can't quite get it out of my head. But fortunately I've got eight more episodes on my TiVo to catch up on and that makes me deliriously happy this morning. Even though it might be a show dealing with the vaguaries of time travel, I won't have to wait very long to get my next fix. And, with the first two seasons of The 4400 conveniently available on DVD, neither do you.

The third season of "The 4400" airs Sunday nights at 9 pm ET/PT on USA.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Two and a Half Men/How I Met Your Mother (CBS); Psych (NBC); 7th Heaven (WB); Wife Swap (ABC); Hell's Kitchen (FOX); One on One/All of Us (UPN)

9 pm: Two and a Half Men/The New Adventures of Old Christine (CBS); Treasure Hunters (NBC); 7th Heaven (WB); Supernanny (ABC); Hell's Kitchen (FOX); Girlfriends/Half and Half (UPN)

10 pm: CSI: Miami (CBS); Medium (NBC); One Ocean View (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

9 pm: Hell's Kitchen.

On tonight's installment of the FOX culinary competition show ("3 Chefs"), it's down to the final three chefs, one of whom will actually win their very own restaurant at the Red Rocks Resort in Las Vegas. So who will the final two be? If it's not Keith and Heather, I'll eat at Hell's Kitchen. Seriously.

10 pm: Life on Mars on BBC America.

It's the third episode of this brilliant (and British) mind-bending mystery series that stars State of Play's John Simm as Detective Sam Tyler, a modern-day copper who wakes up in 1973. On tonight's episode, it's another mind-bending mystery for Sam as he investigates a 1973 stabbing in the very home where he lived in 2006. Yes, lived. The verb tenses on this show only seem to get more confusing...

11 pm: Lovespring International on Lifetime.

The improvised comedy returns with a brand new episode tonight. On tonight's installment ("The Last Temptation of Steve"), foot fetishist Steve is tested by a mole from the psychiatric board, while Alex confronts Whoopi Goldberg on the set of Ghost 2. Seriously, you can't make this stuff up, people.

Comments

Laura Holt said…
Congratulations on finding this show! I stumbled on an early episode during a weekend marathon of the "essential" episodes before the third season premier and before I knew it my entire Sunday had disappeared. Since then I've come to realize that the show is best viewed in big chunks, because an hour-long episode just feels too isolated and isn't nearly as gripping. I tend to save three or four on my Tivo and then watch them all in a gulp.
Anonymous said…
I also loved this show- the first two seasons were amazing, and won it the number one slot on my Tivo season pass list (of 30+ shows). But this season has sucked. It's not about people trying to return to their lives, it's about agents who are so stupid you find yourself screaming at your TV "Why did you tell him that? Can't you tell he's the bad guy?" And "Why are you still treating him like your boss? He's clearly the bad guy!" There are some interesting twists, but each episode needed badly some more rewrites.
Tramp said…
I do not watch television, but I recognize talent when I see it. You have earned a promotion in my humble opinion.

I do humor and freebies with an occasional PSA. My readership has skyrocketed. This tells me that people are starving for entertainment

Or maybe they like freebies?

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