The Good: Excellent direction, decent plot, interesting characters, good acting
The Bad: Cliche moments, Build-up to the season finale.
The Basics: When 4400 people who have vanished over the years return to Earth without aging, two investigators set out to learn what happened to them.
Several people I respect recommend The 4400 to me and I'll admit that I originally resisted giving it any attention because it was produced around the same time as the other "alien abduction" stories like Taken and I thought it was merely an offshoot of that brief fad. Having given it a chance with the ridiculously inexpensive The 4400 - The Complete First Season on DVD, I'm happy to say I was wrong to hold off so long. This is a series that is worth time and attention, but it requires both. The 4400 is not a show for a casual watcher; it is heavily serialized and each episode builds on the one before it.
When a comet that is about to pass Earth makes an abrupt course change, the Department of Homeland Security in Seattle is put on high alert. When the comet is revealed as a ball of light that deposits 4400 people who have disappeared over the years in the woods near Seattle, Agents Tom Baldwin and Diana Skouris are put on the case to investigate who - and what - the 4400 are. They encounter a creepy girl who unabashedly predicts the future, a young man (Tom's nephew) who has the ability to heal people, and a man who disappeared from Korea who finds a reincarnation of the white woman he loved back then. Baldwin and Skouris find their personal and professional lives put in jeopardy by members of the 4400 who manifest telekinetic powers, superhuman strength, and a serial killer who appears to be able to plant himself in other people.
The 4400 may instantly seem like a weird knockoff of The X-Files (reviewed here!) where the "creature of the week" is always one of the 4400 and the mythology episodes are always a part of ongoing storyline, but The 4400 manages to be distinctly different. The 4400 has elements of a political thriller combined with the science fiction mystery of who the 4400 are. In short, more than simply a "here's an interesting twist on humanity" story each week, the stories continue to build on one another to explore the consequences of who the 4400 are. And that's pretty clever and it is what makes the show work.
The strength of The 4400 is that it - especially in the pilot "The Return" - simply allows some moments to be, without explaining them or insulting the audience by repeating them. This is especially true of the character of Richard Tyler, who was a black man in the military in the '50s and returns to a world far more integrated than he ever suspected it could be. As he sits and observes the world around him, the viewer understands what he is going through, without it having to be explained more.
And in one of the clever aspects of the first season, Richard's alterations as a returnee are not revealed. He is one of the characters to watch, whose presence on the screen energizes the show. He is well-portrayed by actor Mahershalalhashbaz Ali who plays him with a humanity and truth that is very real and often vulnerable. Amid all of the other character conflicts and supernatural exploits being portrayed, Ali creates a character who is perhaps the most human of the lot.
At the other end of the spectrum is Conchita Campbell, a young girl who is given a supreme acting challenge of portraying a returnee who appears to have an incredible gift while caught in a child's body. Conchita delivers a performance that is a perfect blend of innocence and creepy. She modulates between a girl with the impressive power to simply know the future and a little girl who just wants to be a little girl. And it is the actress who makes the character work here.
The two leads of the show, Joel Gretsch and Jaqueline McKenzie as Tom and Diane are the actors who bear the most burden for making the show credible. Ironically, it is Tom and Diane who are the most cliched characters in the ensemble. Tom is in the middle of a divorce, Diane is single and assertive, compassionate and wow, they get paired together. The implied sexual chemistry writes itself, but is unactualized in the first season. And McKenzie takes the cliche of the single woman working a career path who does not have time for a social life and makes it work only through her performances in scenes with Conchita. McKenzie and Conchita Campbell play off one another in a way that makes Diane's character seem more than simply a stereotype.
Joel Gretsch seemed to me from the beginning to be a poor man's Mark Valley, an irony considering that Mark Valley appears in the series in the latter two episodes of the season. Gretsch is the kind of generic good looking guy who barely breaks that mold and is only able to in the context of his character dealing with his comatose son. How Gretsch is billed over McKenzie is baffling to me.
And that brings us to the real weakness within the first season of The 4400; the series exchanges its early brilliance of showing, not telling, for a series of cliches. Jordan Collier, a 4400 businessman who seems to want to protect the 4400 and fight for their rights, becomes a cliche of a ruthless businessman within his three episodes in the first season. The season climaxes in a witless chase scene and a shooting that is fairly hackneyed.
But what overcomes all that is the humanity, especially in the character of Richard (and, by extension, the performance of Ali), who continues to be subtle and who takes all of the big things happening in the world of the 4400 and makes them personal and real. And it is that that makes the first season of The 4400 worth watching.
And where it is going from there is what makes me look forward to the second season of the series.
For other science fiction television shows, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Fringe - Season 1
For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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