TV on DVD: The 4400 -- The Complete Series (Review Part 1; Seasons 1 & 2)


An Introduction

Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment and CBS DVD were kind enough to send me the gorgeously packaged, 15-disc epic box set of The 4400: The Complete Series. As I'm new to the show, I'll be bringing you coverage in installments as I view so we'll kick off Part 1 with this review of Seasons 1 and 2 of USA Network's 4 season, 45 episode science fiction drama, The 4400 which aired from July 11, 2004 to September 16, 2007.

Season 1

Viewed by roughly 7.4 million people, the two-hour pilot episode for USA's series The 4400 quickly became the "most watched" basic cable premiere since USA's other science fiction based series debut of The Dead Zone. Created by Scott Peters and Rene Echevarria (who has gone on to work on NBC's The Medium), The 4400 was originally pitched to FOX who passed on the prospect. When USA stepped in, it originally aired as a five-part miniseries with a major spoiler revealed in the final episode that originally the producers had intended to save for the fifth and final season of the series.

Still, creatively the writers proved they had much more to offer and more stories they wanted to tell, despite its obvious similarities to both Steven Spielberg's science-fiction channel miniseries Taken and the iconic 90's series The X-Files. So as a loyal fan-base began tuning in and the show, also produced by American Zoetrope garnered three Primetime Emmy nominations, USA announced it would return. Peters, who has admitted that the premise of the show was "loosely inspired by the events of 9/11," helped craft an old-fashioned style series with a premise and feel right out of The Twilight Zone, relying more on character, atmosphere and mood than gore, which is apparent from its initial pilot.

After a mysterious introduction finds several characters suddenly vanishing into thin air over the past sixty years, we move to present day where a near catastrophic event quickly ensues. The employees of The National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC), a fictitious division of Homeland Security, brace themselves for the worst as a comet careens towards Earth and suddenly changes course, slowing down over the"Cascade Range foothills...near Mount Rainier, Washington," where it morphs into a ball of white light over Highland Beach. Suddenly 4400 humans who have been abducted over the past 60 years find themselves returned, completely disoriented, having not aged in the slightest and with no memory of where they've been or what has happened.

Feeling as though they just disappeared yesterday, the series chronicles the challenges encountered by the returnees, later dubbed "The 4400" as they try to return to some semblance of a normal life (although a large majority have nowhere to go or remaining relatives living) along with the two NTAC agents assigned to their case once they're released from quarantine. Immediately indicative of Agents Scully and Mulder from Fox's X-Files, we meet the clean-cut yet no-nonsense workaholic Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) and his scientific minded colleague Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie) as they attempt to handle unexplainable phenomena when some of the 4400 begin to exhibit signs of supernatural and superhuman abilities.

With a marriage on its last legs and his son Kyle (Chad Faust) in a coma ever since his cousin Shawn (Patrick Flueger) was "abducted," Tom strives to leave his personal connection out of the case, yet when Shawn begins to manifest evidence of a healing power, he tries to encourage him to help awaken Kyle. While Shawn's storyline in season 1 is overly reliant on a love triangle with his brother's girlfriend, some of the most fascinating material comes directly from following the adventures of the returnees whether it's in a heartbreaking, melancholic episode that follows an elderly man who realizes all that he'd worked for in the 1970's has vanished or in the best episode of the first batch, "The New and Improved Carl Morrissey."

Starring Sex and the City's David Eigenberg (who played Miranda's husband, Steve the bartender) and Gilmore Girls star Kathleen Wilhoite, we find grateful returnee Carl, a meek fish store clerk quickly discovering he has a knack for self-defense which he uses in becoming a vigilante to help clean up his dangerous neighborhood. Although this leads to tragic results, similar to the overwhelming tenor of the first season and a half which finds the 4400's targeted as outcasts, freaks, or Satanic as they struggle to control abilities they don't understand, it also begins to hint at a "ripple effect" that possibly the returnees are meant to inspire goodness in others.

While it steers clear of preaching and avoids overtly religious overtones, it's an intriguing idea as other characters begin to find second chances at improved lives as former African-American World War II hero Richard Tyler (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) finds love where he least expects it, with the living granddaughter of his true love, Lily. Also named Lily (Laura Allen), Richard is amazed to learn that in the twenty-first century he's finally able to walk hand in hand with a white woman and the two quickly form a family which is expedited upon Lily's shocking discovery that somehow during the time she was away she became pregnant. While it ends with a genuine shocker, revealing that it was humans from the future who abducted the 4400 to stop mankind from destroying itself, the series really found its footing in its second season, after an admittedly long and clunky start.

Season 2

Picking up right where it left off, we find Lily, Richard and their baby on the run in an overly long subplot that borrows a little too heavily from The Fugitive. Having fled the mysterious charismatic yet sinister self-proclaimed 4400 leader Jordan Collier (Billy Campbell) who has developed his own 4400 center with residences for returnees, they are gradually brought back into the fold after realizing that their daughter, Isabelle has a terrifying ability to ward off evil, destroying those who would harm her parents. Yet, the show also offers a second "freaky child," plot with the youngest (yet chronologically oldest) returnee, the adorable Maia (Conchita Campbell), whose ability to predict the future has scared off everyone so much that she's been taken in and officially adopted by Agent Skouris.

While some of the episodes seem a bit superfluous and predictable, following the same paradigm of meeting a new returnee each week who self-destructs or causes chaos unknowingly due to their power, the show's arc really begins to take shape as an "us vs. them" conspiracy theorist program, especially considering Collier's cryptic seemingly cult inspired, Scientology-like 4400 Center (or if you will, the show's version of Angel's evil law firm Wolfram and Hart). Using Shawn's ability to heal to turn a profit "for the good of the center" in the form of pressured donations, Jordan manipulates his new protege and claims that anyone can tap into the same type of power if they come to the center, open their pocketbooks and move from one level to the next attending seminars to unlock their potential.

With a wicked plot twist involving an assassination and a shooter one wouldn't be able to predict, a breath of fresh air being served up by added cast members as Diana gains a sister and Tom gains an unexpected wife not to mention a fully functioning son fresh from his comatose state, and Maia predicts that "mommy's bosses" will pay as a virus takes over, you find yourself willing to put up with some of the redundant baggage just to see what will happens next.

While it builds towards a payoff that doesn't quite feel worthy of the set-up in a rushed final episode, it drops a few breadcrumbs along the way and beginning to make excellent strides in its storytelling ability. And by replacing some of the melancholy and soap-opera subplots with riveting suspense and mystery, it foreshadows far greater things to come. But will it follow through? I'll return with the second installment as I make my way throughout the series.

Although it's relatively light on special features save for some interesting audio commentary, a few deleted scenes and extras, the picture and sound quality is extraordinary, which is extremely beneficial given the cinematographer's fondness for dark tones and quieter, conspiratorial dialogue.