Opening: Science Fiction on TV runs the gamut from very good to very bad with most shows somewhere smack dab in the middle of the pack. Those who enjoy shows with hard science tend to like appreciate writing that incorporates a knowledge of the laws of physics while those who enjoy the supernatural leanings of shows like The X-Files tend to care more about suspense. Determining who your audience is tends to make, or break, science fiction shows much faster than the standard fare you'll see since these fans tend to be hardcore and very unforgiving. That's why I was initially interested in reviewing The 4400: The Complete Second Season, scheduled for release next week. I had never watched the show when it aired on the USA Network but I heard good things about it from both types of fan, even as far back as 2004 when the first season's measly 5 episodes came out. The second season had a dozen episodes (the opener was a double length episode too) and I jumped right in to find a very interesting show that followed many of the traditional plot devices used on modern day serial television.
The Show's Background: The 4400 details the events on a parallel Earth where 4400 people that had been abducted over the last 60+ years all of a sudden are returned to the planet as a group by a large comet-looking ship. The details about each of the people vary but the first season made it clear that they were taken, and returned, for a reason of mysterious origin. Each abductee has had some genetic tampering that brought out a special ability, from telekinesis to prognostication to healing to all sorts of other abilities we tend to associate with superhuman characters from pop culture. None of them have aged a day since being taken and the culture shock of being brought to what amounts to their future (present day for us) varies according to the length of time they were missing (from as far back as 1938 to a relatively short period of months). The general public also has a reaction though this was underplayed in favor of a level of tolerance most of us will never know in order to focus on the main storylines of the show.
Without too many spoilers, the first season established that the group were not taken by aliens (the most common theme in modern sci-fi) but by humans from the future wanting to save the planet from certain extinction. The details are fuzzy since none of the abductees have any memory of the time they spent "elsewhere" or "elsewhen" but after various legal maneuvering, they are released from governmental custody (set up to protect them as well as the rest of us) and are essentially free to live their lives. The idea of gifted individuals among the population raises fears in some (much like the themes explored in Alienation) with various governmental and corporate factions seeking to both control and exploit them. The government agency in charge of keeping tabs on the 4400 is the National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC) with agents Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie) the primary dramatic protagonists taking the lead in the show.
They fulfill the Mulder and Scully roles of the show but balance their orders with their compassion since each of them has a connection to the 4400. Diana takes a shining to the plight of Maia, a young girl that can see all the bad things about to happen (and person gone the longest), leading to a parental bond as she adopts the child early on in the season. Tom, on the other hand, has a nephew, Shawn, with the gift of healing that falls under the wing of the ultra wealthy Jordan Collier (Bill Campbell), a man of dubious motivations to those in the know. Jordan is patterned after Donald Trump as an international hotelier with the resources to do almost as he pleases. Depending on which side of his personality you're on, he's either a Machiavellian control freak or a caring individual trying to do the right thing, using any means necessary to achieve his goals.
The Second Season begins a year after the group came back with Jordan establishing a central facility called, appropriately enough, The 4400 Center in order to assist the abductees in various ways. He begins to establish an outreach program for the general populace so that they can find their own abilities, coming across as more of a trendy cult (like Dianetics) than anything else, catering to the rich and famous as a means of soaking them for everything they have more than the public relations opportunity it seems to offer. Jordan manipulates events and people with ease given his charismatic approach with few seeing him for what he seems to be behind closed doors. Most of the other 4400 are settling down though a few are having problems such as Tess (played by the talented Summer Glau in a role much like her character from Firefly) who is hearing voices and needs to be confined to a mental institution (a special case since she seems to remember what happened to the abductees). Other characters have tried to disassociate with their status or taken to the open road, with alternate leads Richard (M. Ali) and Lilly Tyler (Laura Allen) on the run from Jordan with their newborn and very special baby, Isabelle. Jordan believes the child, conceived while the couple was abducted (from different times and places) is the key to the whole reason they were brought back and will stop at nothing to claim the child as his own.
The season had two major arcs worth special note; the corruption inside the National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC) that causes Tom and Diana to question their orders ever frequently and the private interests that seek to exploit the group (or alternately protect their stake in the world) much like the government would if given the chance. I don't want to spoil it for you but the overall scheme is that each of the 4400 has a specific gift to use as part of a greater plan, though no one can say exactly what the plan is. This leads the series into the well trodden ground most of us are familiar with known as "freak of the week" where the central story of each episode deals with a particular abductee as the bigger picture issues slowly weave themselves about the concept. It gives the series writers a lot of latitude to come up with interesting stories but doesn't lock them down so much to prohibit taking the story wherever it needs to go for dramatic effect.
As a life time fan of science fiction, I liked the concept and understood how it was broadened to develop a bigger audience (a small but hardcore fanbase is not enough to succeed, as evidenced by last year's Serenity). The human elements worked more often than not and the episodes were, on average, very interesting to watch with decent replay value. Some of the dialogue was stilted, reminding me of a show from decades ago, The Incredible Hulk, and the overall plausibility that most people would accept the 4400 without question seemed far fetched at best but the short season format probably doesn't allow for as much development as a "regular" season so some shortcuts are probably in order to further the plot(s). In terms of addressing the core issues sci-fi fans tend to appreciate, The 4400: The Complete Second Season, did a great job, even as other market niches were brought in with the soft sell approach (you don't see people flying around in capes, and the use of the special abilities is rarely overt). I wish the first two seasons were combined given how short they were but with the third season right around the corner (it airs 6/11/2006 with a recap marathon coming up at the end of the month to bring people up to speed-just keep in mind that it won't have all the episodes so much as a sampling). For me, I'm now a loyal fan of the show thanks to this set and think it earned a rating of Highly Recommended for anyone into sci-fi, suspense, and well crafted television drama.
The 4400: Season Two
Wake Up Call Pt 1 (June 5, 2005)
Wake Up Call Pt 2 (June 5, 2005)
Voices Carry (June 12, 2005)
Weight of the World (June 19, 2005)
Suffer The Children (June 26, 2005)
As Fate Would Have It (July 10, 2005)
Life Interrupted (July 17, 2005)
Carrier (July 24, 2005)
Rebirth (July 31, 2005)
Hidden (August 7, 2005)
Lockdown (August 14, 2005)
The Fifth Page (August 21, 2005)
Mommy's Bosses (August 28, 2005)
Picture: The 4400: The Complete Second Season was presented in the same 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen color it was shot in for airing on the USA Network last year (the summer of 2005). I caught part of an episode on cable and found the picture quality of the DVD set to be somewhat better, though not as night and day as other sets that have been released in recent months. Unlike the other USA hit from the past, La Femme Nikita, where the picture quality was substantially different, the DVD for 4400 was subtlety improved. The fleshtones looked great and the pattern noise was minimal, though there were times when a very dark room would show some light flaws if you looked really close on a high end set up. Still, it was a marked improvement for a low budget cable show compared to the syndicated market of years past and I would have hardly noticed the show wasn't up to broadcast network quality if I wasn't paying strict attention.
Sound: The audio was presented with the usual options of a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English track or the 2.0 DD track most television seems released in these days. I wish I could report that the sound field was full of little nuances that improved the show or substantial separation with extensive use of the back channels but I'd be misleading you. The moody musical score seemed to show the most separation and dynamic range but there was nothing out of place either. Perhaps season three will show some improvement in this regard but it was average all the way.
Extras: Contrary to early reports, there were some decent extras included on the four disc set. The best extras for me were the three audio commentaries by Jacqueline McKenzie, Joel Gretsch, Craig Sweeny, and Ira Steven Behr (cast and crew mixed commentaries are always more interesting than just having one person or one side of the camera) on As Fate Would Have It, The Fifth Page, and Mommy's Bosses. I didn't get any secret tidbits from listening to them and they seemed to be enjoying watching the completed episodes for the first time themselves, but it was interesting to hear some of the anecdotes they came up with. There were also three short features (totally just over 30 minutes); Creating the Ball of Light, Return of the 4400, and A Stitch in Time, to enjoy. The first of these provided a background for the series as a whole with cast and crew contributing interviews of their perspective (or at least their character's perspectives) of the show. The second was focused more on the changes for the second season and some of the developments that appeared, though there were some spoilers so watch the episodes before watching this one (there were minor hints at the third season but not that much). The last feature had the creative head and some scientists discussing, via talking head interviews, some of the science behind the time travel concept; though admitting the show was more geared as escapism than specifically to present hardcore science. There were also some trailers and the two thin-pak style cases were enclosed in the cardboard case.
Final Thoughts: The 4400: The Complete Second Season was an intriguing story about missing people with a greater purpose in life and those who would oppose them out of fear and ignorance. The gimmick of the special abilities aside, it was compelling drama that worked largely due to the writing and diversity of the near-ensemble casting. The DVD set provided some value enhancing extras and I hope the next season set will have more of them to enhance the value of the show but the meat & potatoes was the show itself as the episodes all seemed to provide enough of a hook to keep me watching. Fans of sci-fi television will note that several of the guest characters have been in various popular genre series (Summer Glau, Robert Picardo, and Lexa Doig, all come to mind). If you liked Taken, 12 Monkeys, and The X-Files, you'll probably find this series a breath of fresh air.