Background: Watching television shows on DVD is a different experience than waiting week after week to see the commercials-filled versions, replete with regular repeats, edited scenes and language. The pacing is different too, watching several episodes at a time (if not the whole season as I tend to do) altering the dynamic in certain ways; usually providing a more intense experience if the show is well written. Such was the case with The 4400: Season Two DVD set that I reviewed last year. Having seen bits and pieces of the show prior to reviewing the season, I thoroughly enjoyed the show more than I would have as a weekly series, especially having missed the opening season the year before. The series airs on cable's USA Network in what has evolved into a half season by most standards, providing a dozen episodes rather than the more traditional 22+ that the major networks tend to use. That said, the upcoming The 4400: The Third Season furthered many of the subplots and tried some new things, using the same basic method of storytelling in the process.
Series: 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 began 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" (as in the popular Smallville) 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.
The 4400: The Third Season departed from the previous seasons by taking more time to build longer plot arcs and use some of the established characters, even formerly bit players, with the great expansion of one role by a new actress playing an important role with Isabelle Tyler (Megalyn Echikunwoke) grown into a full woman, possessing near limitless powers as the pivot point of the season in most cases. With Jordan Collier apparently dead, Shawn takes over the 4400 Center and the government plot led by Dennis Ryland to suppress the 4400's abilities now defeated, other groups step in to fill the power voids the two diametrically opposed leaders had built up. Initially, a small cadre of 4400 called The Nova Group steps into the limelight by committing various crimes; seen as freedom fighters by other 4400 members but as terrorists by the rest of the world. That causes Tom and Diana to have to redouble their efforts to keep the tentative peace, making Tom a target in the process. This leads into the side plot where someone kidnaps various 4400 children; initially looking like a misguided family member but soon opening up a far larger can of worms that proves nearly fatal for Diana when Maia is among the missing. Tom takes charge of the operation and makes a deal with the devil for their return but the price is higher than he thought he'd have to pay; causing him substantial distress as he weighs his promise against his ideals.
Dennis then lands on his feet and is back to his old tricks as the Nova Group continues to pressure Shawn and others to play along with their agenda. Isabelle's growing understanding of humanities good and evil aspects come into play as she seeks to experience numerous life defining events in a short period of time, including sex; much to the dismay of her father Richard and those around her. Ultimately, it becomes clear that her lack of restraints makes for a dangerous combination with her powers, forcing Tom's hand even more as she goes on a rampage killing several 4400 members that threaten Shawn. There were other episodes that were less tied in with the bigger threads too, like Blink where a drug created by a 4400 allows people to experience their past relationships in the current time, putting Tom and Diana on the spot when they are exposed to it; but the shorter season format the series uses kept such episodes to a minimum as the grander arcs were played up to better effect without the side steps.
With several key members of the 4400 left dead, the apparent return of a previously lost member sparks the confrontation between Isabelle and those around her, the fate of the 4400 and humanity repeatedly shown as grim due to the warring factions in the future trying to dominate the past in various ways. The season finale was such that it could have ended the series altogether on a moderately positive note but thankfully another season is scheduled to begin in June, leaving the field wide open for where the series goes from there. Enough plot threads were closed off and new ones established that the biggest challenge of the writers will be to focus their thoughts more tightly (personally, I hope they make fuller use of the promicin distribution to enhance the rest of humanity as that opens up the doors for a better, or worse, future). In all then, if you liked the previous seasons, you'll probably find this one to be slightly different but deeper even if it did look wrapped up a bit more quickly than I would have liked. I rated it as Highly Recommended to fans of detective shows, science fiction, and for those of you that like suspense; especially because the acting and writing were handled better with the cast & creative staff finding their groove by now.
The 4400: The Third Season
The New World (June 11, 2006)
Being Tom Baldwin (June 18, 2006)
Gone (Part 1) (June 25, 2006)
Gone (Part 2) (July 2, 2006)
Graduation Day (July 9, 2006)
Home Front (July 16, 2006)
Blink (July 23, 2006)
The Ballad of Kevin and Tess (July 30, 2006)
The Starzl Mutation (August 6, 2006)
The Gospel According to Collier (August 13, 2006)
Terrible Swift Sword (August 20, 2006)
Fifty-Fifty (August 27, 2006)
Picture: 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 2006). I caught a few episodes on cable this time and found the picture quality of the DVD set to be 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. The 4400: Season Two was decidedly average in most ways but I think some changes in staff and budget allowed both the audio and special effects to be improved this time, usually in minor ways but noticeable nonetheless. There still wasn't a lot of use of the rear speakers but the bass kicked in better (especially during the many conflict clips) and the clarity of the dialogue was often sharper too.
Extras: This time, there were five audio commentaries with leads Joel Gretsch and Jacqueline McKenzie on a couple of them joined by creator Scott Peters and writer Ira Steven Behr giving his solo act on others. To me, each of them had something to offer but Ira's insights as a writer were definitely the most effective as a means to explore some of the subtext of the themes the show shoots for. If you want to clear up some of the issues that have circulated online about the show, start with his commentary tracks and you won't go wrong. There was also a blooper reel that contained missed queues, flubbed lines, and mistakes made during multiple takes of some scenes, a DVD-ROM script of the first draft for the Being Tom Baldwin episode, a Character Tree that allows a newcomer to the show to catch up by checking out the major players of the series, a TVFX feature on the special effects, a super powers grid that gave a heads up of the different abilities the 4400 have been given, and a moderate length feature called The Architecture of Series Storytelling that provided a look into the way the show is scripted by those involved (and the usual two thin-pak style cases were enclosed in the cardboard case). Each of these was interesting and added value for me, though only the architecture and character tree truly answered any lingering questions I had from missing the first season.
Final Thoughts: The 4400: The Third Season added a lot to the series dynamic as a whole thanks in large part to the way certain characters and events were handled. It would have been far easier to take the cheap route some of the time but there were definite parallels to current events regarding politics, terrorist, and conflicts that were not driven by the usual liberal mindset (catering to that crowd is all too easy but weakens the stories such writing is provided for). The metaphors could be applied to a number of other issues that we're all familiar with but done in such a way that the entertainment value is not discarded in the process; the replay and discussion value improved with multiple viewings. There were some plot points that seemed to lack merit (making me think something went on behind the scenes) but without spoiling it for those of you that haven't seen the show, suffice it to say that on average; the show was very interesting to watch, especially since the show wasn't so wrapped up in the aforementioned freak of the week method as the last season was.