Background: What would you do if you were given the chance to have wonderful super powers by simply taking a single shot? Would you be so anxious to try it if you learned the mortality rate was 50% and you had no control over what ability you got? That was one of the driving moral questions of The 4400: The Fourth Season. While it comes as no surprise to regular viewers, the show having been cancelled by the USA Network earlier this year, the creative team working on the show had no way of knowing for certainty that this would be the end, the show having (barely) survived previous cancellation efforts so it tried to balance out the various factors in the thirteen episodes while leaving enough room to continue if that were to happen. Having reviewed the The 4400: Season Two and The 4400: Season Three DVD sets in the last couple of years, I think it helped me to know ahead of time that this would be it, my hopes for at least a few TV movies (ala Stargate) or a wrap up Hollywood effort (ala Serenity) are slight but still flicker on now that I've seen this one through. Here's a recap of the previous seasons before I go into some of the new highlights, minimizing spoilers as much as I can, while noting that jumping in on S4 without seeing the rest is probably the worst way to view it.
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). The 4400: The Fourth Season picked up awhile after the previous season, the sociological impact of the promicin distribution having had sweeping effects on the populace. Many people are afraid, not just about taking the drug (remember, it has a 50/50 chance of killing you) but of those who wield powers that effectively have no limit to how they can (and do) abuse their newfound abilities.
Isabelle is dealt with for the moment and Jordan begins stepping even more into his cultish role, this time using religious imagery and recruiting some of the characters that were on the sidelines for most of the series. Shawn comes to grip with his slightly altered abilities and takes the full path as the healer, trying to walk a balancing act before the so-called p+ crowd (those with promicin inspired abilities) and the p- crowd (those that haven't taken the shot). A twist in the form of a potential test that will accurately predict who would survive and who wouldn't becomes a threat to Jordan's future; the man refusing to allow a world where two factions end up warring on each other (better 50% die now than the much greater number in the future). The future society wanting the 4400 stopped comes into greater light too, with the previous side fading out for the entire season (Tom can no longer safely kill himself to meet them since he failed to live up to their needs in S3), to give their side of the world of tomorrow. Needless to say, as with the last season, the factions in the present day fight on various levels too; the government having abandoned the forced inhibitor shots but planning on rounding p+ types in WWII styled internment camps (with the strong possibility of a Nazi "Final Solution" depending on who gets in power politically). The NTAC gets a new director who is sympathetic to Tom and Diana's methods but also suffers from some person issues of her own, not as easily pinned down as their bosses of the past.
The arc nature of the show was balanced against the "freak of the week" method of telling the story too but the story became much more important than the individual characters, especially the new ones since most of them were sideshow acts by comparison. The return of some major characters and demise of others also propelled the story as Jordan's forces claimed a large industrial part of Seattle to make a stand in, an outbreak of a promicin virus helping slow their darker side down just as it culminated in a lighter ending for most of the show. The positive outlook given in the series finale, especially the slightly longer director's cut version, still leaves open a lot of room for a sequel or series of movies/books/other forms of continuing but as with previous seasons, there were some weaker episodes or character developments this time too but in balance, I rated the 4 disc set as Highly Recommended for fans of detective shows, science fiction soap operas, 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 Fourth Season
The Wrath of Graham (June 17, 2007)
Fear Itself (June 24, 2007)
Audrey Parker's Come and Gone (July 1, 2007)
The Truth and Nothing But the Truth (July 8, 2007)
Try the Pie (July 15, 2007)
The Marked (July 22, 2007)
Til We Have Built Jerusalem (July 29, 2007)
No Exit (August 5, 2007)
Daddy's Little Girl (August 12, 2007)
One of Us (August 19, 2007)
Ghost in the Machine (August 26, 2007)
Tiny Machines (September 9, 2007)
The Great Leap Forward (September 16, 2007)
Picture: The 4400: The Fourth 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 2007). 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 very similar, in some cases even looking a bit "off" with over saturated colors, some additional aliasing, and minor added grain in some of the later episodes. 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: The Fourth Season 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 did kick in, it was better (especially during the many conflict clips) and the clarity of the dialogue was sharper too.
Extras: This time, there were two audio commentaries with creator Scott Peters where he definitively answered some of the questions about the demise of the show. Since he directed both episodes in question (Til We Have Jerusalem, and The Great Leap Forward), he was able to offer insights as to the direction of the series had it been picked up for another season as well as some of the smaller nuances of the characters or where they were headed with the storylines. They both added something intangible for me and having listened to them both, I think re-watching the entire series might solve some of the misconceptions floating about concerning some parts of the show (be forewarned though, spoilers abounded in them). Perhaps the best extras this time were the multitude of deleted scenes, almost all of them cut for time since the network has very strict guidelines (per Peters) about the episodes to the second. In some cases, the information contained in these scenes is crucial to fully understanding the motivations of the cast or where the story is going, none striking me as disposable fluff as is usually the case. There was also a short blooper reel that contained missed queues, flubbed lines, and mistakes made during multiple takes of some scenes, an overview of Jordan Collier by the cast and crew; most of them comfortable with the moral ambiguities he has shown in the series (is he "good" or "bad" always being the question) with the title explaining it best with Jordan Collier: The Grey Man. There was again a season overview full of clips and interviews called Season IV: Factions At War that is completely full of spoilers so watch it last. Lastly, there was a director cut for The Great Leap Forward with a commentary track by Scott Peters. He helped walk the listener through the changes made but it only lasted about 3 minutes more, the additional scenes typically lengthening the trauma scenes like the outbreak at NTAC headquarters, the Emergency Room ordeal, Isabelle's TK blowout with Kyle, and some minor scenes like one involving Diana and Maia added in. Of interest is that some of the edits were changed to provide a different impact though a few of you will be more interested that some colorful language was tossed in for effect.
Final Thoughts: The 4400: The Fourth Season was likely the end of the line for the series that many people compared to X-Men meets X-Files though the understated way most of the abilities were used made it less splashy than anything designed for children like the former and the lack of completely unexplained phenomena better than the latter. Each character seemed true to form, not the cookie cutter type that cater to the lowest common denominator crowd, and the theme of different people banding together into powerful factions was appealing. Truth be told, there are a number of loose plot threads that need to be addressed but the series went out on a bright note full of hope but not overly so, the flashes of brilliance lost in the off network (USA is hardly a "network" to many of us) presentation and half season dynamic. The stabs at how the military handles things ("we have our own team with special abilities"), government bureaucracy ("I'd never have thought my own government would force me to watch my dad die needlessly"), and environment ("They take so much for granted") were just the tip of the iceberg so for all the negative things people have said about this one, I think it played out deeper, and better, than the first season some seemed fixated on. The show evolved with time, becoming something more interesting to those that faithfully watched it and for any missteps along the way, there were more than enough highlights to make up for them. Good job!