The USA Network may not be one of the powerhouses when it comes to television, but you can't deny that some of their original programs have made waves. From hit shows such as Burn Notice and Monk to cult favorites like Dead Zone, USA is more or less known for the quality of their original shows. Take The 4400 for example.
In 2004 when The 4400 hit the airwaves it turned a lot of heads. It quickly solidified itself as an X-Files-like show with plenty of twists and an arching plot that carried through episode after episode. The opening moments of the series instantly grabbed you with its unique set up and load of mysterious events. Unfortunately the show became one of the many victims of the writer's strike and lasted with moderate strength into its fourth season, which ended in a cliffhanger and prevented the show from coming back for another year. Needless to say fans were very upset and mounted an unsuccessful campaign to bring it back.
Though it may not return to TV, Paramount has just released a complete series collection so just in case you missed it the first time around consider this your chance to check out a fantastic sci-fi series. All four seasons are here with 45 episodes and bonus features that were not included on the individual releases. It's enticing for those looking for an upgrade and a perfect way for newcomers to jump in.
The first season of The 4400 opens up with a series of abductions by a white light dating back 60 years ago in 1946 right up through to 2001. The people were seemingly chosen at random and throughout the years there was no real explanation for their disappearances. Fast forward to present day in Seattle, Washington and we see a division in the Department of Homeland Security, National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC) scurrying around like chickens with their heads cut off. Apparently a massive meteor is making a beeline for Earth and impact seems imminent. Events happen so quickly as nations from around the world launch missiles at the meteor, but when the comet slows down and comes in for a landing, it's very unclear what's going on here.
A ball of white light arrives at a lake near Mount Rainier, Washington and NTAC is there to meet up with it. There's an explosion of energy and from the fog emerges 4400 confused people who have no idea what happened. These are the abductees from the past 60 years, and as you can imagine they aren't the only people who have no idea what the heck is going on.
At the point where the 4400 return, the show gets really interesting as it follows NTAC agents, Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie) as they investigate each of the abductees. While the first season of the show only contains five episodes the content is pretty strong and it covers a lot of ground. Early on we discover that the 4400 each possess a unique supernatural ability and there's a big question about whether or not these people are even still human. One guy can break things with his mind, a girl can see the future, and a teenager can kill and heal with a touch. Most all of the 4400 have some kind of ability or another, but don't mistake this series for some form of Heroes; it's something else entirely.
The first season explores the characters as Baldwin and Skouris go on investigations not too dissimilar to Mulder and Scully. There's a certain "monster of the week" flare that springs up now and again, but throughout it all The 4400 remains a unique and riveting science fiction show with solid acting and scripts. With that being said the "explanation" of the 4400 and the abductions felt a little weak to me at first. Thankfully that opinion changed as the following three seasons explored it.
Without giving too much away, I will say that the source of the abductions is nothing quite as grandiose as aliens, and it's nothing quite as hokey as God stepping in to pick these people up. Rather than explore those paths, The 4400 gives the explanation that these people were picked up by humans in the future. In order to correct their history, 4400 people were given an injection of something known as promicin, which stimulates the growth of supernatural abilities in people. Plots surrounding this theme get much more complex in later seasons, but at the beginning of the show don't be surprised if you are left scratching your head.
In the second season as things are explored a year after the first's big revelation, Baldwin and Skouris get more attention as they are caught up in events at the NTAC which they don't fully support. They basically begin to question their division's direction and motives, and throughout the season the government takes steps to squash the 4400's role in society and their powers. Of the twelve episodes in the second season, a majority of them focus on a rebellion of sorts and fight between the 4400 and the powers that be. It's a solid season all around and it's clear that the cast and crew found their footing here.
Right up through the end of the series there are many story arcs that crop up with only a few "freak of the week" episodes scattered in between. The series rushes towards its end with stories about government conspiracies, 4400 terrorist groups, promicin usage, and a bleak future that seems to be up in the air. Unfortunately, the third season fumbles the ball a little and the fourth never reaches a satisfactory conclusion. The show just kind of ends with a cliff-hanger due to the cancellation, but up until that point The 4400 proves to be a riveting and original science fiction piece. It stands out as one of the best sci-fi shows from the past decade and it's definitely something fans of the genre should go out of their way to check out.
Though there's plenty going for The 4400 the show has a few missteps along the way. Some poor pacing, a few misguided clichés, and ill-planned plot devices are scattered throughout the 45 episodes. Luckily those nitpicks don't detract from the quality of the show. This is a solid series that is intriguing, mysterious, and entertaining right up until its final moments. The show may have taken a while to gel and the third season was probably the weakest of the bunch, but all in all this is a quality show that didn't deserve to be cancelled. Consider the complete series highly recommended.
The 4400 is presented on DVD with its original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. Throughout the four season and 45 episodes this series looks great and this transfer is a testament to the show's production. The picture is crisp and clean, the colors are vibrant at times yet subdued and moody enough to set the tone, and all around black levels and shadows are appropriately rich. Grain is a minor issue and compression artifacts do appear from time to time in the darker areas of the picture. This a great looking series with only a couple of nitpicky flaws to mar its otherwise fine presentation.
The audio in The 4400 is presented with a two English tracks: 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround and 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo. Both tracks performed decent, though I have to admit that I was under whelmed by the 5.1 selection. Its presence on the soundstage was only marginally better than the 2.0 offering, and the rear channels didn't get quite as much use as they could have. This is a moody and atmospheric kind of show and there were many moments that should have immersed you, but I didn't really experience that. Despite that, there were many scenes that utilized the 5.1 channels well; the show just didn't accomplish that as often as it could have. The quality and clarity is fine overall and there were no problems with dropout or distortion.
Considering the DVDs for this set were ported over from the individual season, you can expect to find the same selection of extra features.
The first season includes absolutely nothing on its two discs, but the second season kicks things up a notch with some featurettes and audio commentary tracks. The episodes "As Fate Would Have It", "The Fifth Page", and "Mommy's Boss" all included commentaries with a good selection of cast members. They were solid tracks all around, but for the most part the commentators were simply watching the episodes and providing anecdotes about their experiences with the show, rather than any real insight. Aside from the commentary tracks there are three bonus features here. "Creating the Ball of Light" looks at the idea to make the light ball, "Return of the 4400" discusses the second season's start after the mini-series, and "A Stitch in Time" talks about the theory of time travel.
The third season of The 4400 offers five audio commentaries similar to the ones presented in the second season. "The New World", "Gone Part II", "The Ballad of Kevin and Tess", "Terrible Swift Sword", and "Fifty - Fifty" are the episodes in question. As far as the other features are concerned for this season there are three featurettes and a rather amusing gag reel. The featurettes are "The Architecture of Series Story Telling" which examines the third season as a whole, "Powers Grid" looks at the show as it slides towards larger story arcs, and "TVFX" examines some of the show's special effects.
For the fourth and final season of the show, two more commentary tracks are included for the episodes "Til We Have Jerusalem" and "The Great Leap Forward". Aside from the commentaries there are deleted scenes spread across each disc and a collection of bloopers. Meatier stuff from the fourth season includes a Director's Cut of "The Great Leap Forward", a special feature called "Factions of War" which looks at some of the elements from the show with discussion from the crew, and "Jordan Collier - The Grey Man" closes the season out by looking at the controversial cultist-like character.
For those of you looking to upgrade from the individual seasons, there's an extra bonus disc included here with previously unavailable features. Sadly there's no "finale" as it were, but the stuff here is quite good nonetheless. First up is an introduction to the series by creator Scott Peters, who takes a good amount of time to thank the fans of the show. A selection of deleted scenes from the first three seasons is packed onto the disc as well as an audio commentary for the pilot episode. This commentary was obviously done for this release and it's quite informative with a great retrospective on the series itself. I think it's safe to say that I enjoyed this commentary more than the ten that were included with the seasons themselves. Aside from this features there's also a series of promotional videos for the fourth season and a "Ghost Season", which more or less is merely an interview segment rather than a look at what would have been the fifth year.
At the end of the day, The 4400 was a creative show that didn't necessarily reinvent the wheel, but what it did do, it did well. The series was a standout in the science fiction genre while it was on TV and long after it went off the air, fans still long for an appropriate close. It's a shame that this one became a victim to the writer's strike and hopefully we'll see a direct to DVD film or something to wrap it up. It wasn't perfect and it had some flaws in between, but for what it's worth The 4400 was quality all around. If you missed it then consider this complete series a perfect chance to catch up on one of the better sci-fi shows from the past decade.
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