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Paramount Studios presents
"I'm not sure what's going on. There appears to be something out there. The light is gone, and thousands of people have just suddenly appeared."
DVD ReviewThe 4400 made a decent, cable-sized splash when it premiered this summer as a much-hyped miniseries on the USA Network. And while it was fairly successful both in the ratings and dramatically, what I find most interesting about the five-episode "event" is what it says about the state of scripted television in 2004. With more and more cheap reality programs stealing an audience with little initial investment and more and more cable channels emerging every year (how long ago was it that no one bothered to watch Bravo or TLC?), launching a new drama is now riskier than ever. There often aren't enough viewers to justify the expense, and some of those who remain are wary of growing attached to a questionable new series lest they suffer, again, the pain of cancellation (only natural, particularly for the sci-fi genre, which has suffered the recent deaths of shows like Farscape and Touching Evil). Rather than put a lot of cash into funding 13 episodes of a show that could easily have slipped under the radar, USA and Paramount instead developed The 4400 as an extended pilot of sorts, the theory being that they could hype it as a limited engagement "television event," giving themselves an easy out if the experiment failed while reassuring wary fans that, at the very least, they'd get the whole story. The Sci-Fi Channel did something similar with its new take on Battlestar Galactica, and in both instances, the strategy paid off—each is returning for a full season sometime in 2005.
The 4400, like Spielberg's miniseries gamble Taken, plays off of decades of legends and lore about extraterrestrials. The premise is certainly unique, though—U.S. Homeland Security agencies are thrown into a tizzy when a ball of light headed for earth turns out not to be a comet, and after it crashes in a lake in Washington state, more than 4,000 people (400 more, actually) suddenly appear, all of them missing persons that had been gone without a trace, some of them for decades. The government has quite a job rounding them all up and figuring out who they are. Dennis Ryland (Peter Coyote) is put in charge of the project, a political hot potato. Helping him investigate the phenomenon are our ersatz Mulder and Scully, Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie), the former with a personal interest at stake, as his nephew Shawn is one of the returnees, and Tom's son has been in a coma since the night Shawn disappeared, while the teenagers were on a camping trip.
The agents work to solve the mystery, and the 4400 cope with a world changed in what was, for them, an instant. Some were gone only a few years, like Shawn (Patrick Flueger), but even he has trouble adjusting—his uncle resents him for his son's medical state, and he's no longer the big brother to Danny (Kaj-Erik Eriksen), and finds himself attracted to his sibling's girlfriend, who was "just a kid" when he vanished. Others have bigger problems. Lily (Laura Allen) had just given birth when she left, and ten years later, her husband has remarried and isn't too keen on his daughter learning about her real mommy. Richard (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a black man who dropped out of time during the worst part of the civil rights battle, isn't used to being accepted, and feels set adrift. And then there's little Maia (Conchita Campbell), the youngest of the returnees physically, though her date of birth predates everyone else's. She disappeared in the 1940s, and anyone who ever knew her is long dead.
At first, it seems like the show might simply follow the 4400 as they try to create new lives for themselves, and form bonds with one another. But pretty soon, weird stuff starts happening (well, more weird stuff). Some of the 4400 seem to have special abilities. Maia is psychic (which creeps out a few foster families, who don't like hearing about how soon they'll die), and Lily is mysteriously pregnant. Each of the series' five episode tracks the core group of characters described above, and introduces a new returnee for Tom and Diana to investigate.
There's Orson Bailey (Michael Moriarty), a businessman who has lost control of his company to his partner's son; feeling betrayed, he finds himself lashing out, causing damage with his mind. Carl Morrissey (David Eigenberg) comes back to find his old neighborhood overrun with gangs, and discovers he has the physical strength and speed to put things right, even if it means becoming a vigilante. As the agents investigate these strange powers, they begin to uncover connections between the 4400 that suggest someone orchestrated not only their disappearance, but also their return.
The series manages a nice balance of plot arc and standalone storytelling, and layers in some typically heady sci-fi musings on everything from human rights to race relations (naturally, once odd things start to happen, the 4400 become targets). Though the storylines can get a little cheesy (particularly the syrupy romance between Lily and Richard) and feel rushed at the end, when a powerful billionaire (Bill Campbell), himself one of the vanished, builds a special little subdivision for the returnees and makes a move for Lily's possibly alien baby, it all holds together fairly well, and the production values are topnotch. The ending avoids expected little green men clichés and raises a lot of questions for The 4400's eventual return as a full-fledged series.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The 4400 was shown in widescreen on the USA Network, and that aspect ratio is preserved on DVD. The anamorphic image looks good, with decent detail, balanced colors, strong black level, and no visible digital filtering. It is a bit grainier than a major motion picture, perhaps, but otherwise, I noted little to mar presentation of this slick television release.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is available in either DD 2.0 or 5.1, but there isn't a whole lot of difference between the two. Both keep the action confined mostly to the front channels, with the 5.1 mix benefiting from a stronger dialogue track, anchored in the center channel, and a bit more presence in the surrounds.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 41 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray Double
Extras Review: No extras at all for this one, as is generally the norm for Paramount's TV on DVD releases (though at the very least, subtitles would be nice). Bad for die-hard fans, I suppose, but with the show already an established success, maybe the Season Two set will fare a bit better (once it actually airs, of course... Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves).
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsAs a miniseries, The 4400 isn't bad. As the experimental introduction to a new TV series, it's a bit more promising. Whether the producers will be able to continue the story for another 22 episodes without getting bogged down in the convoluted arcs that plagued shows like The X-Files is anyone's guess, but in the meantime, this spare release of the premiere mini-season serves as a nice primer.
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