Time Drama

Salt Lake City Weekly | July 2, 2004
Time Drama

Is USA’s The 4400 sci-fi or soap opera? All that and more, geeks and girls.



There are some of us who’ll never forgive the USA Network for canceling The War Next Door, a hysterically weird 2000 sitcom about a secret agent who retires with his family to the suburbs only to have his also-retired archenemy move into the house over the fence and begin tormenting him anew. Each week, they’d literally battle to the death, with one or the other being killed at the end of the episode (usually titled something like “Father Knows Death,” “Menage-a-Kill,” “Blood Is Thicker Than Death,” etc.) in a subliminal tribute to Spy vs. Spy and South Park’s Kenny. Loved that show, and don’t even get me started on La Femme Nikita or Duckman …

Not that the eternal cable resting home for reruns of Law & Order: SVU, JAG, more Law & Order: SVU and Walker, Texas Ranger (pull the lever, Conan!), as well as every Adam Sandler movie ever made, doesn’t have any more originally-produced oddities up its sleeve. Monk and The Dead Zone are more proudly off-kilter than anything the broadcast nets would dare offer, and the recently concluded Touching Evil was the coolest psycho-cop drama you never saw. FX may be flashier with its Nip/Tucks and Shields, but USA still delivers the basic-cable goods.

USA’s newest series is the uncharacteristically hyped The 4400 (debuts Sunday, July 11), the arrival of which has sent computer geeks (“Is it a new super-processor?! Why didn’t I get the IM?!”) and punctuation Nazis (“Where’s the comma?!”) alike into frenzies, whereas anyone outside of sci-fi chat circles has simply greeted it with “Huh?” None too informative, the promo spots for The 4400 have tended to leave the aftertaste of yet another missing-persons forensic crime drama: “Over the past 50 years, thousands of people disappeared. This July, they’re back.” So, it’s a bulk-rate Without a Trace? And will any of ‘em be as pissed as I was when they find out about Duckman?

The 4400 could be summed up as either Taken for Dummies or The X-Men Files: Federal Agent Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch, who coincidentally starred in the expansive alien-abduction series Taken on USA’s sister net, the Sci-Fi Channel) has a son in a coma thanks to a mysterious incident that happened three years ago wherein his nephew Shawn (Patrick Flueger) disappeared. Naturally, he has a personal interest in a new investigation when Shawn reappears in a Spielbergian ball of light near Mt. Rainier with 4,399 (please note comma) other people who’ve been missing and/or presumed dead, some dating back to 1946.

The questions of where they’ve been, who had them, why they haven’t aged a day and why they’ve returned don’t seem as pressing once certain members of The 4400 begin exhibiting strange psychic powers. Shawn can heal or sap life, depending on his mood; creepy ‘80s lawyer Orson Bailey (Michael Moriarty) creates mental tornadoes of destruction; and obligatory precious little blonde girl Maia Rutledge (Conchita Campbell) foretells the future.

Instead of a Professor X, the Seattle chapter of The 4400 who’ve been returned to society are assigned Mulder and Scully: Feds Baldwin and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie), and no one needs a psychic 8-year-old to see the romantic entanglement that’s coming before the series wraps next month, thus providing the Human Drama these epics always toss in to balance the Science Fiction; there’s also a subplot about a 1950s black soldier meeting the 1990s granddaughter of his long-dead white girlfriend—romance and interracial politics, a deuce. Gotta please the geeks and the girls, though it would be too much to assume they’d actually be watching together (sorry, geeks).

Scattershot as it is, The 4400 is still so well-done and evenly-keeled, it could and likely will be repurposed to the Sci-Fi Channel, NBC and, maybe with a little tweaking (Queer Eye for the Mutant-Powered Alien Abductees Who Just Want to Fit in Again?), Bravo. Anything’s possible under the recently formed NBC Universal corporate umbrella—dub the voices and add some sobbing Latinas and it could become the hottest daytime soap on Telemundo: El 4400.

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