Thursday, March 17, 2005

What I'm watching: The 4400

The 4400 was, I guess, a mini-series broadcast on the cable USA network. I’ve seen the first of the two discs containing the series—the other awaits me—which features the 90 minute pilot and the first of four ‘hour’ long (i.e., 45 minutes, minus commercials) chapters. It was obviously hoped that it would prove popular enough to justify an on-going series.

We see various people over the last fifty or sixty years disappear following the appearance of a blinding light in the sky. Then, in present day Seattle, a mysterious heavenly body comes to Earth and disgorges 4400 people who have similarly disappeared over the last 80 years. These people have no memory of what has happened to them, and have not aged since they were taken. The series follows investigators with the Homeland Security department as the Returnees attempt to reintegrate into society and what is for many of them a completely different world.

Ho hum. I’d heard fairly good things about this show, but frankly I wasn’t that impressed. We quickly learn that the Returnees have picked up paranormal abilities: One teenager can manipulate the bodies of others, bringing a dead bird back to life and literally stopping a tormentor cold. A little girl proves clairvoyant. And so on.

I found this disappointing. There’s so much drama inherent in the idea of these people coming back after anywhere from a few months’ absence to one of 70 years or more that the whole superpowers thing just seems a bit silly. In the end, perhaps intentionally, the whole enterprise ends up seeming (so far at least) like an X-Files clone, as a male and female HS team investigates the Returnee’s paranormal activities. Admittedly, if the execution were better, the superpowers thing would be fine. Again, though, we’ve already had one X-Files, so why dish up another, inferior one?

To be fair, the show is moderately well written and moderately well acted. It’s possible that part of my problem with it stemmed from the fact that I spent much of the last two weeks watching the complete first season of Deadwood and the third season of The Shield on DVD. Those are two brilliant shows, and frankly The 4400 just reeks of being a standard television series compared to those two.

The second episode, for instance, a sub Twilight Zone-esque parable about a schlub who has gained enhanced speed and strength setting out to clean up his crime-infested neighborhood, is entirely too predictable. Not badly done, but way predictable. The climax is all too foreseeably tragic, followed by the equally inevitable inspiring fillip. Yawn.

There's also way too much soap opera stuff going on. The male investigator’s son has been in a coma for three years (coinciding with the abduction of his nephew, who just happens to be one of the Returnees), and now the investigator is being divorced by his wife. And that’s just one example. Cripes, isn’t there enough drama in the whole general idea without that sort of stuff?

Another character, a black military veteran who went missing in 1951, and who was then dangerously involved with a white woman, is used to explore how society has changed for black people. This is fine, except that it would also be interesting to see his reactions as just a person too, rather then a black one. There’s one brief bit with him reacting to some punk kids (after gazing at a convenient row of mixed-race couples to contrast with his own experiences).

But hell, what does he think of the increased pace of life, the end of the Cold War (he was a pilot in Korea, after all), the markedly reduced formality, indeed, sexualization of manners and dress, cell phones, computers, music, and all of that stuff? Other than the racial differences, he mostly seems to take most everything in stride, and that’s just bad scripting. And, in it’s own way, disappointingly racist.

There were a number of moments I just didn’t buy. One Returnee, gone for 10 years, learns that her husband remarried and her then-infant daughter was raised to believe that another woman was her mother. Her ex-husband gets a restraining against her to maintain the situation (i.e., keeping the daughter in the dark), and I just couldn’t belief that any court would issue such a thing. Admittedly, her husband is a local lawyer and perhaps has connections, but any higher court would invalidate that ruling. No body even mentions appealing the order, which is the first thing I thought of.

The most unbelievable aspect of the show is the complete lack of any media hounding these people. They are allowed to return to normal life without any reporters or talk show bookers doing the extremely elementary legwork necessary to discover their not-all-that hidden identities. Moreover, not one of 4400 to turn the Returnee story to their advantage. You’re telling me that out thousands of people, not one would want to become an instantly famous and no doubt rich celebrity? Or how about having one of the Returnees sit down to watch a lame cop show or sitcom and find that it features a ridiculously bad Returnee plotline?

This is easily the show’s worst aspect. We swim in an ocean of 24-hour omnivorous media now, and a story like this would change the world as much as the it had already changed for those missing for decades. The idea that there would be a couple of magazine articles and then the whole thing would go away is just literally unbelievable. Other than a website, we see almost zero evidence of this.

To sum up, the show’s OK, and possibly if I hadn’t just watched 30 hours of two of the best written TV shows ever, I’d have been a little easier on it. Still, unless things get significantly better on the second DVD, then this will be just another ‘eh’ TV show.


At 8:39 PM, Blogger Henry Brennan said...

That's why I prefer shows like "Law and "Order. At least they took the time to examine all the angles without just throwing a story out there. Even with good acting, production values and a good concept, it's just plain distracting to have huge gaps in logic.


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