At the beginning of every episode of the USA drama, The 4400, there is a montage that summarizes the show’s backstory: the 4400 are abductees, presumed dead or missing, some for as long as sixty years, who have suddenly returned to the present day, out of a glowing orb that appeared in the Pacific Northwest. They have not aged a day since they went missing, and do not remember what happened while they were gone. Some have been returned with supernatural abilities. This montage is not part of the opening credits, although it recurs weekly, but its presence illustrates The 4400's greatest weakness. If you have to tell the audience the story every week, in the second season, there may be a focus problem somewhere in the storytelling.
People plucked from their lives by mysterious forces and returned to an altered life is a time-honored premise in speculative fiction. The X-Files used this device as an initial springboard into a larger canvas exploring the nature and purpose of abduction; it built an entire mythology on the resulting questions. Other comparisons to The X-Files are also possible. Both shows focus on two main characters, government agents, as the fulcrum around which all the action takes place. In the case of The 4400, we follow Tom Baldwin, an investigator with a personal connection to the 4400, and Diana Skouris, a former CDC worker of some sort, a scientist who often seems to ground her quixotic partner. Sound familiar?
But here is where the similarity ends. Where The X-Files used its abduction premise as a wide arc device included in its main focus of studying all aspects of the paranormal, The 4400 locks itself into a single premise about the returnees, and then seems to leap over the consequences of that premise to a villain/disease of the week format. It is not the story's natural focus and necessitates a weekly reminder, via montage, of what the show is about.
For example, in the earliest episodes, the 4400 were returned and confined until it could be determined that it was safe to release them to their old lives. There are frequent intimations that the 4400 face a lot of difficulty in the world they have been returned to. This is rich dramatic ground. Unfortunately, we don’t explore it in the episodes themselves. We follow one abductee, Lily, home, where she discovers that her husband has remarried and her daughter does not know her. But all those issues of displacement, return, and the curious fact that Lily has not aged and has no memories of the intervening years, are pretty well wrapped up pretty quickly. Lily simply moves on to a new life and family, because her former one ticked on without her.
The 4400 also rushes to tie up the mystery of who the abductees were and why they were taken and focuses instead on the creation and running of a 4400 center. This center’s mission statement establishes it as a safe place for the 4400, as well as a place where the rest of the world can find the "4400 within". It is organized by a charismatic member of the 4400, and run as a half corporate, half governmental venture, making it a dramatic foil to the National Threat Assessment Command, the government agency in charge of monitoring the 4400. The downside of the show’s focus on the center is that it keeps the insular character world of the 4400 firmly in the foreground. This sacrifices the possibility of a more meaningful examination of the returnees' relationship to the wider world. Further, the invitation to the wider world to find "the 4400 within" dilutes the otherness of the 4400 with fuzzy new age philosophy and begs the question: are the 4400 looked up to, or scorned? Are they sympathetic characters? Or are they cultish enemies of the show’s heroes? This sort of confusion, in the absence of patient storytelling, is another weakness in a show with a strong initial premise.
Of course, this is a young show, and perhaps the overreach is about finding a pace that will actually examine the premise more thoroughly in the future. The acting is good and the production values are high, and there is hope that The 4400 will find its story to tell. But, so far anyway, it is using a solid speculative fiction premise as an excuse to be able to depart from logical plotting, rather than as a real chance to examine the dramatic consequences of its interesting premise. This, to me, is a disappointment, both as entertainment, and as a fulfilling narrative.
Selila Honig is a digital artist, writer, and mapmaker living, at the moment, in Washington DC. She has an allergy to permanent dwellings and a love of road trips. She is also completely convinced that pizza is the perfect food.
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