The CW’s plan to resurrect USA’s 2004 series The 4400 definitely comes across as the network’s latest go at bringing aliens/futurism/superhero drama to television. Presumably, it will happily exist alongside things like the Arrowverse and the Roswell reboot. But since it’s been so long since the original was on air, now seems like the perfect time to revisit.
When you recall what sort of show The 4400 was—a story about thousands of people who were abducted throughout the 20th century suddenly returning all at once in the present day—you can see why the CW’s interested in it. But if you go back and actually watch the series, what becomes clear surprisingly fast is how The 4400 was punching well above its weight class at the time, and how a lot of the show’s more ambitious ideas have popped up in more recent comic book/sci-fi projects like Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
Co-created by Teen Wolf executive producer René Echevarria and V executive producer Scott Peters, The 4400 brought actors like future Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, Legends of Tomorrow’s Megalyn Echikunwoke, Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Picardo, and Once Upon A Time’s Keegan Connor Tracy to envision a world where the fate of society would be determined by a select, purposefully diverse group of people.
To really get the full effect of what The 4400 was doing, you should really just go watch the whole thing, but if you, like many of us, have neither the time nor energy for yet that kind of endeavor, here are four episodes from each of the series’ four seasons that are worth a rewatch.
The 4400's “Pilot” is a prime example of how a series’ pilot can be dense, complicated, and busy while still getting multiple points across and absolutely selling its core premise. When governmental agencies across the planet detect what they believe to be a comet hurtling toward Earth, the world’s collective attention and horror are drawn to the sky as humanity immediately decides to launch a barrage of missiles at the object. Dismaying as the missiles’ ineffectiveness is, it’s when the comet begins to slow down as if it’s being controlled that people on the planet’s surface realize that they’re dealing with something they don’t understand.
Much to the Department of Homeland Security’s shock and confusion, the massive ball of light that lands near Seattle—where agents Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie) are based—drops off 4,400 abductees who all began disappearing in 1946. As members of the newly formed National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC), Tom and Diana are tasked with processing and learning more about “the 4400,” who quickly become known worldwide for being the first documented case of verifiable alien abductees.
The 4400 soon became a kind of monster-of-the-week show drawing on series like The X-Files and genre fiction like Marvel’s X-Men comics. But the pilot episode established intentions to dig into ideas about racial discrimination, workplace ageism, and environmental conservation as part of a larger story about how society might go about addressing those issues in order to better the human race as a whole.
What Diana and Tom along with the rest of NTAC quickly discover about the 4400, other than that they have no recollection of who took them or where they were, is that a number of them exhibit superhuman abilities they didn’t possess when they were abducted. The 4400's collection of powers ran the gamut from modest enhancements like Carl Morrissey’s (David Eigenberg) heightened reflexes that inspire him to become a fledgling vigilante, to near-miracles like Shawn Farrell’s (Patrick Flueger) ability to heal mortally wounded creatures.
Characters like Shawn, who disappeared along with his cousin, and Tom’s son, Kyle (Chad Faust) introduce a fascinating tension that comes from the public’s lack of understanding and justifiable uncertainty about what happened to the 4400. While most of the group like Shawn and Maia Rutledge (Conchita Campbell), a young girl who can predict the future, come back more or less the same aside from their powers, Kyle stands out because his abduction was incomplete and left him comatose.
Tom has no way of knowing whether the 4400 themselves are responsible for what happened to them, and the agency’s instinct is to keep the group quarantined for fear of what they might do out in the wild. This direction alone could have made for the kind of series you’d expect to catch on USA back in 2004, but The 4400 made good use of its pleasingly short first season to push itself further.
One of The 4400's first interesting twists comes by way of Oliver Knox (Lee Tergesen), who comes back to Earth every bit the serial killer that he was when he was first abducted. As Knox begins using his power of suggestion to compel other men to kill women, NTAC’s forced to wonder why whoever took these people would choose a known murderer given how many of the others are perfectly normal, and in some cases heroic people.
Knox introduces yet another reason for humanity to fear the 4400 as the rest of them try to adjust to modern society, often finding it particularly difficult because the lives they left behind simple aren’t easy to pick right back up. When Lily Moore (Laura Allen) returns to her home hoping for a joyful reunion with her husband, she’s devastated to see that he’s moved on and remarried to a woman Lily’s daughter believes to be her mother. Richard Tyler (Mahershala Ali), a Black Korean war veteran, essentially has no family to return to, and the 21st century feels too foreign for him to become truly comfortable. But as The 4400 weaves struggle and difficulty into its characters’ lives, the show introduces a fascinating idea about what the 4400's actual purpose is that reframes this episode and sets the tone for the rest of the series.
The more time people spend interacting with the 4400, their suspicions about them being malicious begin to soften, but not fully dissipate. By the first season’s finale, Tom and Kyle are pushed to an emotional situation that provides both answers and catharsis for them. Though “White Light” was The 4400's first season finale when it initially aired, it’s better understood as the precursor to the two-episode story that spans the first two seasons for the show as it’s currently streaming.
One doesn’t exactly need to know the truth about the 4400 to appreciate how the show heightens its stakes in “Wake Up Call.” Tess Doerner (Firefly’s Summer Glau), a woman with schizophrenia who has the power to make people do her bidding, pushes everyone in the mental facility she’s being kept in to begin building a mysterious device. With NTAC’s new insight into the 4400's purpose, there are some questions as to whether Tess can be trusted, as much of what she believes to be real is actually pulled from fiction books she reads.
Even though each member of the group often only spent a brief amount of time in the series in episodes focused on how their powers affected their personal lives, episodes like “Weight of the World” served as a strong reminder of the bigger puzzle the series always led with. After Trent Appelbaum (Robert Picardo) discovers that his saliva contains a compound that helps people metabolize massive amounts of fat overnight, the former telemarketer sees the opportunity to set himself and his daughter up for life.
To NTAC, though, the commercialization of a 4400's abilities presents a new set of questions about how the world’s meant to deal with the returnees, most of whom choose to stay in Seattle despite being from all over the world. The way that Trent’s ability begins to draw people’s attention to how the 4400 might change people’s lives is mirrored in how Jordan Collier (Billy Campbell), a 4400 with undefined abilities, begins to form a kind of following. Just as the true nature of Trent’s abilities reveals itself, Jordan’s potential for power by way of social manipulation begins to take shape, and he’s established as being one of the series’ proper villains.
While it’s easy to see how The 4400 drew inspiration from a number of different comic books, it’s very hard to watch “Life Interrupted” and not see the multiple similarities it bears to Marvel Studios’ WandaVision, a show that wasn’t based on any singular arc of comic books. The episode opens in a very House of M kind of way as Tom awakes one day to find that he’s seemingly the only person to recall the 4400's arrival. A number of details about his and everyone else’s lives are similar to but quite different from the reality he remembers.
After he’s briefly taken in by his family who suspect he’s having some sort of psychotic episode, his wife Alana (Karina Lombard) cautiously agrees to bring him home, and much to Tom’s surprise, she reveals that she, too, knows that something’s wrong with reality. Everything from the discussion Tom and Alana have about their children not being real to the way Tom pokes about in this strange world and discovers its boundaries feels very Westview-like, and what’s impressive is how The 4400 manages to weave all of this into its larger plot moving forward without treating “Life Interrupted” as a one-off bottle episode.
The Marvel parallels continue in the story of Jean DeyLynn Baker (Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn), a woman who comes into her power in a devastating way that leaves her shaken at first before she convinces herself it’s a sign she’s meant to be a messiah. Though no flaming birds appear in “Carrier,” the episode does pull the world’s focus to the 4400 much in the same way that the X-Men’s Phoenix Force always does with jean Grey in Marvel’s comics.
Interestingly, there is a messiah-like figure among the 4400, but it’s unclear exactly who it is at first because of how The 4400 presents you with a number of characters, like Jordan, who have messiah complexes. Watching the show straight through, the messiah character’s identity isn’t exactly hard to figure out because it’s really what happens around then that’s the most compelling part of the show.
When a radical section of the 4400 calling themselves the Nova Group introduces themselves to the public and announces their intentions to change society, no one is sure what to make of them, as they’re the latest example of the 4400 trying to get a grip on societal power. At the same time that this is happening, 4400 like Maia in particular begin deciding whether or not to inhibit their abilities with drugs NTAC develops as it learns more about how they were changed by their abductors.
The 4400 made sure to constantly remind you that the issues its heroes were facing were multifaceted and stemming from a number of different sources, like when a new street drug called “blink” leads to a string of gruesome suicides. Though Tom and Diana are able to find the source of the drug and the 4400 whose power is responsible for it, that doesn’t exactly solve the problem at hand, and the subtextual question that’s left unanswered is whether this is just how things are going to be in this world now.
When multiple dead bodies left in the same unnatural condition lead NTAC to suspect yet another 4400 serial killer, their investigation reveals something far more sinister about how the government might be secretly working to weaponize their abilities. The reason behind the murders reveals another piece of the puzzle to the 4400's reason for being that raises a number of moral and ethical questions for characters like Tom and Diana, and pushes you to consider what stance you’d take in a similar situation. Also interesting about this point in the series is its very overt and pointed criticism of Scientology-like organizations that, from the outside, very much seem to be powerful cults of personality.
Unlike Tess, who manages to begin living a somewhat regular life after she’s first introduced, former scientist Kevin Burkhoff’s (Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs) obsession with the 4400 and the compound that gives them their powers leads him down a dark path of self-experimentation, leaving him severely disfigured. When Kevin disappears, it’s Tess of all people who comes back into the picture. Strange as the circumstances of their bond is, it serves as an example of how the 4400's different purposes are hidden from them in ways, and sometimes have little to do with their powers.
The potential dangers that come with synthetically-gifted 4400 abilities are put front and center with Audrey Parker (Constance Towers/Laura Menell), a woman who’s overjoyed to gain the power to astral projection, but left stuck between worlds when she’s murdered while outside of her physical body. Though Audrey’s story wasn’t The 4400's largest in terms of world-altering developments, it made the prospect of the world becoming populated by more 4400-like people a grim reality to consider.
Towards the end of the original series, The 4400 attempted to get a bit more conceptual with episodes like “The Marked,” in which one of the group tries to explain how his ability has turned his films into conspiracy-exposing prophecies. Strange as the filmmaker’s supposed ability is, the more Tom and Diana uncover about what the 4400 can do, the harder it becomes for them to rule anything out. If the film’s accurate though, the future the 4400 are ushering in isn’t the idyllic one their supporters have come to believe, and it’s not clear how anyone can stop what’s to come.
The concept of persecuted people with superhuman abilities establishing a space for themselves separate from the society that hates them is something people most often associate with Marvel’s X-Men and their repeated attempts to build sovereign mutant nations. The 4400's Promise City is no Krakoa or Genosha, but it does represent both the promise and threat that the group pose to baseline humanity as many of them begin to coalesce together believing in one of the series’ many messiah-like figures.
The 4400's series finale ended on a cliffhanger that, given how generally strong the series was overall, made the idea of future stories set in this world a compelling one. Looking back at The 4400 now—and considering all the genre series similar to it that came in its wake—you can see how the show organically worked itself into its own endgame that would have required it to become much bigger in scale going forward. Unfortunately, the series was canceled in 2007 during the Writers Guild of America strike.
There’s no telling how much of the original series’ energy will be present in the CW’s upcoming reboot when it eventually airs, but if the network plays its cards right, the new show could definitely be something worth watching.
The 4400 is now streaming on Netflix.
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