The 4400 started out pretty much the same way the reimagined Battlestar Galactica did, as an extremely compelling miniseries that eventually turned itself into one of the hardest (and rarest) television classifications types to qualify - a successful summer series. At the moment, The 4400 is about to end its third season and, while the concept is easy to relate (and, dare I say, Awesome) trying to encompass the whole thing would be kinda tough. Nevertheless, this is the basic idea:
Over the course of the last fifty years or so, people have vanished without a trace, leaving their families disoriented and perplexed. We're not talking about kidnappings or runaways, here - some of these people simply stepped into the woods for a few seconds, or vanished with close friends just a few steps away outside a tent. None of it could be explained until present day when a comet on a collision course for earth turns out to be anything but and lands on a small lake in Washington State, whereupon it discharges 4400 people onto the beach and promptly disappears. Those 4400 people had no recollection of where they had been over the term of their absence, and none of them had aged a day from when they had been taken.
That in and of itself is a pretty neat setup, but the miniseries took this concept and made it a prelude to something far bigger.
It started with a little girl named Maia, a little girl who, I'm not afraid to say, creeps the fuck outta me. After the obligatory time in quarantine to give the government (or more precisely NTAC, a division of the US Department of Homeland Security) a chance to figure out what the hell happened (no one knows), Maia is placed with a foster family.
And then she starts having visions of the future, and everything goes to hell.
It turns out, something has been done to the people who were taken. Some of them had had their brain chemistry subtly altered in such a way that they began to develop, well, powers. Maia could see glimpses of the future, and others could heal the injured (or, in a predictable twist that wasn't badly executed at all, drain the life out of the healthy), or read minds, or shatter glass, or influence plants to grow. Every 4400 had the potential, but only some (at least initially) manifested symptoms. Yeah, they're super-heroes, but...subtle ones. No flashy outfits, no directed energy weapons (yet), no nothing. Most of these people are just confused and frightened, and their abilities don't exactly help them make any friends. I should also point out that these people weren't selected because they were virtuous - serial killers, paranoid schizophrenics, even insurance salesman were given abilities.
I'd like to tell you more, but I really can't for two reasons - firstly, there's a lot of ground to cover. This show moves FAST, is loaded with characters, few of them incidental, and is plotted out to within an inch of its life. It sounds like the kind of cliché used in soap operas, but something world-bending happens every week. There are no filler episodes that have nothing to do with the story arc. There are no 'one-offs,' and the season-ending cliffhangers are spectacular in their audacity.
And secondly, anything I tell you about the plot will kill the utter joy you'll get from learning the ins and outs of this fantasy world.
What I can tell you is this: it's produced by an old Star Trek veteran (Ira Steven Behr) and was created by another one (René Echevarria), so the talent's there, although as to their choice of an actress to play the lead female detective...I can guarantee that Behr picked up a phone and shouted "Find me Gates McFadden, just twenty years younger!" And I can tell you that, while they do use the kind of sci-fi clichés that have been around since sci-fi tv began, they do it with enough style that you don't ever think that you're watching something you've seen before.
It's also a good show for guest star-spotting, a sport I so deeply love, particularly of the sci-fi variety. Robert Picardo (the holographic doctor from Voyager) makes an appearance, as does Jeffrey Combs (an old Trek makeup actor, so you know what that means for this particular character), and Summer Glau (Firefly and Serenity), and Sharif Atkins (one of the Doctors from ER) and (are you ready for this?) even Tippi Hedren becomes a regular for a spell. They did something smart - they made their field of possible characters so large that they could be focused on or not depending on how the characters worked out. It's a good trick. I liked it when they did it on Deep Space Nine, too, with the six races involved in the Dominion War, but who am I to judge?
There is one story I'd like to tell from the second season to give you an idea of how atypical this show is, so you might want to skip the next paragraph if you'd like to stay unsullied.
The writers wanted to give the NTAC agent protagonist (Tom Baldwin) a girlfriend, but they couldn't figure out how to make it work with the plot - Baldwin's life is pretty much split down the middle between his job and his son, and he doesn't exactly have the time to, you know, date. So what they did was, they introduced a 4400 whose ability is to, um...be a personal holodeck - people she touches at the base of the neck are immersed in an entirely believable fantasy world. The catch is, time is irrelevant - a person can stay in one of those worlds for as long as they like and will still emerge only a few seconds after the illusion initially took hold. She spent ten years with Tom in one of those illusions, and when they both finally came out of it, they had been married (in her head) for eight of them. Poof! Instant girlfriend, and it works. It's hard to believe, I know, but it really does work.
The downside is, seasons of this show are few and far between - summer's a short season for television, and each season of The 4400 is only thirteen episodes long compared to the more typical twenty or twenty-six.
The third season finale is Sunday, and the thought that I'm going to have to wait until next JUNE to see another episode of it just...hurts me.
Yeah. It's that good.