Released on a barebones DVD set, the USA original miniseries The 4400 capitalizes on the success of Taken, the alien abduction TV saga produced by Steven Spielberg. Actor Joel Gretsch even appears on both series in similar roles, as an agent of a secretive government organization. What distinguishes The 4400 is its representation of the sense of alienation that pervades post-9/11 America.
This series begins with mysterious disappearances across the globe, over the past 60 years. From young Maia (Conchita Campbell) in 1946 and combat pilot Richard (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) during the Korean War, to businessman and devoted husband Orson (Michael Moriarty) in 1979 and teenager Shawn Farrell (Patrick Flueger) in 2001, all vanish in a dazzling beam of light.
Cutting to the present day, the show introduces Dennis Ryland (Peter Coyote), head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Seattle. He and his team are busy tracking the trajectory of a bright comet quickly approaching earth; the Chinese and U.S. launch nuclear missiles to intercept it, but the comet keeps coming. Even though it is highly unlikely that DHS Seattle will ever be tracking comets, and plainly absurd that ballistic nuclear missiles would be used to stop them, these scenes do highlight familiar fears of invasion and violent threats.
And yet the comet turns out to be an alien craft bearing 4400 humans who have been abducted during the past six decades. They have no memories of what happened to them and have not aged a day since their abductions. Agents Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie) are assigned to investigate. The rest of the series concerns the returnees’ troubles as they try to rejoin the race. Maia’s parents are long dead and Lily’s (Laura Allen) husband has remarried. Orson’s business is lost and his wife in a retirement home. And even though Shawn was only missing for three years, he has trouble learning about the new music and movies his peers talk about in school.
The 4400 intimates that most of the returnees’ integration problems boil down to fear approximating a post-9/11 “dread of difference.” Irresponsible news reports further present the 4400 as a menace, sparking anxiety and motivating discrimination. Rather quickly, the 4400 become targets of uttermost acts of violence and aggression. That these complexities stem from metaphorical racial anxieties is no coincidence: the series uses Richard to recall the turmoil that characterized 20th-century America.
Indeed, Richard endured his fellow airmen’s blatant racism before being abducted in 1951. When he strolls outside DHS, he’s surprised to find that African Americans now appear to be fully “integrated,” even as his status as one of the 4400 makes him the target of other bigotries. Not surprisingly, when the returnees decide to fight instead of hide, Richard takes up a shotgun and asserts, “Eventually a man has to make a stand. I am making mine right here.”
All this said, the series does make the 4400 scary, that is, possessed of “unnatural” powers. Maia can foresee the future, Orson can crack walls and skulls with his mind, and Shawn can heal and kill at will. Unfortunately, these abilities turn some of the episodes into bland “mutant of the week” storylines, in which Tom and Diana chase and capture a returnee who has apparently been abusing his powers. And a grand scheme is afoot: whoever abducted the 4000 planned for all this to happen, from their integration problems to the race riots. When a baffled Lily discovers that she was impregnated while abducted, and Maia announces the impending arrival of a “savior,” the religious overtones become evident.
Be warned that all these complexities are never fully resolved in the miniseries. This is reasonable, given that so many of the problems it raises are ongoing off-screen: Ryland warns a particularly irresponsible news anchor that in today’s world, he does not need a warrant to look at her personal records and place her name on a no-fly list. Tom and Diana pursue a racist group bent on destroying the 4400 by using explosives and firebombs. The members of this group are arrested, charged as enemy combatants, and told that they have no rights. Yes, these violent chauvinistic groups are immediately catalogued as terrorist organizations. Similar to other narratives of the current Bush era, The 4400 aligns the viewer with the U.S. government and Homeland Security, but also aligns anti-terrorist tactics with prejudice.