In “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R. Tolkein writes that anyone “inheriting the fantastic device of human language” can say the sun is green. However, he continued, to create a world in which a green sun is credible, and “commands” meaning, is an altogether “special skill.” In the unlikely hit of last summer’s tv season, USA’s science fiction mini-series The 4400, creators Scott Peters and René Echevarria pulled off the latter feat. Their “green sun” was a group of 4400 human abductees delivered by a burning comet to an isolated Washington State lakeside. None of them knew each other. None of them had aged, even if they had disappeared decades earlier. They couldn’t explain where they had been or what had happened to them.
Superficially, this premise sounded like yet one more iteration of the kitschiest of all 20th century conspiracy theories. But instead of indulging in X-Files-style paranoia or pseudo-scientific CSI-style voyeurism, The 4400 adopted a character-driven exploration of the human consequences of a hackneyed premise. A low-key government agency, the National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC) corralled, quarantined, poked and prodded the returnees and then, baffled by their apparent normality, set them free to resume their vanished lives under the minimal monitoring of agents Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch )and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie).
The empathy factor was upped by the agents’ personal connections to the 4400: Tom’s nephew, Shawn Farrell (Patrick Fleuger) was a returnee, and Diana quickly bonded with Maia (Conchita Campbell), a nine-year-old girl abducted in 1946. The scripts also kept the agents’ responses to the 4400 believable. Neither Tom not Diana relaxed their vigilance in tracking the potential dangers the 4400 might pose, but they also resisted hysteria in the face of what quickly emerged as the unknowable impact of the returnees. While the scale of change in the returnees outstripped that most individuals experience (telekinetic powers, the ability to heal by the laying on of hands, mysterious impregnation, and eerie precognition), the series shaped the confrontations between the returnees and the world as personal, quotidian encounters with betrayal, love, prejudice, greed and reawakened conscience, in essence, the everyday travails of each member of the audience.
The season opener of series two (which returns for a full, 13-episode run) wisely keeps to this low-key, let’s deal with it as best we can, person by person, formula. It also brings back, virtually intact, the ensemble cast of talented character actors whose not-quite-conventional good looks and craft-rich acting still inject a quirky individuality into each of the main characters. But the second season also begins at a disadvantage, as the final episode of series one solved the central mystery of who did what and why by revealing that humans, dying out as a race far into the future, had kidnapped and altered the 4400 to seed back into humanity the capacities to ensure its ultimate survival.
While gifting viewers of Season One a satisfying denouement, this revelation bequeaths to the script writers and producers of the current series two fundamental problems. First, at a very basic level, they need to develop to a comparably compelling story line to entice viewers through thirteen hours of tv. Second, they need to find ways of telling this story that will distract viewers from the fundamental familiarity of the themes which drive the narratives of long-running characters such as the naïve suburbanite Lily (Laura Allen), who returns from the far-future miraculously pregnant (in an obvious reference to the New Testament story of Mary and Jesus), or Maia (whose experiences exemplify the long-term SF preoccupation with possible human reactions to unimaginable difference).
The new season’s two-hour premiere, set one year after the events of the original, suggests that both dramatic tasks are causing problems. As of now, the new season is oscillating between two alternative central plots: the potential for evil manipulation of the 4400’s return by billionaire abductee Jordan Collier (a surprisingly chilly Billy Campbell) and the significance of Lily’s baby. This dual focus dissipated tension, especially as both parts reek of cliché. For example, when Lily and her lover and protector Richard (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), an African-American soldier abducted in the 1950s) are attacked by three anti-4400 bigots, the baby is apparently powerful enough to will the men’s deaths (one murder, one heart attack, and one suicide), but inexplicably waits until her parents have had to abandon their home and endure a car chase, a car crash, and an exhausting flight on foot to do so.
This storyline pitches The 4400 deep into schlock sci-fi-horror territory (absolute power applied absolutely and also illogically, to maximize sensation) and completely abandons the exploration of human fallibility that could ambush the viewer with unexpected emotion in the first series. Plus, the transformation of Richard into a passive, Joseph-like protector potentially eliminates the development of one of the series’ most intriguing characters, a man whose fragile hopes of equality, engendered by the desegregation of the American military after World War II, are dashed when he finds himself discriminated against as a returnee.
A debilitating lack of innovation in this first episode underlines the obstacles The 4400 faces in replicating last summer’s success. The decision to pattern the new episodes on the old, in which an investigation of one of the 4400 in crisis (resolved by episodes end) was interspersed with updates on the lives of the most significant returnees, Richard, Lily, Shawn, Collier, and Maia, is understandable. Existing fans return to what they’ve seen before, as new viewers might tempted with proved structure.
Unfortunately, the story now appears recycled from Close Encounters: a paranoid schizophrenic’s drawings drive the patients and staff of a mental hospital (in the obsessive spirit of Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary) to construct a Rube Goldberg contraption to communicate with the abductors. Although the The 4400‘s storylines often echo classic SF — from Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘ paranoia to humanist meditations familiar from Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Roger Zelazny, this episode seemed to abandon all hope of originality before it began.
While a generous portion of the pleasure in any kind of fictional storytelling — in print or on the screen — derives from the reassurance of mythic themes revisited in light of a current status quo, the appeal lies in novelty of the resolution of the tension between what the viewer/reader knows and what s/he might be forced to confront. It’s here that the flaccidity of The 4400‘s premiere raises questions about any 13-episode viability. When the confrontation is second-hand or absurd, then that tension and its attendant pleasures quickly evaporate. A green sun, once so magical and promising, is suddenly just a green sun.