Imagine if thousands of missing persons were to rematerialize — with no memory of what happened to them and no older than when they left?
Those are among the questions posed by new USA Network science-fiction drama The 4400, a series heavier on the human element than the supernatural. This fantastic scenario becomes relatable by focusing on just a handful of the 4,400 “returnees.”
The series begins with a montage of the missing — Nikki Hudson (Brooke Nevin), a little girl abducted while on a drive with her parents in 1946; Richard Tyler (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a black G.I. during the Korean War; Orson Bailey (Michael Moriarty), a businessman abducted in 1979; and Danny Farrell (Kaj-Erik Eriksen), a high schooler and the nephew of Department of Homeland Security agent Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch, Taken).
We then meet Baldwin at the bedside of his son, Kyle — who lapsed into a coma about the time that Danny disappeared. Since then, the former FBI agent has tried to discover what happened to his son. When a mysterious meteor deposits the returnees in a lake outside Seattle, Baldwin spots Danny in the crowd.
The agent teams with Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie), a former Center for Disease Control doctor who views the returnees as a pandemic.
And this group isn't without risk — when Orson returns to find his wife in a shabby nursing home, he returns to the actuarial firm where he used to work. When his former partner's son declines his demand for reinstatement, Orson kills him in a fit of telekinetic rage.
Meanwhile, Nikki can foresee the future, disturbing her foster family to the point where she winds up, once again, a ward of Homeland Security. Lily, another of the abductees, and Richard face more mundane troubles — Lily's husband has remarried, and wants to keep her away from him and her daughter; Richard has no one left.
But they are drawn together by a common bond — in the 1950s, Richard was in love with Lily's namesake grandmother, though the black-vs.-white dynamic of the era made the relationship difficult.
Richard's fish-out-of-water routine is one of the show's most interesting vignettes. In a diner, he's shocked to be surrounded by racially mixed friends and lovers, and is surprised that the only dirty look he gets comes from lighting a cigarette.
It's character touches like that, as much as the big-picture sci-fi stuff, that makes the first episode of The 4400 compelling.
The 4400 premieres Sunday, July 11 at 9 p.m. ET on USA.
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Mike Demenchuk has served as content manager of Broadcasting+Cable and Multichannel News since 2016. After stints as reporter and editor at Adweek, The Bond Buyer and local papers in New Jersey, he joined the staff of Multichannel News in 1999 as assistant managing editor and has served as the cable trade publication's managing editor since 2005. He edits copy and writes headlines for both the print magazine and website, wrangles the occasional e-newsletter and reviews TV shows from time to time. He's also the guy to bother with your guest blog, Fates & Fortunes and Freeze Frame submissions.