2 out of 5
Developed by: Ariana Jackson
This broad-as-heck update of The 4400 is actually pretty grabbing at first because of how broad it’s trying to be, turning the outsider theme of the original series into direct commentary on race and gender and sexuality bigotry in the modern era, but the somewhat charming naivety of this approach first struggles to find its footing as an ongoing series, and then once it does, take a straight-up nosedive into CW bullshit, wholly inhuman dialogue, and storytelling that pays off approximately nothing – neither its initial social point of views, or its character arcs, or any of its aborted twists. The credit here is strictly due to the good feelings engendered by those first few episodes; thereafter, it quickly becomes a hate watch.
4400 is the article-less update of 2004’s The 4400, and essentially uses the same premise: that one night, multiple green portals opening in the sky dump 4400 refugees from various time and places into a Detroit park. Ranging from early 1900s to a few years ago, these time-displaced peoples have no idea what’s happened. and they’re soon rounded up by vague government forces to be monitored and tested and questioned. Via TV shorthand, they are immediately branded “the 4400,” and considered alien invaders by the public, something that isn’t helped when it’s discovered that each of these returned folk apparently have some type of power – foresight, healing, etc.
The original series premiered during Lost fever, and so focused mostly on the Why mystery of events, also taking a procedural structure – each week, some strange occurrences would be investigated by our protagonists (some sympathetic government workers), and tied to some 4400s emerging powers.
Premiering in a post-Trump 2021, in an era of much visible racial strife, and ongoing gender and LGBTQIA+ discussions, 4400 logically frames the returnees ‘othering’ via that lens: the majority of characters we focus on are not white or not straight or not cis, and my comment about this being ‘broad’ is that there’s zero attempt at making this feel like reality, or like anyone is an actual character, and rather just jumping right to having everyone be a representative voice, including on the negative side of things, with the white cops in charge of policing the 4400 using the most inflammatory language and phrases permissible on the CW. It’s a bit of an eyeroll, but the obviousness of this approach is also kind of nice, in that it’s just going for it. The show somewhat misleadingly suggests that these specific folks are part of the 4400 specifically because of who they are – that is, there’s a reason the majority seem to be POCs or etc. – but this ends up just being poor scripting; the focus on this is dialed back later on.
This is a trend that can be followed over the course of the show: things that seem like clunky but purposeful inclusions prove to just be clunky. There are things that are mentioned for the first time that are brought up like we should know about them already; there are plotting diversions that are given a lot of episode time and then completely disappear; while no one exactly speaks like a human being from the start, they can’t even keep the 2-dimensional natures of the characters straight – moods and attitudes flip-flop purely as needed to justify getting from scene A to B.
These are somewhat regular TV sins, made a bit more sinful by a CW need to constantly pair off everyone into relationships, and to sprinkle relationship drama on top of what should already be some pretty consuming issues like the 4400’s imprisonment, and the emerging powers, and etc. CW shows also have a tendency to lack any tonal balance: each new roadblock is the end of the world; this gets mighty tiresome when these roadblocks tend to fall into the aforementioned put of being plotty runarounds with no consequence. Add on top of this the network’s limited budget requiring the same sets to be used over and over, and a complete lack of geography and timing – the initial episodes mostly take place in a hotel in which all are sequestered, and people transport all over the building in an instant, with their conversations sometimes completely disconnected from events / conversations they had minutes before.
For a few episodes, we avoid a lot of this by taking things surprisingly slowly. While the writing may never be especially strong, characters are given some breathing room to spout those un-strong things, and even if every “let me mention this thing about myself randomly” is clear subplot baiting, because we’re not yet in a rush to explore it, it can function more as character building.
However, there hits a point where it’s like the writers realize they need to move things along, and once they do… it is a steep nosedive.