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4,400 folks feeling a little lightheaded

Times Staff Writer

“The 4400,” a six-part miniseries from the USA Network that premieres with back-to-back installments Sunday, begins as a series of citizens, in scenes spanning nearly 60 years, disappear into a mysterious light from above. I think we all can guess what’s happening -- those of us who have ever been to the movies, at least. Or seen a cover of the Weekly World News.

Cut to the present day. There’s a big comet headed for Earth -- Seattle, specifically, because it’s easy to double Seattle with Vancouver -- causing much panic and consternation and many phone calls to loved ones. But it isn’t a comet: It’s a big twirling ball of CGI light that parks itself over a lake by Mt. Rainier (played by Canada’s Buntzen Lake), where it dissolves with a bang, leaving 4,400 formerly missing persons on the shore, gawking like rube tourists in the Big Apple, having aged not a day and with no memory of the time between. Yet no one says, “Hey, I’ve seen this movie” -- because they live in a world in which “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was never made.

“Some people are saying we were abducted by aliens,” says young Shawn Farrell (Patrick Flueger), missing for only three years, to his uncle Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch), who happens to be an investigator for the Department of Homeland Security, charged with getting to the bottom of this.

“We can’t rule anything out yet,” Uncle Tom replies.

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Yet what else is there to rule in? The only other possibilities would seem to be a bizarre natural phenomenon (unlikely), the hand of God (possible, but this is not an M. Night Shyamalan film), government conspiracy (though this government seems kindly and concerned) or some combination thereof. In most such fictions, the enslavement or annihilation of the human race is somewhere on the docket, but in the two hours available for review the producers don’t give much away. Indeed, the whole thing goes by without the words “alien probe” being uttered once. Wake up, people!

After six weeks in detention, dressed in beige jumpsuits color-coordinated with the beige waiting room in which they shuffle about and watch cable news -- it’s like an airport where the planes never come and the gift shop never opens -- the “returnees” are sprung by those busybodies the ACLU and let loose into a soap opera.

There’s Shawn, now the same age as his once-younger brother Danny (Kaj-Erik Eriksen); they are about to go head to head over Nikki (Brooke Nevin), who was 14 when Shawn disappeared but, well, you do the math. Mahershalalhashbaz Ali plays Richard, who before he disappeared in 1951 was a black soldier in Korea getting beat up for dating a white woman, by an odd coincidence the grandmother of fellow returnee Lily (Laura Allen). Lily, missing for 13 years, is being kept from her daughter by her sort-of former husband. And then there’s Orson (Michael Moriarty, seeming far older than his 62 years), gone for a quarter-century, whose business has been sold and whose now-aged wife is in a nursing home.

Further complicating matters, some returnees have picked up superpowers during their absence. There is little Maia, who can see the future, though she is too young to know what to do with it. (Head to the track, obviously.) Shawn is a kind of rechargeable battery of life force. Orson is uncontrollably telekinetic. And Lily is impossibly pregnant, possibly with Alien 5 or (depending on where this is heading) with the new messiah. Stick colorful tights on them and they could be the X-Men.

As fantastic as all this is, what is really astonishing is that not a single Hollywood agent arrives to purchase the rights to their stories.

Keeping track of the returnees are the above-mentioned Uncle Tom and his new partner, Diana Skouris -- sounds strangely like “Dana Scully” -- played by Jacqueline McKenzie. Initially they regard each other as poison (she’s CDC, he’s FBI), in the mode of romantic comedy and buddy-cop movies, but given that he’s been served with divorce papers and she’s a good-looking single girl, they’ll quite possibly end up friendly.

Of this large cast, McKenzie is the only one who’s much fun to watch. She strides like an action hero, shoulders back, eyes intent. Peter Coyote, who plays their boss, is just a facilitator of exposition, and a badly lighted one besides.

There is -- so far -- nothing remarkable about the miniseries, which is full of things you have seen before, sometimes tweaked and sometimes not. (There is nothing new under the sci-fi sun.) It’s fairly corny and way too serious, given the manifold opportunities it offers for humor. It plays strictly by the rules, so that one completely understands what one should feel about these characters without necessarily actually feeling it. But if you’re in a charitable mood, or indeed are an active connoisseur of B-grade science fiction, that may be enough. And there may be surprises ahead -- some revelation beyond expectation. I’m willing, even hoping, to be surprised.

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‘The 4400'

Where: USA Network

When: Premieres 9-11 p.m. Sunday

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Rating: The network has rated the miniseries TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

Peter Coyote...Dennis Ryland

Joel Gretsch...Tom Baldwin

Jacqueline McKenzie...Diana Skouris

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Michael Moriarty...Orson Bailey

Patrick Flueger...Shawn Farrell

Mahershalalhashbaz Ali...Richard Tyler

Laura Allen...Lily Moore

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Conchita Campbell...Maia Rutledge

Executive producers Ira Steven Behr, Maira Suro and Rene Echevarria. Writer Craig Sweeny. Director Yves Simoneau.


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