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.