So what happened after the mothership disgorged all those abducted folks in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”? That intriguing if thoroughly derivative concept — down to the none-too-subtle casting of Peter Coyote, who once chased “E.T.” through the woods — provides the foundation for this USA limited series, whose tepid execution and uneven performances don’t exactly master its possibilities. Infused with “X-Files” and “Twilight Zone” wrinkles as well, “The 4400” (title refers to the number of those that return) may improve on the two-hour premiere, but it would help if the show could beam up a more accomplished cast.
The producers have at least crafted a storyline that readily lends itself to the limited-series format, with four hourlong installments to follow. After a mysterious light approaches Earth before inexplicably slowing down a la “Independence Day,” a blinding flash leaves behind a few thousand individuals who have been missing for as many as 60 years.
None has the slightest memory regarding their absence, and in the juiciest twist, some begin exhibiting strange powers such as clairvoyance or the ability to sap and restore life with a mere touch.
Unable to hold them in custody indefinitely, Dennis Ryland (Coyote), chief of a federal agency charged with overseeing the returnees, assigns two agents to monitor and investigate the activities of the new arrivals — beginning with a businessman (Michael Moriarty) whose pampered existence has been obliterated during his quarter-century hiatus.
In addition — shades of Mulder and Scully — one agent, Tom (Joel Gretsch), has a personal connection to the case. His teenage nephew Shawn (Patrick Flueger) is among the 4,400, and Tom’s son still lies in a coma from witnessing Shawn’s abduction three years earlier. And in case that’s not enough of a parallel to evoke thoughts of the earlier Fox series, Tom’s new partner is a woman (Jacqueline McKenzie) with a biomedical background.
Rene Echevarria and Scott Peters’ script also incorporates soapy elements such as Shawn’s relationship with younger brother Danny (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) — now the same age, since the abductions provided anti-aging benefits — and their potential triangle with the brother’s girlfriend (Brooke Nevin). Similarly, an African-American soldier (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) nabbed in the 1950s hooks up with the granddaughter (Laura Allen) of a woman he loved in the past.
Director Yves Simoneau, who has already given us “44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shoot-Out,” doesn’t elicit much from his cast. There’s zero chemistry between Gretsch and McKenzie, with the creepiest turn coming from Conchita Campbell as a little girl who sees the future — adding “The Sixth Sense” to the lengthy roster of creative footnotes.
Beyond Coyote, recognizable names are limited to guest stars such as Moriarty, Billy Campbell and “Sex and the City’s” David Eigenberg, slated for subsequent episodes.
None of this is especially bad, but the production reveals too little at too leisurely a pace and has the feel of being assembled on the cheap — cutting corners some places, presumably, to load up on others. (Special f/x were unfinished in the copy available for review, so we’ll take it on faith that the cash went there.)
Despite obvious comparisons to the abduction saga “Taken,” “The 4400” bears a stronger resemblance to sister network Sci Fi’s recent ratings dud “Five Days to Midnight.” In both cases, the audience’s satisfaction level with what amounts to a bloated “Twilight Zone” episode hinges on how clever the payoff is — assuming, of course, the network can corral viewers in the first place, short of going out and abducting them.