When executives at CBS Studios decided to dust off the not-too-distant IP of “The 4400,” a four-season drama about a group of people who were plucked from different places and time periods and returned at once, it was good news for Ariana Jackson.
Jackson wasn’t the first producer to tackle such a project — a previous attempt at a reboot was made in 2018 by Taylor Elmore and Craig Sweeny. But as a fan, she knew the intricacies of the original series, which premiered in 2004 on USA Network. Jackson teamed with Anna Fricke, who previously successfully rebooted “Walker, Texas Ranger,” to propel her version forward.
They key to cracking their version of the story, Jackson tells Variety, was not to worry about whether the original already tackled a particular piece of story. (In the original series, characters spent a lot of time thinking extraterrestrials were the beings behind the abductions, but it turned out to be human time-travelers from the future.) “4400” features the same amount of taken and returned individuals as the original — and the number will be significant in the story, Nayar confirms — but this time around, they are all marginalized people who disappeared during the last century. The cast of characters range from a spoiled party girl (LaDonna, played by Khailah Johnson), who returns from only five years ago, to a young mother and lawyer who has been gone for almost two decades (Shanice, played by Brittany Adebumola) to a trans doctor who hails from 1920s Harlem (Andre, played by T.L. Thompson).
As these characters struggle to wrap their heads around how long they’ve been gone and how different the world is now, they are also adjusting to being held by the government. Two specific employees — Jharrel (Joseph David-Jones) and Keisha (Ireon Roach) — are tasked with acting as their guides. In the beginning, those two have wildly different approaches to what that means.
“This is really a character show, and that’s what we really think is going to bring people in — that’s what brought me into the original, honestly. I really loved those characters; I really cared about their journey on top of the sci-fi thing that happened to them that was incidental,” Jackson says. “People have to figure out how to survive and will have to figure out how to move forward, and to us, that’s the interesting thing.”
How the character journeys will play out over the course of the first season of “4400,” Jackson and Nayar preview, is both through flashbacks to their lives before they were taken and their adjustment to life in 2021. The former, Jackson says, occurs in almost every episode and will also explore what the loved ones of the missing experienced when they disappeared.
“There’s been a lag of time and so they’re also understanding how their families absorbed their absence and sometimes it’s not like the greatest thing,” says Nayar. “And so, it’s also, ‘What life do I want to return to? Maybe I was taken at a moment that saved me. And maybe there’s a reason that I’m here that isn’t simply just, “I got taken by a green light.” I got taken to a life that maybe is the better life that I can live.'”
It’s important that the abductions are not seen, Jackson adds.
“If anybody saw something or says something, it would be one random person that would be hard to be believed,” she said. “These are meant to be things that are done so fast and so quickly and in a place where it cannot be seen or is not really seen. It’s supposed to be a pretty surgical thing.”
Jackson and Nayar want the audience’s focus to be on the characters, rather than “uncovering clues” as to what took them and why. But that sci-fi element will still have a heavy presence in the show, as characters immediately talk about that aforementioned green light that appears at the time of a disappearance. And then of course there is the fact that these 4400 people popped up in the same place and time completely unaged from the day of their disappearance — and with new abilities that range from telekinesis to being able to heal extremely fast.
Nayar says that the powers may feel like “wish fulfillment” for some, but “there are consequences to having them,” including enhancing their “fear of being immediately othered.”
“These aren’t just random powers given to random people; it’s powers that really bring out, enhance or, in some way, are in a dialogue with who the person is,” Jackson adds. “A big part of the whole first season is this idea of what will happen to them if people learn about these powers, versus the idea of being free to be who you are and fully embrace who you are.”
That latter exploration will play out in other ways, across timelines, as well. This may be most notable with Andre, who Jackson says was specifically written to tell a more hopeful story of a trans person in the past than is often depicted on screen.
“The story we’re trying to tell with that character is not a story of him not being able to live his life in the 1920s. We’re trying to tell a story where we understand that trans people have always existed, trans people have always survived and thrived in their lives,” she explains.
Adds Nayar: “A lot of our audience, I think, is not familiar with the Harlem Renaissance and the trans community, and there was a community there. And so, it’s our chance to show how a person lived their truth at a time that we are not used to them being allowed to live it.”
The first season of “4400” focuses on a handful of characters, all of whom hail from the U.S. But, Jackson admits, this phenomenon that occurred within the world of the show was a global one, which leaves many storytelling possibilities open for the future.
“Generally what we’re trying to do is establish the world of who the 4400 are,” Jackson says of Season 1. “At this point, we have our series regulars who are all Americans and speak American English, but what we want to do is hint at the larger story of who’s out there and stories that can be told.”
“4400” premieres Oct. 25 at 9 p.m. on The CW.