Sunday, June 29, 2008

Reprise of "The 4400": Season 4 provides a distrubing twist in morality

Recently, I rented and watched “Season 4” of USA/Paramount’s “The 4400.” I see that I wrote a blogger entry about it here on September 11, 2006 (check the archive links on the left). The series had aired late in 2007.

The last DVD in Season 4 includes a lot of commentary (I believe it is by Ira Behr and Nick Copus but I failed to write down which two from the long list of directors were used). There is a lot discussion of the techniques in screenwriting for a television series. This sort of screenwriting is sometimes a much more disciplined and collaborative effort than is some feature film filmwriting. Typically, an episode comprises five acts, with each act (separate by scheduled commercial breaks) of precise length, adding to a precise number of minutes (in this show, 43, including credits). Often there is a recap from previous episodes, then a preamble, then the opening credits and song, which for this series (“A Place and Time to Call Our Own”) is quite captivating.

The writers describe their periods of “writer’s block” and multiple cups of coffee and all-nighters, and how they get their shooting scripts done just in time.

The story ideas themselves came in a collaborative fashion. They aren’t the “brainchildren” or high concepts of one creative artist, the way some people believe their screenplays are (just look at some of the entries in “Project Greenlight” contests), again, more common in features.

The DVD poses the question “is Jordan Collier” (played by Bill Campbell) “good or evil”? Earlier we have learned about him as a kind of messiah, back to save the world from its self-destructive future. By this season, we see Collier intent on changing Seattle (starting with his warehouse district “Promise City”) into what seems like a typical cult, although it is not exactly religious in the usual sense. Collier wants a paradise where a fiat money and a Bretton Woods financial system no longer exists (who would that fit for today’s stock market?) and where the currency is in “miracles”.

We see some other characters grow. Shawn Farrell (a most emotional, as the directors point out Minnesota native Patrick Flueger), now supposed about 21 (not counting the three lost years) honestly believes he is doing good when he deploys his gift of healing (that is the one power that Clark Kent in Smallville never has) by running his Foundation and will even run for City Council. (That reminds me of a city council race in Minnesota just before I arrived there in 1997.) He debates with himself over winning arguments v. converts, but he believes he knows good and evil (itself dangerous) and always tries to do good, as if he can provide the moral compass for the other characters (sort of the way Clark does in Smallville, or the way Sam does for his hothead brother Dean in Supernatural). He seems more effective with this than his establishment uncle Tommy Balwin (Joel Gretsch). But Kyle Baldwin (Chad Faust), looking buffed and waxed (it wasn’t necessary) has become “a man” by working for Jordan, for questionable causes.

But it is the “Promicin wars” that make the last season controversial. The writers say that the show took this direction by collaborative evolution and even accident. They also say that there are no plans to continue the series, and the concept may be too difficult for studio investors to take into a future season now.

Promicin is the (fictitious) neurotransmitter that enables the abilities, by unlocking various processes in the cerebellum. It looks like the green kryptonite of Smallville, in liquid form. (If the word were spelled with "mycin" instead, it would sound like the name of some currently effective antibiotics against super-bugs, a strange comparison to imagine.) By season four, Collier has evolved a plan to inoculate the entire world with Promicin. About half of all people will die (as a one-time “sacrifice”) but the others will each develop an ability as “currency” and live in paradise. It doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out what episode in world history this alludes to. (Later, there is talk of offering "the test" and making promicin "voluntary", but one character's "gift" (below) will sack that hope.) The credibility of such a plot in a television series provides a disturbing look into where our own moral compass may be headed as a culture that values individual freedon.

Yet, as the series evolves, the premise seems compelling. There is a suggestion that left-handed people are more likely to accept the drug, as are people with a larger corpus callosum. But one younger male character has a bizarre gift, to transmit promicin “infection” (as if promicin were like a prion) to others in (casually contagious) pandemic form, killing off thousands of people in the general public in Seattle. That character’s demise, when even Shawn cannot save him, provides some tragedy near the end of the series. There is some reckless use of buzzwords, like being “promicin positive” which would be desirable (until the phrase “HIV positive” comes to mind as a comparison). The Centers for Disease Control would have a field day with this.

Season 4 seems like a “final” reverse on the political spin of the series. A couple of seasons ago it seemed to focus on abuses by government and Homeland Security (“Uncle Tommy”) and on how the world will treat those who are “different.” (Through one sequence of episodes, the government was planning to inoculate the 4400 with a promicin antidote, to make them "normal," and that threatened their lives; Shawn himself almost died.) Now, it is those who are “different” who are presented as a real threat. How ironic. I know that feeling from my own dealings with McCarthyism during my own coming of age (my college expulsion for homosexuality in 1961). And all I wanted was “a place and time to call my own.”

At then end, Seattle has been replaced by an expanded Promise City, and I wonder where a followup series (or film) could go with this. Maybe the series would turn into something like “Jericho.”

Is Jordan Collier a kind of sci-fi Hitler, Stalin, Chariman Mao or Pol Pot? Well, “It’s” only a movie, or only a television series. It’s only too effective.

Picture: NASA Mission Control, from Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

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