The 4400 is the Law & Order of sci-fi shows — reliably entertaining, sturdily structured, and consistently well-acted. It may not boast the intricacies of Lost or the eeriness of Invasion, but the USA series, now in its third season, times its twists better than the former and is quicker-witted than the latter. This season moves briskly along with a really bright idea: Baby Isabelle — considered the ”Rosetta stone” of the 4,400 abductees who’ve been returned to Earth after years or sometimes even decades away, replete with superhuman powers — was creepily insta-grown into a gorgeous 19-year-old (Megalyn Echikunwoke). The birth of a baby has long signaled that a TV show is in a rut; here the ingenious shedding of a baby proves just how fresh-thinking 4400 remains. Isabelle is soon reading books on Pol Pot, wondering about the ”evil inside” her, and having disturbing conversations with shady 4400 Center adviser Matthew Ross (played by Garret Dillahunt with the same affectless menace with which he imbued Deadwood‘s whore-killing Francis Wolcott).
Despite its characters’ supernatural powers (the returnees look like regular people but can do such X-Men-esque things as control electricity and heal upon touch), 4400 has always felt as much like a political thriller as a sci-fi show, particularly this go-round. A terrorist group, composed of bitter superhumans, has split off and may attack at any moment; meanwhile, the U.S. government is trying to pick off 4400s hailing from hostile nations, worrying they’re to be used as weapons of mass destruction. It’s a subtle but jabby war-on-terror remark, then, when an agent asks the room, ”Anyone else feeling a little overmatched here?” If 4400 could be compared to any TV show, it’s actually Fox’s non-sci-fi series 24 (indeed, 4400’s NTAC chief Nina Jarvis is a dead ringer for 24‘s former CTU head Erin Driscoll), and a recent episode in which agents tortured a telepathic returnee for information was so evocative of 24 it seemed Jack would bust in at any moment and break some knees.
An upcoming two-parter involving the mysterious disappearance of 10-year-old precog Maia (Conchita Campbell) adds even more wrinkles to the conspiracy — not to mention a shocking cliff-hanger involving NTAC agent Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) — but the ominous Isabelle makes for enough intrigue on her own. Though at first it seemed possible this wide-eyed babe was added only to provide eye candy and make cute remarks about sex, there are now hints of something darker. Suddenly, the idea of a child’s undeveloped conscience in the body of a woman who can do everything from leaping off tall buildings to inflicting Vader-like choke holds sounds fairly inspired. But that’s the gist of 4400 — never assume anything is average.