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Is there anything more frightening than a pale, solemn little girl in a party dress? The specter of innocence askew has been a staple of scary movies from "The Bad Seed" to the "The Shining" and "The Ring." Sure enough, one of the first ominous signs in "The 4400" is Maia, a pale, solemn 8-year-old girl with an eerie prescience.
"The 4400" could have 4,400 other clichés and it wouldn't matter. The science fiction series on USA this Sunday manages to be spooky and intriguing and almost everything that a science fiction series should be. For one thing, the film begins where Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" left off: all kinds of people who vanished from different places over the last 50 years suddenly return en masse to Mount Rainier in Washington State.
These 4,400 missing persons have no memory of where they have been, however, and there is no spacecraft to explain their return — just a blinding ball of light that the Department of Homeland Security at first mistakes for a comet.
If nothing else, the returnees are a welcome antidote to ABC's recent flop, "Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital," a baroque and very boring horror series. (It, too, featured a big-eyed Victorian waif.) There is a certain satisfaction in witnessing a staid cable network like USA, home of "Law & Order" and "J.A.G." reruns, outshine ABC. But the failure of "Kingdom Hospital" sheds light on why "The 4400" works. Like a soufflé or brain surgery, the supernatural requires a delicate touch.
There are all kinds of science fiction subgenres, of course, and beyond the Sci Fi Channel television has served up all kinds, from sitcoms like "My Favorite Martian" to "The Twilight Zone," "Roswell" and Mr. Spielberg's 2002 mini-series on the Sci Fi Channel, "Taken."
The executive producer Francis Ford Coppola serves up a science fiction thriller for viewers who don't necessarily love science fiction — closer to "The X-Files" than "Alien" or "V," a 1983 mini-series about lizard-like visitors from another planet. There are no flying saucers or big, slimy creatures from outer space in the two-hour premiere. The only sign of alien life is the huge ball of light that could not be shot down by missiles of China, the United States and other nuclear powers together.
The focus is on the two government agents investigating signs of supernatural activity and on the men, women and children who return to find their families either long gone or drastically altered. After initial shock and euphoria, the Thomas Wolfe rule against going home is once again proved right. An aging businessman who vanished in 1979 returns to find his wife senile and abandoned in a squalid nursing home. In a bleak reversal of the 1940 Cary Grant comedy "My Favorite Wife," a young woman who disappeared 12 years earlier goes home to discover that her husband has remarried and does not want to let her back or see her daughter, who was taught that his new wife was her real mother.
It is always tempting to play up the bewilderments of time travel, the new-fangled gadgets and customs that baffle people from the past, like cellphones or beach volleyball. The writers of "The 4400" wisely show restraint, limiting themselves to only a few anachronism jokes. Waiting in the Ellis Island-like holding area with the other quarantined returnees, a black soldier who disappeared from his barracks in the Korean War leafs through a news magazine in disbelief. "The secretary of state is colored?" he exclaims. A teenager who vanished in 2001 automatically corrects him: "Black."
Before releasing them, the federal government sets up a special department to investigate and oversee the 4,400. Dennis Ryland (Peter Coyote) is the chief, and he assigns two of his most talented agents to track them down and try to figure out their odd symptoms. Naturally the pair start out loathing each other.
Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie) is an attractive but reclusive and prickly scientist. Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) is a handsome but embittered F.B.I. agent. He has reason to be antisocial, however. His nephew Shawn is one of the 4,400, and Shawn vanished in 2001 while on a camping trip with his cousin Kyle, Tom's son. Kyle was left in a coma, a tragedy that broke up Tom's marriage. He spent the next three years trying to discover what happened to his son and is obsessed with the returnees; Diana is more detached and skeptical of his professionalism.
The two lack the chemistry the "X-File" agents Mulder and Scully had, but Ms. McKenzie is an accomplished movie and stage actress who manages to give her cookie-cutter role some unexpected edges.
Shows about alien abduction are an acquired taste. "The 4400" has the good sense to keep aliens and abduction abstract and concentrate on ordinary people struggling to understand the unexplainable.
USA, Sunday night at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Francis Ford Coppola, Ira Behr, Maira Suro and Rene Echevarria, executive producers; Scott Peters, co-executive producer; Robert Hewitt Wolfe, consulting producer; Brent Karl Clackson, producer; Craig Sweeny, staff writer. Produced by Viacom in association with American Zoetrope and Renegade 83.
WITH: Peter Coyote (Dennis Ryland), Joel Gretsch (Tom Baldwin), Jacqueline McKenzie (Diana Skouris), Patrick Flueger (Shawn Farrell), Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (Richard Tyler), Laura Allan (Lily Moore), Kaj-Erik Eriksen (Danny Farrell), Chad Faust (Kyle Baldwin), Brooke Nevin (Nikki Hudson), Michael Moriarty (Orson Bailey), Billy Campbell (Jordan Collier), David Eigenberg (Carl Morrison), Conchita Campbell (Maia Rutledge).