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Stellar, or just interstellar?

'THE 4400' / 'STARGATE ATLANTIS'

Even TV sci-fi fans will often admit now it's time to reinvigorate that genre

somehow. "Star Trek: Enterprise" feels like a last-gasp franchise.

Space shows have become gridlocked with alien cliches. Lots of

supernatural/paranormal tales keep popping up, but going down fast, lacking the

conceptual juice to fuel an extended run.

Until now. USA's new limited series "The 4400" (premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.)

is a grabber from the start, quickly moving beyond the sci-fi label to

uncharted drama territory. Its tale - executive produced by Francis Ford

Coppola - takes place on Earth and in the present day, which should help

attract sci-fi-resistant viewers. Even better, its situations are viscerally

relatable, hardly as removed from our daily lives as so many other out-there

allegories.

This is a fish-out-of-water story, with thousands of displaced swimmers.

They're the 4,400 people who suddenly materialize out of a ball of light from

space - disappeared persons of all ages, races and nations, spanning the past

half-century, returning exactly as they were when they vanished, with no memory

of anything in between, no awareness of the passage of time. A black Korean

War soldier from the Jim Crow south (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) lands in a society

where he's no longer "colored" and his cigarette- smoking annoys bystanders

far more than mixed-race couples. The mother (Laura Allen) of an early '90s

baby returns to a daughter now a teen and a husband long ago remarried, having

told the girl his new wife is her mother. A wealthy executive (Michael

Moriarty) finds after 25 years that his wife is elderly and sick, his company

has been taken over, and he has nothing - except strange new subconscious

powers, such as creating virtual earthquakes when he's angry.

He's not the only one who's been supercharged. A teen (Patrick Flueger),

gone only three years, has it bad back in high school, where an offhand run-in

with a bully leaves the other kid nearly dead. Yet a lifeless bird is abruptly

reanimated in teen Shawn's hands. Witnessing that event is his uncle Tom (Joel

Gretsch), a decommissioned government agent tending to his comatose son Kyle,

who hasn't come around since his cousin Shawn disappeared.

So Gretsch's character has that narratively convenient "personal stake" in

helping colleagues Peter Coyote and Jacqueline McKenzie figure out what

happened in the meantime to all these "returnees."

What makes "The 4400" percolate is the rawness of both the victims'

confusion and their confrontations with "normal" citizens eerily freaked out by

the peculiarity of the situation. Having bonded during a six- week

"quarantine," the returnees turn to each other for understanding, while society

seems poised to turn on them as the latest "alarming" minority group.

Director Yves Simoneau doesn't hammer home any of this, but gives his fine

cast room to explore anguish, mystification and fury at the fix they find

themselves in. Their sense of being shut out is palpable. But so is the

arm's-length reticence of citizens who don't know what to make of the

returnees' oddities. That apprehension crystallizes in an 8-year-old girl

(Conchita Campbell) whose plight is first heartbreaking, then creepy, as this

uncannily serene kid starts uttering prescient statements.

Producer-writers Ira Behr, Ren� Echevarria and Scott Petersdrop enough

other crumbs of interest in this two-hour pilot to make us eager to taste what

they've concocted for the next four weeks. And possibly longer.

"Stargate Atlantis" (premiering Friday at 9 p.m. on Sci Fi, then Fridays at

10 p.m.) unfortunately sticks closer to TV's sci-fi status quo. Similar to the

Sci Fi "SG-1" series from which it's spun, there's a multinational

military-science crew working with a wormhole- like Stargate transporting them

to faraway galaxies filled with evildoing baddies and friendly societies ...

(I'm dozing already.)

At first glance in the two-hour pilot, none of the actors comes close to

the robust presence of "SG-1" star Richard Dean Anderson (who makes a cameo),

while the show relies on the technology and special effects that can send

noncultists fleeing. (Good luck trying to fathom the setup, too, if you're not

already "Stargate"-versed.)

Where "The 4400" tries to stretch the form, "Atlantis" embraces all the

hierarchy conflict and "comic" relief, all the planet-hopping shuttlecraft and

monster-ish alien creatures. It's comic-book fun for those seeking action in

primary colors, while "The 4400" taps into the shades of gray permeating our

own contemporary world.

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