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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

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Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

The 4400 (*) by Scott Peters and Rene Echevarria
The 4400 Totally predictable. Not only is the plot predictable, not only are the characters predictable, even at the level of camera angles and music, it is easy to know exactly what is going to happen next -- pastoral music, tracking shot, close-up, ominous music, overhead shot, close-up. Evidently a lot of people like their SF totally predictable. The 4400 had the best ratings ever for USA Network, while Stephen King's strange and marvelous Kingdom Hospital was the least watched show on any major network.

Of course, we're comparing tuna and tacos. The seven million viewers who watched The 4400 is a lot for the USA Network, but nothing for a major network. NBC's Boomtown had seven million viewers -- and was number 97 in the network rankings. Kingdom Hospital averaged more than seven million viewers in its earlier episodes, and ABC effectively killed it by taking it off the air for several weeks. The short lived CBS sci-fi-lawyers series Century City had almost eight million viewers and was quickly cancelled.

But in the minors, seven million viewers is a lot. The most popular show I watch, Smallville on WB, has only five million viewers. Stargate SG-1, on Sci Fi, is considered a hit with 3 million viewers, while Star Trek Enterprise, on UPN, is considered a flop with 3 million viewers. Why?

Because UPN is a network, and Sci Fi is a cable channel. Also, because UPN wants to move up into the majors. UPN broadcasts America's Next Top Model which, with 6 million viewers, is the most watched show outside the big four networks. Star Trek, also on UPN, needs to find about a million more viewers if it is to survive another full season.

Back to The 4400. Aliens kidnap and then return 4400 people from all over the world. The people look as if they were chosen at random from prime time television shows. You have your cute kid, your troubled teen, your pretty girl, your good-looking Black man, and your businessman. In the background, you catch a glimpse of a token Native American. Almost everybody the aliens kidnapped is young, white, and good looking. Everybody speaks English.

Nobody, as far as I noticed, is overweight. That's what people look like on television. Now, picture your average street scene in New York City, and you get an idea how homogenized the 4400 are. And the last cab driver you got into a conversation with was more interesting.

Imagine what The 4400 would have been like if the aliens had chosen a random sample of human beings. About 900 of them would have been Chinese, about 800 would have been from India, and about 600 from Africa. Only about 300 would have been from the United States. Of those 300, there would be about 60 children and 50 people over 65. Of course, there is nothing in the program to suggest that the aliens chose people at random. But the show might have been more interesting if they had.

As if to acknowledge that The 4400 was done by the numbers, there are no front credits, only closing credits. Echevarria, at least, could have written a better script -- but any attempt at originality would probably have hurt the ratings.

Copyright © 2004 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.

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