How many TV shows can produce an audible “Whoa!” or “Holy shit!” at least once an episode? Not many. But USA Network’s The 4400 — about the delicate and tense attempts of formerly missing or presumed-dead abductees to reintegrate into the world — is one of them. This gathering-storm knockout of a sci-fi series heads into its third season Sunday, and if you aren’t caught up, there’s an hour-long “Unlocking the Secrets” recap special floating out there in cableland and on the USA Web site. Even better, you can lock the door, settle in and bone up on the DVDs for seasons one and two. It’ll take about 15 hours, but hey, summer’s starting — you should have time for a marathon, right? The sun’s not going anywhere, as Al Gore keeps reminding us.

I’ll do my best not to give too much away, but the basic premise is that after 60 years of random disappearances around the globe, a magnificent ball of light deposits the missing — all 4,400 of them — by a lake near Mount Rainier. None has aged. During a brief post-return quarantine, they are logged in to a database at the National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC); when they are released, two agents named Tom Baldwin (Joel Gretsch) and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie) are put in charge of monitoring cases involving the 4400. Some of these involve violence, because when the returnees start exhibiting extraordinary powers — telepathy, telekinesis, healing powers, untapped mental ability — a skittish populace becomes wary of their familiar-looking but newly strange cohabitants, who go through identity conflicts and roiling emotions of their own.

There’s African-American Korean War vet Richard Tyler (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), taken in 1951, who has been trying to live peacefully with his 4400 wife Lily and their infant daughter Isabelle. But word is that Isabelle is a key to the 4400’s grand purpose (and now she mysteriously isn’t so little anymore). Then there’s teen abductee Shawn Farrell (Patrick Flueger), Baldwin’s nephew, whose peer ostracization in high school led him into the warm embrace of the 4400 Center, a beaming, Scientology-like temple to self-actualization — and cult-building and fund-raising and secrecy — that was intended to give returnees a support system and “normal” enrollees a sell-job on tapping into their own special capabilities. Shawn, though, can actually heal people, and after last season’s shocking exit of 4400 Center founder Jordan Collier (Billy Campbell) — a smooth-talking real estate mogul who aimed to keep the 4400 tied together as a potent community — he took over the reins of the organization.

The struggle of individuals to effect positive change within larger, more unwieldy contingents is a big theme of The 4400, and thankfully, the representation of both the government and the returnees rarely falls into monolithical good group/bad group roles. Although Baldwin and Skouris are smart, caring, 4400-friendly Homeland Security employees (both now live with 4400s, Baldwin in a romance with an alternate-reality creator played by Karina Lombard, Skouris as parent to an adopted fortunetelling child), their characters’ superiors — led by Peter Coyote’s gruff NTAC boss Dennis Ryland — are methodically and secretly trying to medically remove the biological element responsible for uncorking the 4400’s enhanced abilities. When their scheme, which nearly wipes out the returnees, comes to light — thanks in part to our intrepid agent duo, who would so have been fired in real life — it spurs the 4400 Center to fund its own defensive arm, called the Nova Group. But this radical offshoot’s chilling actions in the new season opener threaten to have equally disturbing consequences for the image of the returnees. As one mind-reading 4400 who’s been recruited to work for NTAC says to Baldwin and Skouris, with not a little relish, “You’re the bad guys now. Get used to it.” Until the pendulum shifts again, of course. Instead of a race to help each group allay the other’s fears, the worry is now a fanning of suspicions.

The pingponging of viewer loyalties, it turns out — helped by the empathy we easily feel for key characters in both camps — is one of the best things about the show. It lends The 4400 a flexibility and unpredictability of theme, and keeps it from getting stale in the way the bottomless conspiracy mythos on The X-Files bogged down until eventually the series was itself a cold case: old, tired and unwanted. Since the whole narrative engine of The 4400 hinges on the difficulty of determining humankind’s evolution and the returnees’ place in it — despite a reveal early in the series that their supposed mission is to save humanity from a wretched future (hey, it could be a trick) — the writers have wide latitude to touch on anything and everything that affects society’s progress, which puts it firmly in the ranks of great science fiction (and, unapologetically, great soap opera). In much the way a crime drama like The Wire has taken each of its seasons to explore different corners of city life — street crime, dying industry, reform — there’s the sense that The 4400 enjoys burrowing into the various ways civilization treats groups it doesn’t understand. By turns, the show has been an immigrant saga, a story of how religions are formed, an examination of prejudice and, by the looks of the new season, a metaphor for our terrorism-minded age.

Most satisfyingly, it’s the rare sci-fi show that is courageous enough to admit that its interest in the future is marked by a mixture of wonder, concern and bewilderment. That doesn’t mean it’s slapdash about where its fantastic tale is going. In fact, at times it feels like the most rigorously plotted and well-conceived continuing story on the tube. (It’s dazzling how story arcs lean one way then veer the other, without losing emotional threads.) I believe co-creator/executive producer Scott Peters and the writers want to keep The 4400 from becoming an enigmatic morass like Twin Peaks or long stretches of Lost, but they’re not so interested in tidiness, either. This excellent, hard-charging but sensitively drawn series has the right prickly attitude toward notions of destiny: Do you work at it, or let it happen? What constitutes a legitimate threat to our well-being? What kind of world is most appealing to us? And, perhaps most trenchantly, what happens when something looks like good and like evil?

Save This Show

TNT’s new series Saved is about paramedics, but it feels like it needs its own ambulance call, and I’m not sure there are any emergency procedures that could breathe life into it. The wonderful actor Tom Everett Scott has a stubbly charm playing a roguish, underachieving EMT with gambling debts and a rich doctor daddy pissed at him for avoiding medical school. But it seems like too little too late now that House and Rescue Me have cornered the market on cranky, acerbic, self-destructive life savers. After one hour of forced camaraderie, forced edginess and forced pathos, it could barely muster the energy to distinguish itself, although the show boasts one style device I found both intriguing and worrying. Each patient Scott’s character comes across is given a seconds-long whiplash-edited back story comprised of flash pictures of the life that led to this crisis moment — Happy! Unhappy! Bottle! Alcoholic! Collapse! — and while one could argue it zippily approximates a real paramedic’s snap judgment as to how somebody got to be out cold on the floor, it also felt sadly indicative of where storytelling is headed: all high and low points, none of the shading that colors in the real picture. It’s in those moments where a series can set itself apart.?

THE 4400 | USA Network | Sundays, 9 p.m.

SAVED | TNT | Mondays, 10 p.m.

LA Weekly