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A TOTALLY COOL 'THE 4400' BLAZES A PATH TO TV GLORY

"The coolest show on TV" declared the estimable headline hypemeisters of TV Guide about the FX network's "Nip/Tuck." I beg to differ. It's the something-est show on TV, that's for sure (no contest, there.) But it's not the coolest. That distinction now belongs to the miniseries that premiered on the USA network last Sunday "The 4400."

It's from the kitchens of Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope productions, which means that television has now become a more-than-acceptable dabble for filmworld big shots (remember "Taken," the relative of "The 4400," which came with Steven Spielberg's name on the label as executive producer.)

We're getting the high-power TV summer that was promised after all. With "Nip/Tuck" and "The 4400" and the return of "Monk," we've got two TV shows that are certifiably terrific and one that's still eminently watchable.

It was like this in the two-hour pilot of "The 4400" last Sunday:

A child, in 1946, asks her parents if she can go play in the rain. They say yes. She does. A sudden overhead light floods her along with the rain. She looks up. ZAP! She's gone.

Cut. It's 1951. A black soldier in the Army is beaten up by his fellow soldiers for being in love with a white woman and mooning over a photo-machine string of pictures of the two of them. White overhead light, zap, all that.

All sorts of people in different decades disappear the same way -- an elderly businessman, a new mother, the rangy teenage son of an FBI investigator, 4400 of them in all. Gone. Goodbye.

One minute they're there. The next minute they're not.

Then, one day, there's a "Look! Up in the sky!" moment. A comet seems about to hit earth with massive impact. Every government with nukes and missiles sends them up at the comet. They all go boom and the comet doesn't deviate an inch from its course.

Which is to hover in a blaze of overhead light over a large lake in the Northwest and suddenly disperse an impenetrable mist.

When it clears, it's clear that the 4400 are back -- every last one of the souls who mysteriously disappeared over the decades since 1946. The saucer zaps back to where it came from and none of the 4400 are a day older than they were. No do they remember anything. To them, it's as if they were just zapped off to God-knows-where yesterday, no matter how many years ago.

Way cool. A little "X-Files," a little "Taken," more than a dash of the new USA remake of the Brits' "Touching Evil," a big, sloshing tub of "Twilight Zone" and a whole bunch of human possibilities, many of which were tantalizingly explored in the next two hours.

And, oh yes, some of them seem to have come back from the far suburbs of space and time with "strange new powers far beyond those of mortal men" -- clairvoyance, telekinesis, healing hands, you name it.

Please understand, I am ordinarily far from an easy sell when it comes to TV sci-fi.

In just one week, this thing has me hooked -- completely.

The first episode was directed by Yves Simoneau, one of the last directors to have the distinction of directing Marlon Brando (in the junky, virtually unreleased "Free Money"). It featured, of all people, Michael Moriarty, the deeply troubled self-admitted recovering alcoholic actor, as the old man. Moriarty's patented slow delivery has now been broken up so much by the ravages of a very tough life but just seeing that someone at American Zoetrope was able to bring him back from the Great Beyond of space and time, was enough to put me on the side of "The 4400" no matter what -- not that it needed extra inducement, believe me.

Meanwhile, on the increasingly amazing "Nip/Tuck" two episodes ago was the most remarkable prime-time investigation of female sexuality I've ever seen on TV. It centered on a beautiful model from Somalia where female genitalia are routinely mutilated as a rite of womanhood. After getting the show's gonzo plastic surgeons to restore her clitoris, the whole episode was, by turns, gynecological, erotic, psychological, dramatic and very funny -- especially as a mature woman finally screwed up the courage to throw her psychologist mother out of the house.

"Cool" was exactly what that episode of "Nip/Tuck" WASN'T.

For the time being, I'll stay with "remarkable" to be safe and accurate and leave "cool" to the next five episodes of "The 4400."

email: jsimon@buffnews.com