It’s one of television’s more sinister phenomena. First, Julianna Margulies, after six straight Emmy nominations (including one win) for her fraught portrayal of Nurse Hathaway on ER, disappeared from the series and down our memory hole. Likewise a vanishing act was Dylan McDermott, perhaps as a punishment for overacting in his last two seasons on The Practice. Nor are they the only ones to enter prime-time television’s witness-protection program and then emerge, like laundered money, a season or two later with a different name, another job, worse writers, and a shamefaced look. Tom Skerritt (Picket Fences), Robert Forster (Karen Sisco), and Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings) also show up in The Grid (Mondays, starting July 19; 9 to 11 p.m.; TNT), a limited series during the pilot of which terrorists with time bombs and sarin gas wipe out a London hotel and a Lagos nightclub, while counterterrorists squabble about jurisdiction, seniority, family jewels, and agency perks.
You can tell the bad guys—Alki David as an Al Qaeda member, Barna Moricz as a Chechen sleeper—because they smoke cigarettes. Whereas Julianna drinks red wine and says things like, “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your mission is to drain the swamp.” (Who knows what she means?) And Dylan snarls a lot because, for Dylan, it’s personal. His best friend died in the World Trade Center attack and he has moved in with the widow. Scariest of all: the possibility that maybe our real counterterrorists are just as hapless at their jobs as the celebrity zombies in The Grid. Even the freshest face in the series, Jemma Redgrave (yes, one of those Redgraves), is so condescending as the director of operations for MI6 that you want to drop her from a Colonel Blimp.
If we have to spend yet another summer in the twilight zone of alien abduction, it might as well have the intriguing twist of The 4400 (Sundays; 9 to 11 p.m.; USA), a new cable series in which, all of a sudden outside surprising Seattle, five decades of the missing stumble out of a ball of light into stupefied television cameras, remembering nothing, but oddly gifted. (Michael Moriarty, for instance, can collapse buildings and kill people with a temper tantrum, while Patrick Flueger heals a broken bird.) It’s up to such federal agents as Peter Coyote, Joel Gretsch, and Jacqueline McKenzie to decide what to do about these refugees, and what they may be unconsciously up to as they try to adjust to compassionate conservatism, after the American Civil Liberties Union springs them from quarantine. As in the Spielberg sci-fi mini-series Taken, with the stunning Dakota Fanning, The 4400 also features a little girl (Conchita Campbell) with the resonant name of Maia, another creepy psychic somehow necessary to the aliens’ plan to complete themselves, as if they were a double-crostic. And one hapless teen (Patrick Flueger) has escaped the sperm-suckers only to land right back in high school, which seems worse. But strangest of all, Securing the Homeland is Peter Coyote with his trademark hound-dog look, trashier than thou. Some of us remember when he used to be subversive.
If you were paying attention the other night to the start of yet another Stargate SG-1 season (Fridays; 9 to 10 p.m.; SciFi), you already know that the producers were smart enough to sense our fatigue. Since Mother Earth has to keep on jumping through the same old hoops—wormholes to alternative worlds—to fend off the parasitic Goa’uld, with or without the help of the polliwoggy Asgard, a creative reshuffle is urgently required. So, in the original series, Jack (Richard Dean Anderson) has been elevated to desk command, Teal’c (Christopher Judge) has grown hair on his Michael Jordan head, and Samantha (Amanda Tapping) assumes control of the Away Team, which means that the blonde astrophysicist will go head-to-head with Anubis, Cronus, and the Replicators, one of whom already looks exactly like her, only nude.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe an hour later, we have Stargate Atlantis (Fridays, starting July 16; 9 to 11 p.m.; SciFi), with a whole new team stranded underwater, on a unknown planet in a faraway galaxy, in one of the lost cities the Ancients built to hide out from enemies worse than the Goa’uld. We meet these enemies, the Wraith, and glub to a surface where indigenous peoples nomad about like Red Indians in a novel by Chateaubriand, and learn to admire the drop-dead gorgeous Dr. Elizabeth Weir (Torri Higginson, who was equally gorgeous in the short-lived but semi-smart sci-fi series TekWar). Stargate Atlantis gets a new cosmology, another Samantha, and my gratitude.