The CW’s mining of its past continues with Roswell, New Mexico, another reboot of a classic-era WB show, following this past fall’s surprisingly enjoyable new take on Charmed.
Like Charmed, Roswell revives a late ’90s/early ’00s supernatural drama that defined the style of The WB, adding a very 2018 political sensibility to the story while retaining the basic premise. But what mostly worked for Charmed is less successful with Roswell, which lacks the former’s sharp writing and charismatic characters. The political references are also clumsy and either largely irrelevant or way too obvious (connecting a show about literal aliens to the issue of “illegal aliens”), never properly integrated into the plot or character development.
Based on a young adult book series by Melinda Metz titled Roswell High, the original Roswell show featured teenage main characters, while this version ages them up to their late 20s (they attend their tenth high school reunion in the first episode). Here, Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason) has spent the last decade away from her hometown of Roswell, New Mexico, pursuing a career in biomedical engineering and trying to forget about her crush on former classmate Max Evans (Nathan Parsons).
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When Liz returns to town to visit her father (owner of the alien-themed Crashdown Café) and to attend the reunion, she reconnects with Max and discovers a big secret about him: He, his sister Isobel (Lily Cowles) and their close friend Michael (Michael Vlamis) are all aliens, who arrived on Earth in the infamous 1947 UFO crash at Roswell and remained in stasis for 50 years, after which they emerged with no memory of who they are or where they came from. They all have special abilities, including Max’s power to heal people, which he uses on Liz after she’s hit by a bullet from a racist local who shoots up the café (since Liz’s father is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico).
The characterizations of the town residents who yell at Liz and her family to go back to Mexico are pretty broad and obvious, as is the contrast between the harassed Ortechos and the true aliens, who look like all-American white people and are seen as part of the town’s establishment (Max is a sheriff’s deputy, and Isobel hosts fundraisers for veterans). The three episodes available for review feature references to the border wall, sanctuary cities, Space Force and Paul Ryan, and the pilot opens with Liz angrily producing her passport at what she believes is an ICE checkpoint.
Roswell isn’t really about any important social issues, though; it’s all about cheesy romance, starting with the love triangle among Liz, Max and their fellow former classmate Kyle Valenti (Michael Trevino), who’s now a doctor with an obvious romantic interest in Liz. He’s also the son of the town sheriff and a potential informant for a sinister military agency attempting to track down the aliens from the crash. That’s too much of a burden for the bland, handsome Trevino to carry, and the rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better with the poorly written dialogue and cardboard characterization. The central love triangle eventually expands into a quadrangle, and Isobel and Michael get their own romantic entanglements, too, although their subplots are always secondary to the tiresome Liz/Max angst.
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“My feelings are real, not some sci-fi side effect,” Liz insists to Max, but more sci-fi side effects might make the show more interesting. Instead, there’s a generic government conspiracy, some low-rent special effects when the aliens use their powers, and an ongoing storyline about what really happened when Liz’s older sister, Rosa, died 10 years earlier. The Rosa mystery provides the source for plenty of conflict between Liz and Max, and it also gives the show an excuse to engage in lots of shameless ’90s nostalgia, which is likely to appeal to viewers who were fans of the original show, but doesn’t really make sense for characters who are meant to have graduated from high school in 2008.
Episodes are titled after hit ’90s songs, a band at the bar where the townies hang out plays covers by Third Eye Blind and the Spin Doctors, and Liz follows clues from a ’90s mix CD that Rosa left hidden for her. At least Rosa’s bookshelf prominently displays the Twilight series, a slightly more period-appropriate pop-culture reference, and one that reflects the overwrought emotional dynamic among Liz, Max and Alex.
Although the central duo is pretty dull, there are occasional sparks of life from the supporting characters. Cowles brings a refreshing snarky quality to the delightfully catty Isobel (“You’re out here playing alien autopsy?” is her best dig at Max and Liz’s relationship), and Heather Hemmens does what she can with the thankless role of Liz’s best friend Maria, who tends bar and reads palms and mostly serves as an exposition machine for delivering back story and moving the plot forward.
The plot does move forward pretty significantly in the first three episodes, at least, and if the creators can bring in some more intriguing sci-fi ideas to balance out the silly soap operatics and forced topical references, they might be able to build something more than a rote brand extension of a show that wasn’t even that popular in the first place.