TV

With ‘Roswell, New Mexico,’ Come For The ‘90s Tunes, Not So Much The Star-Crossed Romance


Lewis Jacobs/The CW

“Leave the past in the past. There’s nothing we can do to change it.”

Back in 2014, The CW had a very short-lived series about humans, aliens, and their romance in the face of real-world issues depicted through extended metaphors about otherness (in this case, integration) called Star-Crossed. The title was of course a play on words, because the main characters — played by Friday Night Lights’ Aimee Teegarden and Timeless’ Matt Lanter, with the latter being fresh off The CW’s 90210 and way past the even somewhat convincing teenage casting point, despite being cast as 16-year-old alien — were star-crossed lovers (a la Romeo and Juliet), only literally, because she was a human and he was an alien (aka from the stars). Star-Crossed had abysmal ratings, even for The CW, and perhaps it should have been a sign that the idea of a human/alien romance in the face of real-world issues depicted through extended metaphors about otherness had run its course.

Roswell, New Mexico, however, seems to have missed that sign.

In Roswell, New Mexico’s defense, the “original” series — as both are based on the Roswell High book series, so this is technically not a reboot of the ‘90s WB/UPN series — was the one that introduced the whole “human, aliens, romance…extended metaphors…otherness” story to The CW (nee WB… and then also nee UPN) set in the first place, so arguably, this series should technically have carte blanche to do that all over again. It’s the whole reason you adapt Roswell High, after all, right? However, while Roswell, New Mexico is aware of the reality of the situation with the political climate and the real world discussion of what an “alien” is (especially an “illegal” one) — that’s where the extended metaphor about otherness comes in this time around — and has that as an integral part of the series, it lacks self-awareness on a lot of other fronts. Specifically, the even more integral star-crossed lover part of it all between human scientist Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason) and alien cop Max Evans (Nathan Parsons).

Besides the post-2016 presidential election reality this series dwells in, Roswell, New Mexico pleads the case for its existence with the fact that its an “adult” story, taking place 10 years after Liz, Max, and their contemporaries graduated from New Roswell High School. For one reason or another, they’ve all ended up either stuck in Roswell or drawn back to it, despite the fact that, just based on the sample size the audience has of the regular characters, pretty much every student in the Class of 2009 must have been both the valedictorian and “Most Likely To Succeed.” Seriously, even the screw-up of the group, Michael Guerin (Michael Vlamis) — one of the Roswell alien trio — is partially defined by the fact he’s a certified genius and was always considered such back in school. However, when it comes to a character who didn’t fit that particular mold — Liz’s dead old sister Rosa (Amber Midthunder), the center of a mystery that keeps Liz in town — the Roswell townsfolk couldn’t make it any more clear how much they hated her. Yes, there are larger reasons at work for that, but it’s still a component.

But while everyone apparently lives in the real world when it comes to racism, the fear of deportation, and homophobia (part of the other star-crossed romance in this series, which is, unfortunately, not much more interesting), Roswell, New Mexico throws that all out the window when it comes to telling Liz and Max’s “love” story. Because the series decides to dwell on the facet of star-crossed lover stories that everyone all pretty much agreed years ago (call it “The Twilight Factor, if you will) was toxic, anything but romantic, and honestly, just tired: the stoic male love interest who just has to “protect” the female love interest, no matter what. And in this scenario, “protect” is code for “stalk.”

Since Roswell, New Mexico skips over the whole high school thing, it also technically skips having something — literally anything — that would perhaps make the whole Max/Liz “romance” even a fraction more palatable. Although, his behavior would still be unhealthy regardless. Instead of Max and Liz being high school sweethearts, Roswell, New Mexico goes with the story that they never even dated; they were lab partners, and while Liz was dating Kyle Valenti (Michael Trevino) on and off, Max was always just around, staring at her. In fact, Kyle later says that, in high school, Max was always staring at Liz “like [she was] some kind of an alien life form.” Without spoiling too much, there’s no beat for anyone to at least take in the irony of that line. Based on what happens up to that point, there should be a beat for anyone to at least take in the irony of that line. So now, 10 years later when she comes back to Roswell — and she’s supposed to just be passing through — the staring is back on. Because he’s in love with her and always has been, and that’s certainly enough to fuel a love story instead of being called out for the very sad, very pathetic, very stuck in the past thing it is.

Actually, to be fair, it is called out… by Max’s twin sister Isobel (Lily Cowles) and Michael, who are also considered to be on the wrong side of the argument when they do this since they are very much opposed to all things Max/Liz and the very idea of Max telling Liz all their alien secrets.

Besides just the general problem with this kind of love story, Max’s obsession with Liz just isn’t as cute at nearly-30-years-old as it is in teen form. And to be fair, by the third season premiere of Roswell — with the Bonnie and Clyde component — said obsession had already long stopped being cute for the teenage versions too. When the series shows memories Max has of their time together when they were younger, it’s all from the perspective at him lurking, gazing at her. And while Liz struggles with whether she can actually trust Max or not, that struggle ultimately doesn’t matter, because it all comes with the ultimate realization that she’s going to end up with him anyway. The feeling of dread that comes with the second episode and the realization that the show has to provide some reason for Liz to stay in this town she hates so much — as when the series begins, she’s just passing through town on the way to San Diego for work — probably isn’t how a love story should go.

In fact, the human villain of the series has the aptest real-world comparison when it comes to Max’s existence when he describes the type of terrorist who people would, after the fact, say “was such a nice guy” (not to be confused with a Nice Guy) who kept to himself. Not only does that describe Max 100%, but the series also doesn’t do anything to subvert the idea that he’s a ticking time bomb. There’s the suggestion that since Liz has come back — specifically since Max has brought Liz back from the dead after she is shot, which is the catalyst of the entire Roswell franchise — he’s not been quite himself, filled with a rage he’s never felt before. But that’s new, and his decades-long obsession with Liz is not.

And if the real world extended metaphor about “aliens” and immigration is one of the better concepts of the show — at least one that justifies the series’ existence — then it’s no surprise that the Max character comes with one of the worst. That would be when the character compares himself to a Christ-like figure, officially pushing his savior complex (which, again, features him lurking a lot) over the edge: “I read a lot of religious texts. Like, all of them. The stories don’t generally end well for guys like me. Men who work miracles with their hands tend to die bloody.” The first three episodes of Roswell, New Mexico do nothing to actually endear the character to anyone looking for something other than an earnest version of the conflicted, obsessive romantic leading man. (In fact, You is currently a hit for Netflix, and it openly mocks this entire characterization. And “conflicted” is key, because if there’s one emotion — and one emotion only — Nathan Parsons has down as Max, it’s that.)

It bears repeating, there’s nothing inherently wrong with television reboots, and a show like Roswell is one that could actually use the do-over, fixing the mistakes the original series made and reaching the potential it never quite did. (In the first three episodes, there is absolutely no sign of Snapple, which is good.) Of course, series showrunner Carina Adly MacKenzie has been adamant that this isn’t so much a reboot of that series as it is another adaptation of the book series, which is understandable. And now is also the perfect time for a story like this — in terms of the extended metaphor — to be told. In terms of casting, while nothing on that front could fix the Max character as he is written, this show at least deserves praise for Jeanine Mason’s casting as the other lead role, especially as she is the one who truly has to carry the weight of the real world struggles that this show tackles. Although, one of life’s cruelest jokes comes in the form of this series having her actually dance in the pilot, only in the goofiest way possible. (And Jeanine Mason knows a thing or two about dancing.)

It’s difficult not to compare the cast of this series to the cast of the WB/UPN series at times, especially when someone like Tyler Blackburn has to play the Alex character (originally played by Colin Hanks) as humorless and sad as he does. Humorless and sad is the baseline for a lot of Roswell, New Mexico, actually, which fits in with Max’s entire persona, but doesn’t exactly pop. Say what you will about Jason Behr’s performance in Roswell, but his Max’s awkward behavior made sense as an alien who is also in his awkward teenage years. Parsons’ Max is just conflicted and gruff. However, the case of casting in terms of new versus old that is truly distracting comes in the form of Lily Cowles as Isobel, because every scene she’s in switches back and forth between her possibly channeling Katherine Heigl’s version of Isabel (yes, note the minor name change) and her channeling her real-life mother, Christine Baranski. Both of those are actually recipes for a good performance in this particular case, but it’s also extremely distracting.

Really, as much as Roswell, New Mexico doesn’t want to be compared to Roswell, there’s no getting around it. Yes, they’re both based on the same source material, but Roswell, New Mexico also intentionally intends to draw on the spirit of Roswell, both to pay homage and honestly cheat to evoke some of the same emotions. Again, while the Max/Liz relationship doesn’t work here — at least not in the first three episodes — it’s apparent the show kind of hopes the general appreciation of their relationship from Roswell bleeds in to help out. There’s a heavy ‘90s era influence in the series, whether it’s the episode titles (the second and third episodes are titled “So Much For The Afterglow” and “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” respectively), the ‘90s songs (as well as cover version of said ‘90s songs) in the episode themselves, and even a ‘90s mix CD that ends up playing an important role in the plot.

On the plus side, for any WB aficionado who wishes the soundtracks on CW shows today were half as memorable as they were back then (or even during the early years of The CW, really), then Roswell, New Mexico has the cheat code of providing a WB-esque soundtrack to feed your hunger. In fact, Roswell, New Mexico does something that perhaps no other television show in 2019 will do, which is have a Third Eye Blind song — and one specifically for Third Eye Blind fans, “God of Wine” — function as not just a music cue but an integral plot point in one of its episodes.

On the other hand — and really this is more of a warning — at no point in the first three episodes does any music by Dido play, which either means the show is ramping up to have Dido perform live at on the show (she does have a new album to promote) or there needs to be a third crack at a Roswell television series to officially right this wrong.

‘Roswell, New Mexico’ premieres Tuesday, January 15th, at 9 pm ET on The CW.

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