Roswell, New Mexico, the CW.I watched the first season of the CW’s Roswell, New Mexico, and I have Thoughts. I’m a sucker for “aliens among us” stories, so this reboot of the tale was a natural for me. Am I embarrassed to admit that I sometimes watch the CW? I’m not. I’m not their demo, but I know a few people in my age group who watch it too. It’s like we’re aliens hiding in plain sight among their viewership.
In 1999, the CW tried a show called Roswell, based on the YA series ROSWELL HIGH by Melinda Metz. It was squarely aimed at teens, and while bad things happened, the show was not overly dark. Roswell, New Mexico is designed for twenty-somethings, and it is darker and edgier. (I think the CW is trying to incorporate “edgy” into its brand.)
Roswell, New Mexico picks up ten years after the ROSWELL HIGH books. Max and Isobel Evans were adopted and raised as brother and sister, while Michael Guerin drifted from foster home to foster home. The three of them are space aliens, who existed in stasis pods in a cave since the 1947 UFO crash in Roswell until the 1990s. All three of them have stayed in Roswell. All three have unusual powers. Max is a sheriff’s deputy, Isobel, a high-school mean girl turned socialite, and Michael is the town’s designated shady character and copper thief. Max and Isobel are desperate to be “normal,” (by that they mean human) while Michael, far less enamored of humanity, follows clues to uncover their exo-origins.
For the record, Max can channel electricity, and do some other things; Isobel is a “psychic” who can manipulate people, and Michael is telekinetic and generally has a bad attitude.
Liz Ortecho, Max’s crush in high school, returns to Roswell. Liz is a scientist with three degrees. We don’t know in what but I would guess biology with a concentration in genetics. Her father is an undocumented immigrant who runs a successful diner in town. The New Mexico town seethes with prejudice, white supremacy and anti-immigrant sentiment, and Liz’s return coincides with the ten-year anniversary of her sister’s, Rosa’s, death. Rosa, who had been a drug-addict, died in a single car accident and she was driving. Two other girls died in the car with her, and the town blames the Ortechos. When Max and Liz meet after closing at the diner, rekindling their high school romance, a white supremacist shoots out the diner’s window, killing Liz. Max uses his powers to bring her back to life, leaving a glowing handprint on her chest.
Nothing says “complicated relationship” like a glowing handprint on your skin.
Eventually, Max confesses to Liz about his origin, outing Michael and Isobel at the same time. There is a problem because Liz’s old high school boyfriend Kyle, who is now a doctor, shares secret information about Rosa’s death, and it becomes clear that she was murdered and there was a cover-up. Rosa’s body also had a handprint. An alien killed her. Was it one of our three? Who can Liz trust?
Two other high-school friends, Maria and Alex, also factor in. Maria so far is little more than Liz’s bestie, but Alex, a decorated Marine with a prosthetic leg, has a steamy history with Michael and is back in town, ready to start things up again. Alex’s father, Jesse Manes, is a military man, still running a top-secret project that involves the 1947 crash. He talks about aliens as if he knows them, and he has nothing good to say. Manes dismisses his smart, brave son because he is gay. He goes around town blackmailing and extorting citizens to spy for him, because he’s sure there are aliens about. He may be paranoid, but he is not wrong.
Unlike Orphan Black, The Expanse or The Magicians, Roswell, New Mexico is not overly interested in putting social problems front and center, about exploring uses and abuses of power, giving a critique of inequity, or the Other. The channel’s brand is still mostly Pretty Young People, Intense Looks and Angsty Romances. Without threatening to dent that brand, though, Roswell, New Mexico does address anti-immigrant sentiment and homophobia in direct ways as well as symbolic ones. Michael and Alex, for instance, get to have just as angsty a romance as Liz and Max have. The camera gives the male actors equal time and it doesn’t shy away from the prosthetic. And Michael, the anti-human one of the trio, surprisingly has the greatest clarity on human sexuality. Max, who knew about Michael and Alex, reacts with confusion when he finds out that Michael also had sex with Maria. For Max, it’s like Michael doesn’t fit into a single neat category anymore. Michael tells him, “We’re aliens. I’m bisexual. Get over it.”
I appreciate that Alex uses a prosthetic; I think the show does sometimes forgets that he has one, when he climbs down a ladder into a fallout shelter in a completely symmetrical manner, for instance. I also don’t think the show is clear about the status of Rosa or Liz; are they DREAMers, or US-born citizens? It seems like Liz, at least, must have been born here, but the show’s never said that.
The showrunners are comfortable creating strong women characters and tackling sexism. When Max encourages his female partner to engage in a shooting contest with someone they are questioning, she wins handily. Later, she basically tells Max, “You had me do it so he would lose to a girl. Don’t do that again.”
My favorite character is Liz. She is an analytical scientist, a loyal, loving daughter, a wounded woman who can’t maintain a relationship. She’s smart and a planner, but she is also impulsive, especially when she senses an injustice. In her quest to find answers to Rosa’s death, she faces down potentially deadly aliens without blinking, but she’s uncomfortable confronting her very conventional father, even when it’s about his health issues or pursuing a path to citizenship.
My second favorite is Michael, mainly because his function, as the trouble-maker and naysayer, lets him say and do things that drive the plot. Maria, who was interesting in the books, has not, by the end of Season One, evolved beyond being the Snarky, Sexy Best Friend.
It’s not clear how big the show thinks its fictional version of Roswell is. It might be a town of 30 or 40 thousand people… or it might have a total of six families. It’s hard to tell. I’m not really one to complain about inconsistent municipal areas on fantasy TV though, because I remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s hometown of Sunnydale, an L.A. suburb that had (as needed): 1) a network of subterranean passages, 2) a factory sector, 3) a deep-water harbor and waterfront, 4) a University of California campus and 5) a “big honkin castle.”
It’s harder to justify the “update” of the alien kids’ intoxicant of choice from tabasco sauce to nail polish remover. Their ability to tolerate lots of nail polish remover shifts them farther and farther from “human” and makes the shapes they wear even more questionable and unlikely. When Isobel’s husband Noah busts her for drinking it, he doesn’t say, “My God, you’re drinking poison!” Instead he equates it to an alcoholic chugging vanilla extract. There may be a plot point for this reaction but it looks like sloppy writing, and an unnecessary update, especially since they eat, and extract nutrition from, regular USA human food. And buying gross lots of nail polish remover would probably excite the town’s curiosity, a thing the kids say repeatedly they don’t want to do.
By the end of Season One, the mystery of Rosa’s death has been solved, we viewers discover that there were other aliens who survived the crash, and it suddenly seems as if our visitors may, in fact, be deadly to us after all. Why were those other survivors different from Max, Michael and Isobel? What are the consequences of the experiments the military on those extra-terrestrial survivors? Will Maria get to develop as a character? There’s plenty here to make me hope for an engaging Season Two.