'Roswell' Reboot Will Explore Fear, Division and Bigotry

The CW drama's showrunner explains why it was important to ground the series' sci-fi elements in present-day reality.
Courtesy of Ursula Coyote/The CW
Jeanine Mason and Nathan Parsons on 'Roswell, New Mexico'

[This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of Roswell, New Mexico on The CW.]

The CW's new series Roswell, New Mexico is not a remake of the 1999 WB/UPN drama that starred Shiri Appleby as teenage heroine Liz Parker. Rather, it's an adaptation of Melinda Metz's original Roswell High book series, whose protagonist was a young Latina named Liz Ortecho.

This small but loaded change speaks volumes about the intent of the new show, which uses the premise of aliens living secretly in the Southwest to tell a startlingly resonant story about fear, division and bigotry in modern America.

Tuesday's premiere sees Liz (Jeanine Mason) return home to Roswell after a decade away, reconnect with her high school crush, Max (Nathan Parsons), and discover that he's secretly an alien who lives in constant fear of being exposed. The story of Max and fellow undercover aliens Isobel (Lily Cowles) and Michael (Michael Vlamis) plays out alongside Liz's struggles as the daughter of undocumented immigrant parents, weaving together two very different experiences of feeling like an outsider in a border state.

"I thought it wasn't the right project for me," showrunner Carina Adly MacKenzie tells The Hollywood Reporter of her initial reluctance to take on Roswell. "I had been on The Originals for the whole five-season run, and after that I really wanted to lean away from sci-fi and fantasy and do something with a political angle. I wanted a project that really said something."

Though Julie Plec — showrunner on The Originals and now an executive producer on Roswell, New Mexico – encouraged MacKenzie to go in and pitch nevertheless, neither expected The CW to bite.

"They're expecting this teen sci-fi thing, and I went in like: These characters are almost 30, their lives are really hard, the lead girl has a chip on her shoulder because she's tired of being marginalized in 2018, and also there's aliens! I didn't really think that was the way they'd want to go, but they did."

MacKenzie discusses Roswell's alien storyline as a metaphor for Islamophobia, how the romance between Michael and Alex (Tyler Blackburn) will sidestep harmful tropes and why the pilot's final moment is such a game-changer.

The show explores anti-immigrant bigotry as it exists in the real world, with ICE checkpoints and the threat of deportation, and also uses people's fear of aliens as a metaphor for that. How do those two things play into each other?

The real-world bigotry is something I fought for, because sci-fi is always a big metaphor for something, and I wanted to make sure that we were still honoring the reality of 2018. Because this is a reimagining of a 20-year-old property, I wanted to make sure there was a reason to retell the story. For me, the alien story is a metaphor for Islamophobia. There's very little positive representation of aliens — if you watch them in movies, they're blowing up the White House, so we had fun playing with that. It really creates a connection between Liz and Max, this sense of persecution and this sense of defensiveness. Max is lucky because he passes [as human], and for his entire life he has passed until he reveals who he really is to Liz.

I was raised Muslim, I went to Islamic school as a kid, but I'm blonde and blue-eyed, and I grew up in Connecticut, so I'm telling a story about how it feels when people don't know who you really are. We have a very diverse writers room, and I hired people who can speak to all kinds of experiences, but that's the angle of the show where I'm speaking to my experience, growing up with people around me talking about Muslim people and not really understanding that they were talking about me. I'm folding that experience and those feelings into Max's journey to discovering who he wants to be and what parts of himself he's proud of, and what parts of himself he's ashamed of.

Within the first 10 minutes of the premiere, there's a line about President Trump's border wall. Did you get any pushback from the network on overt political references like that?

Not on that line, but there's a Paul Ryan joke later in the season where Michael Trevino's character basically says, "If aliens are ruining the world, they're taking their sweet time — unless Paul Ryan is an alien." They did give me pushback about that, but I pushed back at them harder, so it stayed. I think the creative side of the network and the studio was very supportive of my vision, but the legal side is a little bit skittish about this stuff. The thing is, I'm a TV super-fan, so when they tell me I can't suggest that Paul Ryan's an alien, I fire back with "Well, on Supernatural they say Dick Cheney has a parking space in hell, so …"

There's been a few things that we haven't been able to do. We talk a lot about stem-cell research because Liz is a scientist, and there have been some places they've asked us not to go. We're shooting a scene for the finale that involves some gun control, and we're shooting it in a couple of different ways, because there's the way I want to do it and then there's the way the legal people want me to do it. It's par for the course, and my hope is that those things encourage discussion that people might not otherwise have.

Michael and Alex's history is ambiguous until their kiss at the end of the pilot. How will their relationship develop?

The Alex and Michael relationship is really important to me, because I feel a big responsibility to viewers to sort of make them feel safe. I know that LGBT audiences have felt burned a lot in the past, by the whole "bury your gays" trope. I wanted to tell a story that doesn't necessarily have a happy ending — I can't make any promises — but that certainly avoids stepping into tropes. Their relationship is very fraught, and it's going to be a really long journey for the two of them.

On that note, Alex is gay, Michael is bisexual, and we will be exploring Michael's relationships with women on the show too. I think there's a real lack of bisexual representation on TV, and I want to make sure that my show fills a gap that I'm seeing. It also felt like a good opportunity to explore having a gay relationship in a part of the country that's not New York or L.A. A part of the country where you're still facing very real and very loud hatred. That sort of small town, country, cowboy mentality was incongruous with the life that Alex planned on living, and that's the story that we're telling — a guy who fell into conforming to what he thought he was supposed to be, and can't sustain that because it's not his truth.

How does the sibling dynamic between Max, Isobel and Michael play out as the season goes on?

Max and Isobel grew up as siblings, and they refer to each other as twins even though they don't actually have any way to know if they actually are, and they were raised together as brother and sister. Michael was raised in foster care; he kind of raised himself and had a really traumatic and abusive childhood, whereas Max and Isobel were very safe and protected. Max and Isobel certainly consider Michael family, but he's not their sibling in the same sense, and he has some resentment about them calling him family because his experience was so different from theirs.

I really love that relationship between the three of them; it's deeply unhealthy and co-dependent, and we'll explore the root of Isobel's abandonment issues and her clinginess when it comes to Max and Michael. It's strange for a man to decide to stay in a town that he doesn't love because that's where his sister is. People should be allowed to grow up and move on, and move away without it feeling like an abandonment, but Max hasn't been able do that, and we'll dig into that later in the season.

Max refuses to kiss Liz in the pilot because there's an issue of consent — she's under the influence of his handprint, which makes her feel emotions that aren't her own. Why include that moment?

Yeah, I think Nathan and I were calling it a love roofie. I come from vampire world, and consent issues on supernatural shows often get blurry, and I wanted to make sure that the heroes on my show are heroes when it comes to issues that matter to me. Max certainly has a lot of flaws, but when it comes to issues of consent, issues of equality and tolerance, Max is a stand-up gentleman of a man, and will continue to be that way.

A lot of the music in the show has particular significance for the characters. How did you settle on "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" as the linchpin song for the pilot?

It's funny because that's one of my favorite Counting Crows songs, but when I initially reached out to them we asked for "Mr. Jones," because I felt it was a more recognizable song. Adam Duritz, the lead singer, was like, "I love the original Roswell, I'm down to give you guys whatever you need, and I will give you any other song. I'm so sick of Mr. Jones.'" It ended up working out beautifully because there's a lot of references to the desert in "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby," and there's a mention of a girl named Maria, and it just felt like the one we were supposed to have in the end. He gave us the song for incredibly cheap because we don't have a big music budget, and I have expensive tastes! I've had to write a lot of letters to lead singers just being like "Please?" But our music supervisor, Chris Mollere, is a magician, and he's really made magic this season with about five cents of a music budget.

Nostalgia is such a big textual part of the show, and the music choices seem to reflect that.

Yeah, the rule is that it's either '90s music or '90s covers, or it's a cool alt-country vibe. There used to be a line in the pilot where Liz said that the jukebox in the diner hasn't been updated since 1999, and even though the line fell out, we kept that sentiment. So whenever music is playing in the diner, it has to be before '99. It's actually funny because the characters were in high school in 2008, so the music is a little incongruous with that. But 2008 just feels recent to me. The music of that era still feels current to me, so going back to the ‘90s felt like it would evoke a sense of nostalgia.

The premiere's final moment suggests that Max may have been involved in the death of Liz's sister Rosa. What can you say about that twist and what it means going forward?

Here's what I'll say: When we were casting Max, I had real trouble finding the right guy to play this character. I wanted there to be an edge to him, and we were looking at a lot of guys who just had this purity of heart in the way they played him. At the time, in my head, Nathan Parsons was Michael. Nathan and I had talked about him playing Michael for so long — he was the first person to read the script, when it was still 80 pages long and really bad, because we were friends — but we needed one more person to audition for Max. I called Nathan and asked him to come in, like "You're not gonna get it, you're definitely Michael, but can you just do me this favor?"

It was hard for me to see him as Max, because Nathan comes with this sense that he's seen some shit, and there's a little bit of trouble to him. And after we cast him as Max, that final moment of the episode really shifted. There are other readings of that last line, "She can never know about Rosa," where he was sadder or more scared, and less dark, but after I saw the way that played we shifted the whole ending around so that it was the final beat of the show. So that we leave on the sense of, "Oh, fuck, did we just watch Liz fall in love with the bad guy?" We're really tightly weaving the mystery and the clues so that on the second watch of season one, you'll get way more than you got the first time.