'Roswell, New Mexico': TV Review

Not your mother's 'Roswell,' but not new-and-improved either.
1/15/2019

The CW updates 'Roswell' with older characters, some contemporary immigration flavor and a lot of very, very familiar star-crossed romance beats.

I'm generally allergic to most proposed reboots and remakes. But when The CW announced that it was doing a new take on the long-running WB/UPN young adult soap Roswell, the only part that piqued my attention was a plan to use the new series as more of an immigration commentary than the original series did.

As The CW's Roswell, New Mexico is set to premiere, my guess is that audience response to the series' fitfully immigration-heavy perspective will fall into two camps.

First: "Keep your politics out of my teen-friendly supernatural soaps!" This group of detractors will be frustrated that a series about aliens set in the American Southwest in 2019 would attempt to connect that extreme circumstance to what is actually happening at the border in 2019. Leaving aside that those people may not like or understand science fiction on a very fundamental level, they won't like Roswell, New Mexico anyway.

Second: "If this is your skid, steer into it!" This'll be from those who want Roswell, New Mexico to do more with the immigration metaphor or, rather, to approach it better. It's the thing that makes Roswell, New Mexico relevant as a brand reinvention, so there's very little purpose in soft-selling it.

It's a Goldilocks scenario — I'm sure a few viewers will find the immigration content just right! — and I am, probably not surprisingly, in that second camp. As an immigration parable, Roswell, New Mexico at least has a take worth following and a conversation worth engaging in, even if that conversation alternates between completely invisible and clunky-and-clumsy in the three episodes sent to critics. In those invisible moments, as a somewhat generic take on the tried-and-true CW forbidden romance/star-crossed lovers genre, Roswell, New Mexico has a few surprising twists on the formula, yet never completely finds a worthwhile voice of its own. It's not bad. It's flimsy and resistant to its own strengths.

Developed by Carina Adly Mackenzie (The Originals), Roswell, New Mexico still has to cite Melinda Metz's Roswell High books as source material. The names and basic introduction remains intact from both the books and the Jason Katims-adapted 1999 series, though from there Roswell, New Mexico goes off in its own direction.

Our story begins with Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason) returning home to Roswell. Now working as a biomedical researcher, Liz left after graduation and the death of her sister under tragic and controversial circumstances. The series is fuzzy on what is bringing her back to town — it's a mixture of losing her funding, the anniversary of her sister's death, a very coincidental high school reunion and a few other things — but she quickly comes into contact with Max (Nathaniel Parsons), a cop and her former lab partner, and Kyle (Michael Trevino), a surgeon and her ex-boyfriend. Even though Roswell isn't actually all that close to the U.S.-Mexico border, it's a city plagued by racial tensions and xenophobia, which hit home for Liz because her father, proprietor of an alien-themed diner, is undocumented.

Those tensions flare up, Liz gets shot and Max, who has always had a crush on Liz, saves her life. He can do this because he's also an undocumented alien, albeit one from outer space. He uses his powers to heal her, causing tension with sister Isobel (Lily Cowles) and sibling-friend-fellow-traveler Michael (Michael Vlamis), who worry that their extraterrestrial secret is about to come out. But will Liz and Max be too busy swooning to care?

Oh and there's a shady government agency with an underground lair near Roswell just waiting to find evidence of the surrounding aliens from the 1947 crash, because of course there is.

After Liz acknowledges in the pilot that Roswell is outside of the 100-Mile Border Zone, you get a sense of the struggle the writers have had in making the immigration angle stick. It's like they want to go after it aggressively and then keep running up against, so to speak, a wall. So yes, there are references to the occupant of the White House and his wall-based obsessions, plus a shout-out to Paul Ryan that comes across as less timely than it probably did when it was written. It's mentioned that the town has an anti-immigrant mayor and several initial bad guys are presented as so racist they might as well wear T-shirts advertising their intolerance. Before you go thinking it's a one-sided argument, Kyle's mother, the local sheriff, resents Liz's father and other undocumented workers who circumvented what she sees as the "right" way to seek the American Dream. There's a lot of name-checking of our current realities. That next level, the one in which it's woven organically into the narrative, falls short.

Speaking of alterations, fans of the original Roswell will recognize character names and the basic inciting incident. The key difference those fans will discover is that the characters have all been aged up by a decade. They're grown-ups here, not just high-school kids. Somewhat. Every time Liz mentions her research, it's unconvincing, as is Kyle's status as a surgeon, which is largely represented by his occasionally appearing in a hallway in a white lab coat. There's a "profession equals wearing a professional costume" thing that also extends to the show's unconvincing police officers. I honestly can't tell if Isobel has a job and her grown-up relationship with her husband is peculiar, as are the insinuations that every character in the show has been in romantic/relationship hibernation since high school. So if the question is, "What have we gained from making the characters at the center of this story adults?" I don't have a good answer.

The series isn't always, or often, getting value out of what ought to be its distinguishing elements. Still, I thought there were a few plot twists in the second and third episodes that didn't appear to be taking the story in exactly the direction I thought it was going. I highly doubt the show's commitment to the darker misdirections in these early episodes, though the Vampire Diaries/Originals pedigree across much of the creative team — Julie Plec directed the pilot, which has some good New Mexico setting and flavor — allows for simultaneous optimism and caution.

That Vampire Diaries/Originals pedigree is also evident across the show's casting, though not in leading lady Mason, whose progress I've enjoyed charting since she won So You Think You Can Dance. Mason has great screen presence, a good energy that comes out when she's allowed to be spirited or funny and when she isn't talking about Liz's "experimental regenerative medicine study," she delivers even the show's sillier dialogue convincingly. Parsons is limited because Max is a one-note mope and Vlamis and Trevino, both with more dynamic characters, make stronger initial impressions.

Once you know that Cowles is Christine Baranski's daughter, it becomes hard not to notice the similarities, especially when Isobel is being frustrated and huffy with other characters. Sometimes genetic distractions like this bother me. In this case, I got a kick out of Cowles' performance and how well she could also still fit in as a supporting character on The Good Fight.

Most of the rest of the cast falls under the heading of "Obtrusively good-looking." That's not a bad thing other than when there's heightened drama that requires emoting and you feel like everybody would be better suited to genial flirting. Probably that's what a lot of The CW's core audience would prefer to talk of ICE checkpoints and border security, anyway. Like The CW's remake of Charmed, I see the elements of why the creators wanted to update this franchise and just wish it could be better.

Cast: Jeanine Mason, Nathan Parsons, Tyler Blackburn, Lily Cowles, Heather Hemmens, Michael Trevino, Michael Vlamis, Karan Oberoi

Developed by: Carina Adly Mackenzie

Airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW, premiering Jan. 15.