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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

At its heart, teen romance Star-Crossed is a story of oppression

Illustration for article titled At its heart, teen romance Star-Crossed is a story of oppression
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If aliens landed on Earth, how would humans deal with the fallout? If The CW’s syrupy promotional campaign for Star-Crossed is any indication, human and alien teenagers would immediately pair off two-by-two and repopulate the world. To Star-Crossed’s credit, the show itself appears just as interested in the more down-to-earth social and political ramifications of such an event as it is in the veracity of interspecies love.

The aliens in question are called Atrians, who hail from a dying planet and arrive in present-day Louisiana looking for a place of refuge. Star-Crossed wastes no time with an opening sequence featuring the Atrian arrival, which sets up both the central conflict—humans see the Atrians’ arrival as an invasion, not a peaceful request for asylum; the Atrians retaliate—and the central love story. Elementary-school-aged versions of Emery and Roman, the show’s main couple, appear, sharing a moment of kindness during the infighting before the story flashes forward. It’s a demented fairy tale of a beginning, one that shrewdly sets up a tragic backstory using only dramatic looks and a slow-motion montage.

The Atrian arrival is mere setup; the real love story begins once the show settles into its 10-year time jump, trading adorably innocent 6-year-olds for the decidedly more grown-up Aimee Teegarden and Matt Lanter. The pair sees each other again for the first time when Emery’s high school is used as a testing ground for the desegregation of the human and Atrian populations, who have lived separately since the Atrian arrival. This moment is also when the show’s real goals come into sharp focus, as the love story quickly becomes more of a framing device to tell a larger story about racism, oppression, and what it means to be a second-class citizen in America. This is also where the show’s ambitions and good intentions start to get a bit uncomfortable.

It’s clear that Star-Crossed wants to tell a story about what it feels like to be part of a disenfranchised population: The Atrians, whose tattoo-like markings earn them the derisive nickname “tatties,” live in a vaguely ethnically coded place called the Sector and are monitored at all times by a human security force. The exact nature of their disenfranchisement is occasionally cribbed from the African-American Civil Rights Movement, in a way that feels more like appropriation. The seven Atrian students who integrate into the human high school are dubbed “The Atrian 7” by the news. They arrive for their first day of school flanked by angry protestors, escorted by what looks like the National Guard. And yet there is no reference to how eerily similar this is to the events in Little Rock following the Brown V. Board Of Education decision, despite the fact that this takes place in 2024 America and the school’s Atrian liaison is black. It’s an odd choice, and one that might be corrected in future episodes, but it’s foolish to pretend that the U.S. would be post-racial enough in 10 years to forget the Little Rock Nine.

Despite these moments of discomfort, the story of Atrian discontent is told shockingly well in Star-Crossed’s first two episodes. The broad strokes of the conflict between humans and Atrians are colored with stereotypes—from the human high-school bully to the overly zealous rebel Atrian leader—but great care is taken to show balance, with both the human and Atrian sides getting their own bleeding hearts and bigots. The politics are surprisingly complex: Although the humans are the ones subjugating the Atrians, both sides have reasons to distrust the other, and both sides have valid (and not-so-valid) concerns about what would happen if their races were desegregated completely. Central to all of this are Emery and Roman, who together represent a middle ground in the fight, a war they each must decide to wage or not wage. It’s this mutual interest in seeing good come to both of their cultures that can ultimately be the savior of their love story, pulling it out of the sticky-sweet dregs of an instant childhood connection into something more tangible, interesting, and mature.

That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a fluffy teen sci-fi romance, but so far the show acquits itself well, sticking the landing with its romantic moments and politically minded scenes in equal measure. It helps that Teegarden and Lanter work well together, with Lanter especially showing a lot more spark here than he ever did on The CW’s 90210 reboot. Much of what is longing and sweet in Star-Crossed would be silly nonsense in the hands of other actors. The biggest question marks are the thinly sketched supporting characters (who barely register) and the show’s willingness to explore the idea of oppression beyond appropriated stereotypes. If Star-Crossed can iron these issues out, it might become a love story that reaches viewers beyond its target demographic.