Roswell, New Mexico lands on The CW this week, nearly 20 years after Jason Katims’ Roswell debuted on The WB. But you won’t find Dido or much teen angst here—developed by The Originals scribe Carina Adly MacKenzie, this supernatural drama isn’t a reimagining of the 1999 series that starred Jason Behr, Shiri Appleby, and Katherine Heigl. MacKenzie and The Vampire Diaries co-creator Julie Plec, who directs the premiere, do draw from the same source material: Melinda Metz’s Roswell High books. But instead of an exploration of adolescence and alienation, this latest adaptation ages everyone up a decade in an effort to support the many ideas that are at play here: a romantic drama, murder mystery, and political allegory.
Even for the now-twentysomethings Max Evans (Nathan Parsons, an Originals alum) and Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason, the season-five winner of So You Think You Can Dance), that’s a tall order, one that the series as a whole struggles to deliver. But credit due the two leads, whose chemistry makes the star-crossed romance the most successful storyline in the early episodes. In flashbacks, Parsons and Mason capture the first rush of infatuation, while in the present, they demonstrate a longing undiminished by time or circumstance—though there’s plenty of the latter working to keep them apart. Liz is now a biomedical researcher who, until recently, was based in Denver (until “someone needed money for a wall,” the first generation Mexican-American reveals), and Max now works ICE checkpoints, among other things, as a member of Roswell’s police force. Their reunion is further complicated by the ongoing attacks against Liz’s father, Arturo (Carlos Compean), by their bigoted neighbors for his undocumented status and a past tragedy involving her sister Rosa (Legion’s Amber Midthunder). As if they didn’t have enough hurdles to clear, there’s also the fact that Max is an alien with the power to bring Liz back from the dead—which he does in the first 10 minutes of the premiere.
That’s one of several moments from the 1999 pilot that the Plec-helmed premiere recreates; shortly thereafter, Max is once more getting chewed out by his siblings and fellow extraterrestrials Michael (Michael Vlamis) and Isobel (BrainDead’s Lily Cowles). The premiere also introduces the rest of the core cast, including Liz’s ex-boyfriend Kyle (Michael Trevino) and her once-and-future bestie Maria DeLuca (Heather Hemmens), all of whom appear to be harboring secrets of their own. Such information dumps are typical of pilots—and it wouldn’t be a CW show without some small-town drama—but the inelegant handling of exposition persists throughout all three episodes made available to critics, slowing down the action and leading to some hilariously leaden dialogue, e.g., “I’m a scientist. It’s what I do.”
Roswell, New Mexico’s interpersonal drama works better than the run-of-the-mill mystery about a sister Liz realizes she may never have truly known. MacKenzie does establish a connection between Rosa and the Roswell Three, but Liz’s feelings for Max have already brought her into their orbit, which makes the former feel more than a little redundant. It’s often more enjoyable to watch the eminently ’shippable Liz and Max, or Michael and his old flame Alex (Tyler Blackburn), whose pairing is both incredibly sexy and sweet. As Isobel, Cowles has the best grasp of the CW milieu, though, bringing a Cheryl Blossom energy to the proceedings. But this Isobel is just as worried about protecting her family as her predecessors, even if it is her own brother’s actions that threaten them with discovery (and experimentation… and autopsies). And Compean’s portrayal of Arturo, a grieving father and proud business owner, helps us see why he’d want to stick it out in his adopted home, even if he can’t quite convince his worried daughter.
But Roswell, New Mexico’s real potential lies in much more fraught territory, something the series is cognizant of and occasionally unconcerned with. Where Metz and Katims focused on how every teen feels like an outsider at some point, the new series is in a better position to also examine how people’s fear of the unknown leads to some appalling actions. MacKenzie has been forthcoming about wanting to tell a politically relevant story that just happens to be a romance (and, so far, a middling mystery), and she picked the right source material for it. The history of New Mexico, which was nearly autonomous for the decades between Spanish colonization and U.S. annexation, offers many opportunities for a nuanced story of immigration, one that looks beyond the prevailing “new arrival” narrative. By including a character like Sheriff Valenti (Rosa Arredondo), who represents the Mexican-American families that have been in the U.S. (including the parts that were once Mexico) for generations, MacKenzie shows some awareness of just how complex the history is.
When Valenti snipes to her brother Kyle about the Ortecho family making “good immigrants” look bad, she’s flexing a privilege she takes for granted, but she’s also complaining about immigrants who don’t assimilate quickly or fully enough. This idea of assimilation, of blending in, is key to story of the Roswell Three, who have been hiding in plain sight. They’ve fully integrated themselves into Roswell life (and they are, for all intents and purposes, white), so despite not having been born in the town, they can move among the racists and the decent townspeople alike. On the other hand, the Ortechos, including first-generation U.S. citizens like Liz, come up against bigotry in a country that forgets its own history. But that dissonance isn’t often reckoned with on Roswell, New Mexico; instead, the show takes the easy route and has an InfoWars-like host repeating lines from the white supremacy handbook. Sure, that means all the pertinent buzzwords get rattled off, but it’s the subtler moments, like Max and Liz talking about their complicated relationships with their hometown, that actually cut through the xenophobic din. Now if only Roswell, New Mexico would take the time to listen.