The original TV series Roswell (not to be confused with the new CW show Roswell, New Mexico) ran for 3 seasons on The WB (seasons 1&2) and UPN (season 3), from 1999-2002, for a total of 61 episodes. The show was very loosely based on the YA book series Roswell High, written by Melinda Metz. Jason Katims (who later went on to create Friday Night Lights and Parenthood) created Roswell and stayed on as showrunner for all three seasons.
Roswell takes places in the real life small town of the same name, in southern New Mexico, where a mysterious crash in 1947 has become legendary in the decades since it happened. The alien spaceship crashed out in the desert, leading to rumors and guesses about what really happened, which quickly led to a government cover up. Roswell houses a military base which took part in an investigation of the ship and secret alien remains. The town itself has embraced its notoriety as an alien and UFO Mecca, with businesses and events throughout the town sporting space themes and catering to alien-hunting tourists.
At least one adult alien survived the crash and was captured. It was treated brutally and subjected to inhuman experiments, supposedly in the name of science. The alien eventually escaped, leaving a trail of violent retaliation in its wake. It then went underground, disappearing for decades, but leaving the institutional memory of its existence and its ability to harm humans behind.
Several pods, containing the embryos of alien children, also survived the crash and were safely moved to a cave by the adult survivors. In the 80s, three seemingly human children, Max Evans, Isabel Evans, and Michael Guerin, came out of the pods. They looked like they were about 6 years old, but they couldn’t speak, and had no memories. They wandered out into the desert together, but were separated.
Max and Isabel were found by a married couple, Philip and Diane Evans, who adopted them. Michael ended up in abusive foster homes, but he stayed as close to Isobel and Max as he could. Together, they discovered their powers and figured out that they must be aliens. They resolved to keep their true identities secret from everyone but each other. The danger and the secrets helped them bond and form especially close sibling relationships.
Max always had a crush on Liz Parker, but mostly watched her from afar. They were friends, and she noticed him staring at her sometimes, but neither made any further moves. Until there was a shooting at her father’s restaurant, where she was a waitress.
The shots were unexpected, and Liz was down before anyone understood what was happening. Almost everyone ran from the diner, but Max stayed to check on her. He realized that the bullet must have hit an artery in her abdomen, and she was going to bleed out before help could arrive.
He had to make a choice. Let Liz die, or keep his secret? He couldn’t let the girl he’d always loved die just because he was afraid of something that might or might not happen. He healed her, then pretended that a bottle of ketchup had broken on her and ran out of the diner.
That’s the start of everything. The Sheriff is from an alien hunting family, and he becomes suspicious of Max. Gradually Liz’s closest friends, Maria and Alex, also learn the secret, and the Scooby gang is complete. Liz’s ex-boyfriend, Kyle, doesn’t want to give her up without a fight, so Max has some competition. Various other humans and aliens help and harm them, becoming part of their adventures.
Season 1 is low-key, focusing on the kids as high school students and friends, keeping their issues close to home and largely within the show’s cast. This was Jason Katims’ vision for the show, especially the first 13 episodes. Those first 13 are incredible, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who stops there. The network started interfering after that, but season 1 still mostly makes sense, I think. The biggest change is the introduction of Emilie de Ravin late in the season, as a fourth alien, Tess, who can’t be trusted.
In Season 2, the show reinvented itself, bringing in new characters and a race of alien villains called the Skins. The characters forgot that they were still in high school and became alien fighters. It seemed like they were more concerned with past events on their home planet than current events in their own lives on Earth. But they had really great hair, makeup and clothes. And the writing was as witty and heartfelt as ever.
In season 3, Roswell changed networks, and reinvented itself again. This time, it went from a cracky, brightly-colored, alien version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to a darker, more intense, more mature version of itself. There wasn’t supposed to be a time jump, but the characters seemed to age five years. They were facing more adult situations such as marriage, divorce, children, leaving home for good, and when and how much to sacrifice themselves for others.
Along with these adult situations came attempts to add more nuances to the characters, which didn’t always work. Tess benefitted from being softened and redeemed, but Max experienced character assassination from being given a dark, obsessive side. This season made the least sense of the three seasons, but there were still some great episodes and great moments. And great looks and great songs.
As I mentioned, Jason Katims saw the show as Dawson’s Creek, with aliens, while the networks wanted Roswell to compete with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Jason Katims has never done scifi or supernatural before or since, and I don’t think he was prepared for the level of detailed and consistent world building it would require.
He wanted the show to be a character driven drama (similar to his other shows) where the aliens don’t use their powers much. To him, the powers were just supposed to be an occasional plot device. This goes against traditional storytelling wisdom and common sense. You don’t get your backers and your fans excited about aliens, then forget to show the aliens.
Ron Moore, veteran of the Star Trek franchise who went on to create Battlestar Galactica and Outlander, was brought in for the second and third seasons to help improve the ratings. But the production was already too far adrift, and had lost too much of its audience.
Roswell had a killer soundtrack when it aired. The original soundtrack remains on episodes aired in syndication, but many of the songs have been replaced on the DVDs. However, the songs from important moments do remain intact on the DVDs. The songs used in the episodes and as the theme song (Dido’s Here with Me) became hits. Both Jason Katims and Ron Moore are known for giving each of their shows a unique “look”, and Roswell is no different. It’s beautifully shot and designed.
The characters are varied, funny and interesting. Women are well represented and aren’t held back because they’re female. There could be more diversity, but Roswell was made before there was pressure on studios to diversify their casts. At least there are a couple of regulars who are Hispanic, and a recurring character who is Native American.
The cast of Roswell included: Shiri Appleby as Liz Parker, Jason Behr as Max Evans, Katherine Heigl as Isabel Evans, Majandra Delfino as Maria DeLuca, Brendan Fehr as Michael Guerin, Colin Hanks as Alex Whitman, Nick Wechsler as Kyle Valenti, William Sadler as Sheriff Jim Valenti, Emilie de Ravin as Tess Harding, and Adam Rodríguez as Jesse Ramirez (season 3).
Despite its issues, there are many great episodes and moments in Roswell, when the writing, the acting and the production all came together to create something special.
So, in lieu of a grade, we put Roswell in the category of Brilliant But Flawed.
Season 1: Pilot (101), Heat Wave (109), The Convention (113), Blind Date (114), The White Room 121)
Season 2: Summer of ’47 (204), The End of the World (205), A Roswell Christmas Carol (210)
Season 3: A Tale of Two Parties (310), I Married an Alien (311)
Roswell is currently available on Hulu. However, the DVDs have informative episode commentaries and featurettes. They are worth the price if you’re a big fan.
Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television, Jason Katims Productions and Regency Television.