“Roswell” Isn’t Alien to Our Experience After All
When I wrote Tuesday’s post, I forgot one TV series that (along with Fringe) I have been enjoying at home via streaming video. It slipped my somnolent mind that I have been watching Roswell with my daughter. This series is based on Melinda Metz’ Roswell High novels, a series that seems to fall within the YA genre. I say “seems” because — as usual — my daughter is reading them, while I content myself with the videos.
According to a Science Fiction Weekly interview with Metz and her editor, Laura Burns, the series is very different from the books. Differences range from small (character names) to large (back-story, Both Metz and Burns were eventually hired as staff writers for the series, which aired originally on the WB network in the fall of 1999 and then moved to UPN after its second season. It was developed, produced, and co-written by Jason Katims, who started out as a playwright but moved into television work when he wrote three episodes of ABC’s My So-Called Life in 1994
Roswell, New Mexico, a small city in the southwestern United States, screams out to be used as the setting for a science fiction series about aliens. It is the town nearest to the site of an alleged UFO crash in the summer of 1947. In fact, other TV programs have included this incident in their narratives, the X-Files being the most obvious example. The plot of Roswell makes use of features of the real-life Roswell, such as its UFO museum.
Unlike the X-Files, Roswell capitalizes less on paranoia than it does on otherness. Compounding three of the main characters’ normal adolescent struggles over identity and agency (i.e., who am I and how do I fit into the world) is the fact that they are actually aliens of the outer space variety. The back story of Max (Jason Behr), Isabel (Katherine Heigl), and Michael (Brendan Fehr) makes use of the Roswell UFO story — they are alien siblings who were left behind in incubators when their spacecraft crash-landed near Roswell.
They struggle with dual identities as “normal” high school students and members of a royal family in exile from their home planetary system. Crises range from rifts in the relationships they form with human students (particularly the on-again, off-again relationship between Max and Liz [Shiri Appleby]) to fending off attacks from rival alien political factions (such as the Skins).
As the series progresses, Max, Isabel, and Michael become increasingly conflicted over their desire to return home. Other mundane, terrestrial issues are hidden beneath the overarching “E.T. phone home” plotline. Most obviously, Max, Isabel, and Michael are foundlings who have been adopted. While Max and Isabel live with their adoptive parents and Liz with her biological parents, Michael lives as an emancipated minor (after his alcoholic adoptive father leaves him and is subsequently killed). There are also two human characters, Maria (Majandra Delfino) and Kyle (Nick Wechsler), who are in single-parent families. When Kyle’s father, Jim (William Sadler) loses his job as the town’s sheriff as a result of helping to cover up the alien teens’ true identities, he stuggles with finding employment and direction in his life.
Predictably, sex is another issue with which the characters grapple. However, this struggle is portrayed with good taste as such, rather than as a mad dash to get sexual experience. It’s also worked into the alien political subplot, in which a pregnancy becomes part of a conspiracy against Max and his two siblings.
Overall, Roswell is good entertainment that teens (and pre-teens) have and continue to find compelling, both for its story-line and for the “normal” adolescent issues and interests that it covers. It’s also interesting because it is a bit of a throwback to the turn-of-the-century United States and its preoccupations, including popular music. The show, whose theme song is a haunting ballad by Dido, includes a guest appearance by Nelly Furtado in one episode, in which she sings “I’m Like a Bird.”