REVIEW: ‘Roswell, New Mexico’ Sets a Sci-Fi Story About Aliens Against a Backdrop of Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

Jeanine Mason as Liz and Michael Trevino as Kyle in 'Roswell, New Mexico.' Photo by Ursula Coyote. Courtesy of The CW

With the supernatural teen melodrama known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer becoming a cultural juggernaut, the still-named WB network looked for other sources of supernatural metaphors and teen angst to mine for material. They found it with Melinda Metz’s Roswell High series, a 10-book run following the students of a fictional high school in Roswell, New Mexico. The narrative used the theme of teen alienation as a literal narrative arc, telling the story of three kids who were actual aliens who’d crash-landed on Earth in the infamous 1947 Roswell incident. The eventual television show, Roswell, debuted in 1999 and ran till 2002. The series was never a big hit, but for its die-hard fans it was perfect. The CW’s reboot, Roswell, New Mexico, premieres today and after screening the first three episodes Roswell devotees will be pleased to return to the site of the crash.

The original incarnation and the remake are identical in plot, aside from a few differences meant to highlight its new Latina lead and that the principal cast are not high schoolers. Here, Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason) returns to her hometown of Roswell, New Mexico, ten years after graduation. She’s mourning the loss of her older sister, Rosa, who died in a car accident that has stoked the town’s latent racism against Latinos. Upon arrival Liz reconnects with her old flame, Max Evans (Nathan Parsons), now a Roswell police officer. When Liz is shot and resurrected by Max she discovers he, alongside his sister, Isobel (Lily Cowles) and best friend, Michael (Michael Vlamis) are aliens.

Jeanine Mason in ‘Roswell, New Mexico.’ Photo by Lewis Jacobs. Courtesy of The CW
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In 1999, the term “alien” evoked empathy with a generation of teenagers mired in their own state of becoming (except in post-Prop 187 California where anti-immigrant sentiment was still rampant.) You’re never more than an alien as when you’re in high school, right? But ten years later, and amid Trump’s scorching rhetoric, the term means something wholly different, and Roswell, New Mexico attempts to do something new with it. From the moment Liz arrives in town there’s an air of anti-immigrant sentiment. When she’s pulled over she immediately pulls out her passport; her father is revealed to be undocumented, and the entire Ortecho clan is being persecuted after Rosa died in a car accident that also killed two white girls. These issues, all front-loaded to the pilot, feel like they’re stacked on to immediately present a “woke” sentimentality – “this ain’t the Roswell of the ’90s” – especially since they’re barely touched on in the second and third episodes. To that end, Liz and her father talk briefly in Spanish in the pilot – a few words of welcome when they’re reunited and another single line about honoring and loving Rosa in spite of her flaws. These stray lines, not subtitled, do a lot towards emphasizing these characters are Latino, and though they’re not easily identifiable to non-Spanish speakers, they don’t go anywhere. All they do is remind you these characters speak Spanish, but this isn’t Jane the Virgin. Hopefully, there will be a more organic discussion as the season develops about how these topics enmesh in a city where literal aliens from outer space live.

To that end, Cuban-American actress Jeanine Mason is a compelling lead as Liz. It’s a far different performance and character than Shiri Appleby’s turn as Liz in 1999. Gone is the quiet, studious Liz in favor of a brash, conflicted heroine. Liz has fled Roswell post-graduation to become a scientist yet has no idea what she wants in life. She’s left a fiance behind and is questing for…something. She’s one of several Latinx performers, itself a significant improvement on the original series (and more in line with the source material). Dominican-American actress Rosa Arredondo plays Sheriff Valenti – a character that was originally male back in 1999 – while Mexican-American actor Michael Trevino plays her son, Kyle. Half Costa Rican actress Heather Hemmens is also fun as Liz’s friend, Maria. It was disheartening to revisit the original show and realize how white it was in spite of its setting (and despite the book’s inclusion of Latino characters), so watching the series infuse people of color in a location that is majority Latino to begin with was great to see.

Nathan Dean Parsons as Max Evans in ‘Roswell, New Mexico.’ Photo by John Golden Britt. Courtesy of The CW
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With Liz and her father introducing all the current events, it does leave the actual metaphor of extra-terrestrial alien as immigrant floundering in the breeze considering Max, Isobel, and Michael are Anglo and played by non-Latinx actors. Parsons, Cowles, and Vlamis are all good – on par with the original actors that played their respective characters – but it is laughable to hear Max and the crew opine about being different, especially when Liz is dealing with serious issues we know about. Part of the first three episodes involves the anniversary of Rosa’s death, and the accident that killed two other girls, opening up Liz and her father to violence. As they’re being threatened by racists, it’s hard to really empathize with Max, Michael, and Isobel’s fears because they’re so fantastical in comparison. What conjures up more terror? An alien being dissected by the government or Latinos being beaten and attacked for the color of their skin? Make no mistake, the show still has to entertain (and it does), but the series will need to find a better balance of the real-world and the supernatural in order not to look woefully overloaded.

And yet regardless of its problems Roswell, New Mexico is a heap of fun. The iconic Dido theme song may be missing – the opening credits are in line with the network’s superhero opening titles – but there’s enough mystery and intrigue to attract new audiences, while retaining enough of the old plot to engage fans of the original series. As Liz tries to understand Max and where he came from, the chemistry between the two actors is palpable and engaging. The relationship between Hemmens’ Maria and Mason’s Liz is also great, particularly as they go on a quest to unravel the last days of Rosa’s life. There’s just enough plot crumbs established in the first three episodes to sustain the season and it’ll be great to see how much they draw from the original show. (Things got pretty crazy back in 1999 and I can’t wait till/if they introduce “the Skins.”)

I was pessimistic about Roswell, New Mexico, yet it got me. The show will definitely entice fans of the original series while using its social platform to create something new for those who missed out back in the ’90s.

Roswell, New Mexico premieres January 15, 2019, on the CW.