Roswell, New Mexico Episode 1 Review: Pilot

Roswell, New Mexico is largely a carbon copy of the original, and full of faces you'll recognize.

This Roswell, New Mexico review contains spoilers.

Roswell, New Mexico Episode 1 Review

Roswell, New Mexico. It’s one of those places so iconic, so singularly famous for one specific thing that it doesn’t even warrant an explanation. Back in 1999, it was the show that launched the careers of Shiri Applebee, Katherine Heigl, Colin Hanks (not that he needed launching), and several other faces you know, even if their names are less familiar, like Nick Wechsler (Revenge, Dynasty), Brendan Fehr (Bones, Wynonna Earp), and Emilie de Ravin (Lost). And now, 20 years and a few changes later, it’s back.

Notably, Roswell, New Mexico isn’t a sequel to 1999’s Roswell. Even though everyone is roughly 10 years older, and the original show took place 10 years ago, these events–namely the inciting incidents of Liz’s (Jeanine Mason, latter day Grey’s Anatomy) death and revival and the trio of aliens revealing themselves–are all taking place for the very first time. The aliens still arrived in the 1940s and entered the community as children due to some woo-woo hand wave alien stuff, but in this version they’ve managed to keep their true species a secret that entire time, implausible though that may be if you’ve ever met a teenager.

You’d be forgiven if, when watching, you thought you were caught in a time loop, or having déjà vu. It’s all there–Liz’s voiceover, this version of the legend of Roswell’s aliens, the Crashdown café, the suspicious sheriff; Liz is even wearing the exact same uniform at the Crashdown, and so far there’s heavy overlap on the soundtracks. There’s boy scout Max Evans (Nathan Parsons, The Originals), his overprotective Type-A sister Isobel (Lily Cowles, BrainDead), and their smart but troubled bad boy fellow alien Michael (Michael Vlamis, New Girl), whose time on Earth hasn’t been quite as charmed.

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read more: How Roswell, New Mexico Gained Its Alien Reputation

Like many pilots, this one is rather overstuffed. Science fiction and fantasy shows have the added task of not only telling you a story, but building a world or explaining power sets. As a result, the second episode of Roswell is much more successful than this one, so I hope you’ll stick around for it. It’s mostly a paint by numbers affair, but there are a few updates, like when a conspiracy theorist podcaster references Beyoncé and the Illuminati. The older protagonists helpfully allow for all the steamy sex and bar scenes the CW loves, without all the questions as to who, exactly, is supervising a bunch of 16-year-olds who rarely seem to attend school. And things start off a little differently: Max fell for Liz Ortecho, who kicks things off with her return to town after 10 years away. Ten years ago, Liz’s sister Rosa (Amber Midthunder, Legion, Hell or Highwater) was killed in a car accident, which many see as her fault since she used drugs and two others died in the same accident, but it’s clear from the jump that there’s more to this story.

Roswell does a decent job walking a tightrope between wanting to make the titular town feel like any small town and making it feel uniquely like the bizarre tourist trap border town that it is. It’s less clear how strong of a choice it was to make everything about this show either a carbon copy of the original or a very different one. The strong choices generally work for me, and I can see a certain fear over their “controversial” nature, but I worry that Roswell is still too close to the original.

The biggest difference is that Liz and her family are immigrants (her father is undocumented) and her sister is dead, a death in which Max and co. apparently had some involvement. Story-wise, this opens up some avenues. First, adding the immigration element makes the story feel urgent and contemporary, and sets up parallels between Liz and Max. Both of them have to protect their families from the U.S. government, and both have secrets to keep and stigma to fight. Viewers of the original series can likely surmise additional, spoiler-y connections.

Second, Rosa places an obstacle between Liz and Max’s love story that’s a bit more appealing. It’s unclear what, exactly, is going on here, but Max obviously has secrets about Rosa. Secrets he doesn’t ever want Liz to know. The next episode will tease this out more, but for that kind of tension in the central pair is a good thing and helps make this a more adult show with adult disagreements.

Finally, in this version, Liz is not the beloved hometown girl. In fact, she faces racist slurs and hate crimes.

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Many trivialize the CW due to its association with its target audience of young women, but Roswell’s pilot on this so-called teeny bopper network opens with its protagonist being stopped at an ICE checkpoint and openly criticizing racial profiling. She’s a scientist who lost government funding because the president would rather use it for the border wall, at once pushing back on stereotypes (portraying a Latinx woman as a scientist) and taking a shot at the president’s anti-science and racist, anti-immigrant policies. Not bad for one line of dialogue. Her afro-Latina friend Maria (Heather Hemmens, Hellcats, If Loving You is Wrong) later calls out “thinly veiled racism” in response to a “go back to their country” comment.

red more: Aliens in America: A History of UFO Storytelling

The CW has been among the more progressive networks for a while now, routinely casting diverse casts and including queer characters, even if they still have a lot to learn. Shows like Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Supergirl have regularly taken on heady, “controversial” topics, including immigration, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. And yet, seeing ICE and racism called out directly on television still feels bold, especially at a time when most elected officials aren’t willing to do the same.

There are familiar beats here, even in the new material–sex with the ex in a car outside a bar is hardly innovative. That said, critics were given three episodes to review, and the next one is significantly better. If the premise and progressive racial politics of the show appeal to you at all, stick around for the next couple of episodes of Roswell before you decide whether to jump ship.

Rating:

3 out of 5