Aliens have gotten the short shrift on television in the last few years. As has the science fiction part of SFF, for that matter. Star-Crossed (CW, Mon 8p), loosely inspired by Romeo and Juliet, attempts to rectify that imbalance, with moderate success. As an episode of television, this particular pilot does its job. It introduces the key players and sets up the central conflict—interspecies conflict versus moony love—while hinting at a much larger and more sinister conspiracy looming at the edges. But what you really want to know is if it’s worth watching. All I can tell you is yeah, sure, why not.
The pilot episode kicks off in the middle of Arrival Day with a tense standoff between frightened aliens and gun-toting humans. The Atrians, a species that basically looks human but with tribal-esque face tattoos and hipster fashion sense—fled their dying planet only to crash land in Baton Rouge. If that doesn’t prove how unfortunate their species is, I don’t know what will. Not only are they stuck in a Louisiana apparently populated almost entirely by non-Southern-accented white people, but they don’t even get to be in the fun New Orleans part. (Presumably because The Originals were already filming there.) A gunfight ensues and 6-year-old Roman flees the scene and conveniently ends up in the garage of precocious Emery, a little girl battling some unnamed illness. I think I’d like her better had she fed him Reese’s Pieces instead of cold spaghetti—way to waste a perfect opportunity, Emery. Roman gets shot by a bunch of soldiers and carted off to who knows where. Emery, of course, thinks he’s dead. Roman, of course, isn’t.
Ten years later, the wee tots have aged into very pretty actors who look far too old to be playing teenagers. Our hunky young Montague is now part of “The Atrian 7,” a group of alien kids being used as assimilation guinea pigs. The plan, as formulated by Roman’s father and a human woman who is probably going to try to kill everyone very soon, is to have the aliens and humans learn to live side by side. It’s all very Little Rock Nine, with all irony lost on the fact that almost all the main characters on both the human and Atrian side are white while the Probably Evil Woman leading the assimilation is Black. Needless to say, since all this takes place in the in a Southern state with a terrible history of race relations, this comes off less as an homage to our past—no one even mentions desegregation—and more like appropriation.
As fate would have it, now that our doe-eyed Capulet’s mystery sickness has been cured or regressed, the teens end up at the same school. There’s more arguing between the humans and Atrians utilizing all the typical tropes—the bullying jerkwad (Tybalt), his BFF who’s also in love with Emery (Paris), the non-threatening Black guy (Nurse), the bitter forgotten love interest (Rosalind), the hothead aching for conflict (Mercutio), the tragic peacemaker (Benvolio), and a Regina George for good measure—and this is where it’s going to hit home for its target audience.
At first glance, Star-Crossed comes off as a weepy teen romance cribbed straight from the Cliff’s Notes of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet grafted onto a forgotten draft of Roswell. But as the pilot makes clear, that’s just the skeleton onto which they’re hanging a greater story of disenfranchisement and oppression. Yes, the love story between Roman and Emery is the focal point, but the show is just as interested in why they can’t be together as why they want to be. Neither side is set up as “good” or “evil.” Both have their fiery radicals who would rather keep the species segregated and their determined peacemakers willing to accept assimilation, as well the more thoughtful moderates unsure of what side of the line they stand and unwilling to be forced to choose.
If it applies itself, Star-Crossed could eventually become a pretty good show. There are some intriguing elements flickering through the pilot—Why did the Atrians pick Earth? What does Probably Evil Woman want? Other than the transparent cell phones and stupid looking backpacks, what other new technologies does the future hold? Do the Atrians actually live in shipping containers, and why are they so obsessed with fairy lights? How many episodes until someone says the modern equivalent of “My only love sprung from my only hate!” Will someone ever give Aimee Teegarden acting lessons?—and I look forward to having them touched on in greater detail in further episodes. Yes, I am serious about wanting to watch more of this show, and no, I won’t be watching ironically.
The CW is in the midst of creative resurgence. Shows like Arrow and Supernatural skew adult, while The Vampire Diaries and Reign welcome the younger set. The Tomorrow People, the other new SF show to premiere on The CW in the 2013-2014 season, has settled into a nice middle ground that keeps both teens and the 18-49 demo. Star-Crossed is at a decision point in terms of what kind of show it wants to be, one they probably won’t fully untangle until season 2 (if it makes it that far). Hopefully it will choose The Tomorrow People’s route over Reign’s. If they can sort out some of the wrinkles with the oppressor/repressed concept and beef up the theme of disenfranchisement while not losing the romance, they’ll have a really solid show on their hands.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.