It doesn’t seem likely that a nearly beat-for-beat reboot could put such a new spin on old material, yet such is the case with The CW’s forthcoming Roswell, New Mexico. I missed the original series when it premiered in 1999—a combination of being a tad too young, and also Buffy the Vampire Slayer taking up all my too-young-to-be-watching-this time. So at first I didn’t realize that the new series, rebooted by Carina Adly MacKenzie (The Originals), retreads nearly every plot beat of the twenty-year-old pilot—but aging the main characters by ten years and layering the plot with an added dimension of immigration issues makes it a story worth retelling.
Warner Bros. Television screened the Roswell, New Mexico pilot at NYCC. While this is a non-spoiler review, it does touch upon minor plot points.
In 2018, biomedical researcher Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason) reluctantly returns to her hometown of Roswell after the funding gets cut from her experimental regenerative study in Denver (“somebody wants a wall,” she quips) and picks up work at her father’s restaurant, the Crashdown Café. Liz’s return happens to coincide with her ten-year high school reunion, which dredges up old ghosts—both in the form of the ten-year anniversary of her sister Rosa’s death and how it turned the town against her family, and in Max (Nathan Parsons), her high school crush, now deputy sheriff.
Roswell may be the alien capital of America, but it’s also a small town full of gossip and grudges, the kind of place that effectively erases the past decade in a moment. Liz may be almost thirty, but back in her waitress uniform, making eyes at Max through the café window, it’s as if she’s back in high school.
Except that there are two new things to worry about: the increased ICE presence at the borders (her father is an undocumented immigrant), and the revelation that Max is an alien.
If, like me, you never saw the original Roswell, I won’t spoil every beat of the new pilot. If you have, rest assured that even if the groundwork is laid in the same way as it was twenty years ago, each piece is a refreshing new take: how the alien siblings and their friend handle getting their cover blown takes on new meaning when they’re adults with complicated lives, not pretty teenagers trying to get through high school. Isobel (Lily Cowles) brings both gravitas and levity to their precarious identity, frustrated that she must keep their secret from her human husband yet also determined to make this reunion the best it can be, dammit. Michael (Michael Vlamis) is more volatile, the one of the trio taking the most steps toward discovering their origin but also the most willing to eliminate any external threats.
The funny thing is, Liz barely bats an eye at this world-changing information. On the one hand, growing up in Roswell must prepare a person, even subconsciously, for the eventual revelation that aliens have been in their midst this whole time. On the other hand, between protecting her father’s immigration status and grappling with the terror that she might share Rosa’s mental health issues, Liz simply has bigger things to worry about. The trio should really be afraid of the government—Commander Andy Manes (Gregory Nye), overseeing the shadowy Project Shepherd, and his son, Michael’s high school ex Alex (Tyler Blackburn). In that, they and Liz have a common enemy.
Roswell, New Mexico is infused with the political, almost too on-the-nose at times: the local conspiracy theory nut says on his podcast, “Aliens are coming, and when they do, they’re gonna rape and murder and steal our jobs!” And yet, there’s a reason that line got so many knowing laughs at the screening. The instances where “illegal aliens” and extraterrestrials dovetail are the episode’s most powerful, like when Max tells Liz about how he and his siblings grew up watching movies where visitors from outer space were the villains, blowing up the White House and portrayed as foreign threats instead of beings with their own hopes, their own loves, their own rich lives full of potential toward changing the world.
Speaking of loves—yes, there are plenty of romantic entanglements in the pilot. Rest assured that Max and Liz still have that out-of-this-world chemistry, thanks to Mason and Parsons’ history of working together on Bunheads. Her ex Kyle Valenti (Michael Trevino), son of the sheriff, provides some interesting friction, though his influence pales in relation to her and Max’s psychic bond. While they are the series’ will-they-won’t-they, Michael sparks with Alex, home from the war, in ways I can’t wait to see explored. Yet that yearning for connection might not be enough to make this alien believe in humanity as a whole. Michael’s anger—at the foster care system, at this country, at the human race—is especially compelling; despite his obvious talents, one of the siblings observes, “I don’t think Michael likes the world enough to bother changing it.”
In short, they’re just like us. “You asked me what I am,” Max tells Liz. “I’m just a guy from Roswell.”
Roswell, New Mexico doesn’t premiere for another several months, but fans have plenty to look forward to, including an episode set entirely in high school circa 2008, and one directed by Shiri Appleby. In the meantime, watch this teaser from SDCC:
Roswell, New Mexico premieres midseason 2019 on The CW.