Roswell (1999-2000) Season 1 Review

(or How I Stopped Worrying about the 17 hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back)

Roswell is the 1999-2002 sci-fi teen romance television show that aired on WB (and later UPN in it’s 3rd season). It follows the familiar tropes of movies like Twilight or shows like Smallville, presenting a supernatural romance that goes either right or wrong. Underneath that romance is a sci-fi subplot that becomes increasingly important as the season goes on. And by increasingly important I mean increasingly stupid. The following is reformatted from a paper I wrote so pardon it’s formality and redundancy.

Roswell is the story of Liz Parker who after being saved from a gunshot by the mysterious Max Evans discovers that he, his sister Isabel and their friend Michael are all aliens with no idea of where they come from or why they’re there. To save her friendships with her two best friends, Maria and Alex, she’s forced to tell them and the six of them evade Sheriff Valenti and the FBI, all the while looking for clues to the alien’s past. The series follows the familiar episodic main plot with serialized subplot formula that many shows in it’s genre follow. The typical episode’s three act structure is: Problem or clue is discovered; Character or characters make it worse or get into trouble; Other characters save said character(s) or a deus ex machina occurs that sets up the problem/clue for the next episode. It’s a formula that when done well allows both infrequent and frequent viewers to enjoy the show. Roswell never really struck this balance, leaning a little too much towards the serialized storytelling so that infrequent viewers couldn’t follow without the incredibly long recaps they have in front of every episode. However, since they were attempting to remain episodic frequent viewers get annoyed at the inconsistency of the episodes from week to week.

The protagonists of the show are the six core characters: Liz, Max, Isabel, Michael, Maria, Alex. They never really change to become antagonists with the exception of Michael, whose stupidity results in some antagonistic behavior. The cast remains fairly ensemble, with the focus shifting between Max and Liz to Michael and Maria or to Isabel and Alex. The primary out of that ensemble is Liz and Max, since their romance is the inciting event of the show and shapes a lot of the events. The actual individual characters are fairly bland relying on stereotypes to get character across, if any. Since the show is so romance driven, it is necessary for a viewer to understand the characters to “enjoy” the show. It’s hard to sit there and listen to them whine for 10 minutes about their feelings if you’re not invested in the characters. However, getting invested may prove tricky if you’re not into 6 whiny teenagers somehow making being extraterrestrials seem as dramatic as getting grounded. Since the show is fairly bipolar in it’s focus (romance or story) it’s hard to call Roswell anything but both plot and character driven. It seems that the two collide with each other. The story often times gets in the way of the romance (Michael not paying attention to Maria because he’s obsessed with the pursuit of truth) and the romance can put the plot to a dead stop (Michael and Maria having an intimate scene together in the hotel for no reason except to stall the plot and develop the romance). The romance of the show constantly interferes with the plot, often time taking what are fairly simple developments and turning them into high school drama-fests.

The show looks fairly standard for the late 90s/early 00s, with a few marks from other obvious inspirations (The X-files, Dawson’s Creek) included. It’s nighttime lighting is very X-files reminiscent and it’s background music seems to be pulled straight out of some X-files episode. Along with poor writing, it’s clear that the show has inexperienced directing as well. Beyond the occasionally awkward blocking, the directors have the tendency to chose close-up shots of the actors so that they are staring right at the camera. It’s typically used in the fantasy/romance situations and it’s in no way romantic. It’s just plain ugly to look at and is unflattering to the actors. It’s very clear that show is low budget, especially when it comes to effects. A lot of them are super cheap CGI and when they can’t afford even that the editing covers it up rather poorly, not letting you know exactly what’s going on. The dubbing, which should be unnoticable is actually quite bothersome when the characters are clearly speaking in two different microphones. The production design is fairly basic, preferring bland backgrounds and locations. The color pallet of the show is mostly dark colors and browns, as the backdrop of the show is the desert of New Mexico. The music is, no matter the styling, some whiny musician complaining about their life. Which is of course appropriate for a teenage drama show. All of this definitely fits the tone and style of the show, that being a low-budget teen supernatural romance. It’s an adequate balance between the very consistent and more unique look of Smallville and the extremely low-budget, bland and inconsistent Vampire High.

Here’s where I shall break from my more formal style and explain why Roswell sucks monumentally (yes this was part of the paper). I first encountered this show a few months ago and out of curiousity I decided to check it out. I forced myself through six episodes, desperately hoping that it would get better. It seemed so much like Smallville, but without any of the charm or interesting plot. Instead it would be like you pulled the Clark/Lana romance out and made it it’s own show and then sprinkled a little X-files on top for good measure. Considering how the Clark/Lana romance was my least favorite part of that show it’s no wonder I didn’t like Roswell. It was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever gone through to finish this show. It was so long, with each episode feeling like an eternity to get through. Every time something interesting would come up, the show would crush it with the crippling weight of the eventual three romances. The constant stupidity of the characters made me scream at the screen a few times. It’s not that the characters are stupid, it’s that they’re inconsistently stupid. Michael may be the coolheaded one for an episode, but you can guarantee that he’ll be the biggest dumbass the next three. The writing was so inconsistent, from episode to episode entire subplots would just be dropped and characters could completely switch attitudes. Sheriff Valenti, for example, had a character arc yes, but the actual moment where he decides to help them despite them being aliens is never actually shown, just implied. And Roswell does not have the chops to imply anything.

Speaking of not having chops, Roswell tries (and fails) to tackle actual issues, with pathetic results. Michael is being domestically abused by his father and after spending an entire episode fighting with Isabel and Max, who make it all about them, he finally decides to emancipate himself, somehow completely circumventing the months long process and never actually having his father there to testify. All for what reason? Hell if I know, so that the FBI can spy on him so that Max can discover it etc… Another thing they try to tackle is the idea of sexual awakening, but instead of it being Max and Liz actually having a hard time handling their growing attraction, it’s that the spaceship was making them horny so they could discover the crash site. In fact Roswell pulls the sin of a lot of TV shows and darts around interesting concepts, but then decides to ignore them for the sake of the status quo. Towards the end of the season, Isabel thinks she’s pregnant with Michael’s baby since they had weird dream sex. Despite the incestous undertones and rather serious implications, this is only used to drive a wedge between Maria and Michael and is dropped when our Deus Ex Tess explains that they still have to have sex the normal way in order to get pregnant.

I could have picked any revelatory scene from the series to analyze because they all are the same. They ask questions about it and then someone will have a vision later on that explains everything. The vision’s are the writer’s crutch and they use it so much that you begin to wonder why they bother to go out and find things when they can just wait around for a vision.

The very romance of Max and Liz, which the show essentially focuses around, plays on the tired old tropes of the super-hero/vampire/alien not wanting to be with a girl to protect her or to protect himself. Of course we as an audience know they’ll get together eventually and the waiting game in Roswell is the most infuriating out of all the versions I’ve seen. They get so coupley, then Max tells them to slow down, then Liz freaks out and back off, then Max says he still wants to be friends, then they get closer, then some weird snogging thing happens and that brings them closer and apparently that means they’re dating even though they never actually said that on screen then they break up at the end because next season we need to do the same thing AGAIN. The odd love triangle between Max, Tess and Liz is introduced at a very awkward time, with Max fantasizing about this other girl in the episode directly following the one where Liz and Max (may have) had sex. At least the faults in the Maria/Michael relationship is because Michael is psychologically fucked up, and not just because he’s an alien. There relationship was forced at the beginning, but not as forced as the Isabel/Alex “thing.” Isabel started in the first few episodes as the super popular Queen B, but as she got more popular around Liz and Maria acted kinder to them. That in no way means that she was a kinder person. So the idea of her being friends or actually dating Alex is so goddamn nonsensical, it’s like the writers just forced it because they felt weird about not pairing everyone up or because it was in the books (which it was) and they had to make it work somehow.

Roswell portrays quite a few groups with harsh stereotypes and a comedic approach. For one, the UFOlogy group that come to Roswell and should be an important part of the show are treated like paranoid nerds with some weird fantasy. While there are individuals like that, the show chooses to portray all of them like that. As an individual who believes in the probability in extraterrestrial life having visited Earth, I was extremely offended by this caricature, but more shocked that they wouldn’t be kinder to a group that could significantly affect the plot of the show. Another group was Orthodontists, who were in town for a convention for an episode. This would be minor, but they were portrayed as all nerds and even fetishizing teeth. This was astounding in a show that wants you to take it’s Alien protagonists and teenage melodrama seriously. In general the portrayal of teens in media, especially in shows designed for a younger audience, bothers me and this show is no exception. Writers have to make the romances drag out and have tons of problems, incapable of imagining a good relationship. All the teens are irrational and inconsistent in their emotions and despite the fact that their interactions with adults are the most interesting, often times choose to focus on the melodrama of teenage “life.”

Roswell is a melodramatic poorly written waste of time. Even if it’s following seasons had a spike in quality, the first season is so impossibly hard to get through that it wouldn’t be worth your time. It’s a relic of the late 90s/early 2000s, when white kids were still rich and entitled and the center of the universe (in this case literally). What makes watching Roswell even worse is the poor notion that this show could have been good, if it had picked up its pace and concentrated more on the dramatic part of melodramatic. Roswell is available nowhere because I’m currently working on destroying all the copies.