Roswell, New Mexico
How do you make a fresh, new version of a thing people already loved in the late ’90s and early aughts? In the case of the CW’s Roswell, New Mexico, you do it by leaning hard into the present moment, and into what the word “alien” really means to Americans in 2019.
It’s perhaps easy to roll your eyes at the prospect of using literal aliens from outer space as a metaphor for undocumented immigrants, and in a month when the president of the United States is spouting rhetoric about “illegal aliens” murdering American families, it’s potentially thorny territory for a sci-fi show. But at least in its first hour, the new Roswell is smart and heartfelt enough to pull off the tonal tightrope. Though not without its heavy-handed moments (I never need to see or hear from Propaganda Podcast Guy again), this is a pilot that serves up all the sexy alien romance and small-town drama Roswell fans will want, alongside some smart commentary about fear, bigotry, and otherness.
Our heroine, Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason), is the daughter of undocumented immigrants and more afraid than ever that her father will be deported. The opening moments of the pilot find a late-20s Liz returning home to Roswell a decade after the death of her sister, Rosa, in a DUI that claimed two other lives and made pariahs of the Ortecho family. She’s not thrilled to be back in this town full of “small tragedies and small people,” and even less thrilled to be pulled over at an ICE checkpoint — but her fury dissipates when she recognizes the cop as Max Evans (Nathan Parsons), her high school almost-sweetheart, who’s just pulling her over for a busted tail light. They’re both too paralyzed by the weight of unresolved feelings to have much of a conversation. “You’re finally back,” Max manages, like he’s been counting off each day since Liz left town with an “X” scratched into his wall. Is the fact that he’s been pining for her for a full ten years deeply romantic or deeply terrifying? Let’s keep watching!
What Liz doesn’t know is that Max is no ordinary cop — in fact, he’s an alien who crash-landed in Roswell during the 1947 UFO incident and was born decades later as a remarkably human-looking child. Along with his sister, Isobel (Lily Cowles), and his friend Michael (Michael Vlamis), Max has lived his entire life passing as human but in constant fear of being discovered and carted off to a lab (a fun reversal of the old trope about aliens kidnapping humans to experiment on them). None of this emerges until later, after Max has used his alien powers to save Liz’s life during a drive-by shooting at her family’s diner. It’s worth noting that in the Roswell High books and the original series pilot, the shooting is random, but here the Ortechos are being deliberately targeted.
Liz immediately dies from her injury, and a devastated Max screams his way through a very painful-looking superpower process that blows out the diner’s electricity and heals Liz’s bullet wound. Then he dumps ketchup over her to try to disguise the blood underneath, and with all due respect to this iconic part of Roswell canon, I will never stop laughing at the idea that a person can’t tell the difference between THEIR OWN BLOOD and a delicious dollop of Heinz.
Max is so physically drained that he has to call Isobel for help, interrupting her right in the middle of dom-ing the hell out of her husband. Siblings, amirite? In a Don Draper power move I am personally here for, Isobel leaves her unnamed hubs in his shackles while she takes care of business. She finds Max collapsed in an alleyway and hands him a restorative bottle of nail polish remover, which is apparently what aliens now drink in place of hot sauce, and if that’s not an indictment of the bleak reality of 2019 then I don’t know what is.
Despite Max’s seemingly foolproof ketchup ploy, Liz can’t shake the feeling that she was, y’know, shot. There’s a history of mental illness in her family (both her mother and late sister suffered hallucinations) and she’s afraid she’s going insane. Enter her ex-boyfriend Kyle (Michael Trevino), who is conveniently a doctor, conveniently single, and conveniently very willing to help her out with absolutely anything she needs, from CT scans to no-strings-attached sex. There is no bullet in Liz’s body, the scan confirms, but there is a strange handprint emerging on her torso where Max healed her, which really puts a damper on her front-seat rendezvous with Kyle. That’s probably for the best, because Kyle goes directly to Master Sergeant Manes (Trevor St. John) — a war hero with a bee in his bonnet about the threat of aliens — to alert him about the handprint. Damnit, I knew those cheekbones were too perfect to be trustworthy!
By resurrecting Liz, Max has put himself, Isobel, and Michael all at risk of exposure, and they’re justifiably pissed. Isobel seems to have coped with her secret alien nature by integrating as much as possible, getting married and becoming the kind of doer who helps plan the high school reunion, while Michael’s done the opposite, living in an RV out in the desert, getting into habitual bar fights, and doing nothing with his genius IQ. But Michael’s not quite as directionless as he seems: When the military comes knocking at his door in the form of Alex, an acquaintance newly home from Baghdad, he seems rattled. That’s because inside his RV, there are a bunch of formulas and diagrams that suggest he may be trying to build a spacecraft, along with a glowing piece of something that is most definitely not of this earth.
Liz agrees to let Max take her out into the desert alone to “show her something”, which is 1,000% a great activity to do with a dude who is certifiably obsessed with you. It’s fine: He just wants to show her the glowing orbs inside which he, Michael, and Isobel fell to earth. The “I’m an alien” conversation goes pretty well, mainly because Liz is just relieved she’s not insane, and he explains to her that as a scientist, Liz represents the thing Max, Michael, and Isobel are most afraid of.
After Liz promises to keep this secret, the pair share an incredibly sexy moment of pure lust and lens flare out in the desert, as Max reveals that the mark he left on her shoulder has created a temporary psychic bond between them. She lets him touch her handprint (mm-hmmm) in order to share his memories of their relationship through the years, and show just how much he loves her. But when Liz tries to kiss him, he rebuffs her: since she’s feeling an echo of Max’s feelings for her, she’s under the influence of something like a love spell, and won’t be herself until it’s worn off. “Fine,” Liz says, not un-frustrated. “I’ll kiss you then.” Get you a smoldering alien who understands consent!
Meanwhile, in a creepier part of the desert, Sergeant Manes (incidentally, Alex’s father) is spinning Kyle his own fear-mongering version of what happened on the day of the UFO crash. The ship was carrying not three helpless children, but “an army of monsters,” most of whom died on impact. (I guess in Manes’s mind aliens are both evil and extremely bad at war strategy?) The handprint, he says, is evidence that at least one alien survived and is out for blood. Seems tenuous, but alright buddy! Manes also shows Kyle a low-tech underground military facility he’s calling Project Shepherd, which is somehow designed to protect “the entire planet” from aliens, and seems like exactly the kind of place where Max, Isobel, and Michael dread ending up.
Speaking of places you don’t want to be, the episode wraps up with Liz attending her high school reunion, where she faces a real smorgasbord of thinly veiled hostility from classmates muttering things like “I thought she got deported.” Right as she’s about to bail, her palm-reading bartender friend Maria gets the band to play a cover of Liz’s favorite song — Counting Crows’ “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” which we’ve already seen her dancing joyously to at the diner. I appreciate that the musical options in Roswell have not been updated since the late ’90s.
In another corner of the reunion, Alex demands to know what Michael’s doing in that RV, and like everybody else who has seen Breaking Bad, he assumes that the answer is cooking meth. The military found some suspicious chemical traces, but Michael denies it, and is too busy flirting with Alex to come up with a plausible cover story. “Does the macho cowboy swagger ever get old with you?” Alex says right into Michael’s ear, and at this point I’m 99 percent sure that what I’m seeing is not HoYay subtext but actual sexual tension. “Did it get old for you?” Michael murmurs back, and there goes that last one percent. He walks away, and damn it, I demand that somebody make out uninterrupted before the end of this episode!
Later, Michael finds Alex looking at a huge image of his teenage self projected onto a wall. (Which … what? Is this a thing that happens at high school reunions? What a nightmare!) “We’re not kids anymore. What I want doesn’t matter,” Alex says longingly, confirming that Liz and Max were not the only love story left unresolved after high school. Michael takes the plunge and kisses Alex, and guys … It’s. Such. A. Good. Kiss. It’s urgent and romantic, and they both look a little terrified, and the built-in drama here is already killer: Alex’s dad is a bigot who despises aliens and probably isn’t super stoked on homosexuality, and Alex clearly feels pressure to live up to the image of “a real Manes man,” and Michael is maybe searching for ways to leave the planet. Other than that, it’s gonna be smooth sailing all the way for these two.
But they’re still in better shape than Liz and Max, because the episode ends with Max ominously telling Isobel “she can never know about what happened to Rosa.” Uh-oh.