Roswell: The Complete First Season Review
Roswell, New Mexico: forever etched into the public consciousness as the nearest place to the alleged alien crash that lead to Area 51 and the extremely famous autopsy. It's a fairly small community that has since capitalised on its fame with any number of cheap and tacky alien tie-ins. The Arby's there proclaims 'Aliens Welcome', the Wal*Mart has UFOs and aliens painted on its side, etc etc. In this case it's the setting for a teen drama where aliens are real and going to High School alongside their human counterparts – well, three aliens anyway.
And that's the basic premise as the show starts. Liz (Shiri Appleby), Maria (Majandra Delfino) and Alex (Colin Hanks) are best friends, all attending school in Roswell and dreaming of leaving their sleepy town with its tacky alien-themed cafes and making something more of their lives. When Liz is caught in a shootout between two patrons of the Crashdown Café, something strange happens – quiet kid Max Evans (Jason Behr) dashes over, heals her wound just by touching it, and saves her life. Obviously this piques Liz's interest and she soon finds out that Max, his sister Isabel (Katharine Heigl) and their friend Michael (Brendan Fehr) are all aliens who emerged from incubation pods decades after the initial crash... and in human form. Although Liz is originally sworn to secrecy, Maria and Alex soon join the small list of humans who know the truth, and these six struggle to maintain this huge secret from all the adults in their lives... especially their suspicious local sheriff, Valenti (William Sadler).
So that's the basics out the way – but what's it like? Well, it's often called a kind of cross between Dawson's Creek and The X-Files and that's not too far from the mark. Unlike Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer though, this show isn't marked by witty exchanges that seem out of place for teenagers – and the FBI involvement becomes genuinely a bit creepy as the series progresses. It feels more like Smallville to me, but with a wider range of people in on the secret. As with all teen shows though, the characters pair up very conveniently (6 people = 3 couples, naturally) and wholly unbelievably. There's the 'good', wholesome couple (Liz and Max) who were so obviously meant for each other you wonder how it took some random incident to even get them to speak – theirs is the relationship the others aspire to, though it's a bit soppy if you ask me. There's the quirky best friend, Maria, who's just more fun to watch than the lead – and she gets together with the angry outsider, Michael. Isabel, the cold beauty is paired with the geeky Alex. In that sense this is pretty standard fare but if you can put all that aside, there is more to recommend this series than you might expect.
The actual story arc is pretty good; I was surprised at how much it drew me in, and how many twists and surprises they managed to slip past me. I do watch a fair number of similar type shows and lots of sci-fi, but somehow I didn't expect some of the revelations that are present in Roswell. Obviously I'm not going to give concrete examples for fear of spoiling them for others that haven't seen the series in its entirety, but there is some really good stuff in there with both aliens and hunters and more importantly, character development. Acting is variable, but overall I was impressed with it – especially from the adults (William Sadler and Julie Benz deserve special mention here).
Now obviously the metaphor we're supposed to draw from Roswell is that high school is a time everyone feels a bit alien whatever background they're from. Only Michael in this show has a bad family life, but that addition is a worthwhile one and provides an interesting dynamic between the three aliens – so they're differentiated and disagree as much as anyone. There are three main story types tackled in the show: the aliens' search for their own identity (who they are, where they're from, and why they're on Earth); their pursuit by shady government types; and your standard teen romance hoo-hah (mainly between Liz and Max, but not limited to them). Interestingly these story types intertwine, which makes them a little more appealing than if they were taken in isolation.
For content and style I'd definitely say the show was more than I expected it to be and that I did enjoy this first series; even with a few filler episodes, I felt drawn into the action and interested in its resolution. It's no surprise to me that the show attracted a number of fans, and its fans are also a pretty famous part of the Roswell phenomenon. The show was originally aired by 'The WB' (who also originally showed Buffy the Vampire Slayer and currently broadcast Smallville, Charmed and any other number of sci-fi / teen drama hybrids) and at some point during even its first series run the show was in danger of not being completed or renewed. Fans actively campaigned on behalf of the show, organising via the Internet, sending Tabasco sauce (much loved by the aliens) to network executives and generally making their voices heard. This lead to the second series of the show and then to the subsequent third series, after UPN picked it up when Warner Brothers was no longer interested. There have been a number of similar fan campaigns since then, but I remember that the Roswell one was the first that I was aware of that made such a good use of the Net for bringing a fan community together to act to save the object of their fandom. The fans' role is recognised by almost every person who comments on the series, from creator Jason Katims all the way down to the actors.
Don't get me wrong. It's not a perfect TV show, but it doesn't put itself up against infinitely superior shows. Roswell most certainly knows in which genre it lies: the teen drama, mingled with a bit of sci-fi to give it an edge. And it does just what it says on the tin, in a surprisingly entertaining first season.
Episode 1: Pilot
Liz Parker works in the Crashdown Café in Roswell, New Mexico – a mecca for believers in extra-terrestrial activity. When a fight breaks out in the café, Liz is accidentally shot. Max Evans, who obviously has doted on this high-school waitress for some time now, runs to her side and miraculously heals her wound. Liz learns that Max, his sister Isabel and their friend Michael are all in fact aliens – seemingly stranded on Earth and adopted into (or fostered by) human families when they were discovered as children. Liz confides in her best friend Maria and the basic premise of the show is set up.
Episode 2: The Morning After
Liz tries to maintain her existing relationship with the sheriff's son (Kyle) despite her deep and growing bond with Max. A new guidance counsellor (Ms Topolsky) arrives at the high school and Liz is immediately suspicious, especially when she spots her carrying Michael's file. Meanwhile Michael breaks into the sheriff's office and steals a mysterious key which gives him a vision when he touches it.
Episode 3: Monsters
Maria is not finding the secret easy to keep and seems quite twitchy and nervous, especially around the suspicious Sheriff Valenti. Isabel gets really worried about Maria's reactions so she unveils her ability to peek into others' dreams, testing them out on Maria to see how trustworthy she might be.
Episode 4: Leaving Normal
Kyle's friends take it upon themselves to beat up Max for his interest in Liz. He recovers and manages to get a job at the local alien museum (which thankfully also houses a library of alien-related texts). Liz's grandmother comes to visit but is rushed to hospital after a stroke hits. Kyle insists that he had nothing to do with his friends' actions, but Liz still breaks up with him.
Episode 5: Missing
Liz's diary has gone missing – and it includes information about Max and the others, in great detail. They all begin to fear it could have fallen into the wrong hands. Michael meanwhile has more visions related to the key and begins to obsessively draw a geodesic dome building. The mysteries of the missing journal and the new school counsellor are revealed and there's a big clue pointing to the building Michael has been seeing in visions.
Episode 6: 285 South
Michael is so desperate to find the geodesic dome that he ends up kidnapping Maria so he can use her car, and they head south on I-285 towards Marathon, Texas where the geodesic dome house is apparently located. Using a mobile phone, Maria manages to alert the others, who give chase. The chase is joined separately by both Kyle and Sheriff Valenti – as well as Ms Topolsky…
Episode 7: Riverdog
Sheriff Valenti has worked out who gave him a good old whack on the head but lays low, just watching. The gang of five manage to escape the house without being caught, taking some papers and a necklace with a strange design on it – later we find out it's a design that means something to the aliens, even if they don't know what. Liz and Co. make contact with Riverdog at the local Native American Indian reservation – a man who has had previous dealings with Nasedo, another alien.
Episode 8: Blood Brother
Max gets injured in a car accident and ends up in hospital with all the associated concern about his blood tests... and who might be trying to find them out that isn't on the medical staff. Liz brings her friend Alex in to help out by giving blood they can swap with Max's – of course, Alex isn't in on the big secret but from this point on starts to be even more curious about what the hell is going on.
Episode 9: Heat Wave
There's a heat wave in town (despite it being December) and everyone seems to be getting together romantically, including Maria and Michael. Isabel dreamwalks into one of Alex's dreams to see if he's trustworthy and gets a pleasant surprise. After a local party is busted by Sheriff Valenti, Liz and Alex spend the night in jail and have an interesting conversation where Liz comes clean on the big secret.
Episode 10: The Balance
Michael sees a drawing of the symbols Max saw at the cave Riverdog took him to and he makes up his mind to go to the reservation and find the man. He ends up in a terrible hallucinatory state which leads the others to work together frantically in order to save his life.
Episode 11: Toy House
When will Max learn? Once again he uses his powers fairly openly, this time to save his mother from a kitchen fire. This leads Mrs Evans to examine old videos of her adopted children and to begin to wonder about Max… stoked, of course, by a visit from Sheriff Valenti who stirs the situation up a little.
Episode 12: Into the Woods
A UFO sighting in nearby woods leads all of our main characters to go on a silly school camping trip. They sneak out in the middle of the night to look for clues. We learn a little more about Sheriff Valenti and his father.
Episode 13: The Convention
The whole town gets caught up in the annual UFO Convention. Max gets to look after Jonathan Frakes (a guest at the convention), but he also has to avoid some people who witnessed his healing of Liz and the overly-curious Everett Hubble. After hearing more about a fourth alien, Max worries that Nasedo may actually be a killer.
Episode 14: Blind Date
Liz wins the local radio station's blind date contest and is matched up with some college kid from out of town who seems nice enough. Meanwhile Kyle and Max get together to drown their sorrows and Max has his first taste of alcohol with some interesting results. Meanwhile Michael and Isabel sneak out and send a signal to Nasedo.
Episode 15: Independence Day
Michael and his foster father have a bit of a violent exchange, which leads Max and Isabel to try and help extract their friend from this awful situation. With the help of the Evans' parents, Michael decides to follow a path of emancipation. The audience of the show finally gets to see Nasedo and witness his shapeshifting powers.
Episode 16: Sexual Healing
Liz and Max give in to some of their urges and share some increasingly passionate moments, which are strangely accompanied by visions of space and planets. The visions leads Max and Liz to a strange glowing orb buried in the desert... an orb that shares the pattern found on the necklace from previous episodes.
Episode 17: Crazy
A somewhat crazed Ms Topolsky returns to warn the group of a special unit within the FBI, headed by an Agent Pierce, that's hunting aliens. She tells Valenti the same story and he then spends some time checking up on it. After Topolsky lures Michael into the open with the strange orb, the others follow until the meeting is pre-empted and the orb abandoned. Meanwhile, Isabel befriends Tess, a new female student.
Episode 18: Tess, Lies and Videotape
Max is reacting very strangely to Tess, including some pretty intense daydreams. Valenti learns that Topolsky was killed in a mysterious fire and he learns that his previous assumptions may not have been accurate. The group discover a hidden camera in Michael's new flat, and they decide to use it to spy on Tess, so they can find out more about her – but they certainly don't expect what the camera shows!
Episode 19: Four Square
Valenti's detective work leads him to tell Max that it's now time to share some information if he wants to be properly protected. Michael and Isabel start to share sexual dreams about one another and begin to believe Isabel is pregnant with Michael's child. In the desert Tess tells Max both who Nasedo is and who she is.
Episode 20: Max to the Max
The aliens discover the pod where they were born with Tess' help, and they start to learn something of their destiny from a book that was hidden in the local library. Nasedo goes on a mission to flush out Pierce and keep the others safe, but he takes Liz with him to do so. Everyone ends up at a local funfair where Valenti comes face to face with two versions of Max (the person Nasedo has chosen to mimic this time). The FBI capture Max – but which Max is it?
Episode 21: The White Room
Max is stuck in a white room being interrogated by Agent Pierce through a number of methods. Isabel manages to communicate telepathically with Max and they work out where he's being held – from then all thoughts turn to rescue efforts. Nasedo joins them and teaches Michael more about his powers. Liz, fearing for Max's life, comes clean with Sheriff Valenti.
Episode 22: Destiny
After the escape, the aliens now have to save Nasedo and they realise they know how. Valenti helps draw Pierce into the plan, but in a bit of a mix-up, Kyle is shot. After finding and healing Nasedo the aliens all go back to the pod, where they work out how to use the orbs to release a message from Max and Isabel's real mother.
Although Roswell was originally broadcast in a standard 4:3 ratio, this DVD offers an anamorphic widescreen presentation, which gives the show a more cinematic feel. It seems to actually have been shot in widescreen as the compositions didn't seem off to me in any way, although I didn't watch more than a couple of episodes when it originally broadcast on TV so I could be wrong.
The video quality itself is a good standard – especially as many of the scenes in this series seem to involve sneaking around in dark places, or night scenes. There's a little grain, but colours are nice and accurate with both flesh and dark tones working well and detail easy to pick out. Where the action moves into daytime or the blistering desert heat, the very light scenes and colours also have good contrast.
From what I've been reading about this release of Roswell, we're dealing here with a television show that has had to change much of its music for the DVD release due to music licensing rights. (I don't have the cover for the set, but according to US reviewers, there is a note to this effect on the back of the slipcase and an insert explaining the switches by the producers.) Apparently creator Katims and his team kept most of the music used for the emotional scenes, but had to change the music elsewhere – many of the bands whose music they used have since gone on to become more successful, sending licensing costs soaring. However, Dido's rendition of 'Here With You' (which serves as the series' title music) is preserved. I didn't see much of the show when it first came out on TV, so I can't give a definitive view of how the change in music has affected the feel of the series – all I can say is that for me the music all seemed to fit well with the action and the atmosphere of the show. Without the musical changes it is unlikely this DVD would have been released, so for Roswell purists at least the producers have been very up-front about the changes, and you can decide how much those changes matter. That being said, it is a change from the show as originally aired – and a big one.
Music aside, the soundtrack is presented in 5.1 surround and works well. There is definite use of the entire soundstage and it was a pleasant surprise to hear how good this show sounded. Dialogue is very clear and the effects and background music all work well together but never detract from the main action.
This DVD set includes a number of extras, including six commentaries, split across the six discs with each disc holding a commentary for a single episode. The breakdown of who comments and on what episode is as follows: 'The Pilot' with writer Jason Katims and director David Nutter; 'Blood Brother' with David Nutter; 'The Balance' with writer Thania St. John; 'Sexual Healing' with Shiri Appleby and Majandra Delfino; 'Crazy' with Shiri Appleby and Majandra Delfino; 'Destiny' with Jason Katims and director Patrick Norris. It's an interesting mix of writers, directors and actors (though a shame we only get to hear from two of the actors across all six commentaries). It has to be said that none of the commentaries are especially fascinating, though they each hold snippets of interest. The directors and writers obviously focus more on how stories are set up and the qualities of actors, whereas the actresses are a bit more giggly, reminiscing on what it was like to be in the series.
The final disc includes the majority of the extra features, including two featurettes. The Area 51 featurette is around half an hour long and has the feeling of a promotional piece. It's quite interesting but does involve several spoilers. A few more of the actors get to speak about the show, including Colin Hanks and William Sadler. The Roswell High featurette is actually a ten minute discussion between the writer and editor of the series of books the show was based on – although the television rights were picked up before the first book had even been written, so the storylines of books and show diverge quite a lot apparently. So they discuss some of these differences and the history behind the concept – a fairly interesting addition, especially for those of us who haven't read the books (and don't intend to!).
Emilie de Ravin's audition tape is also includes here, and only really serves to show that no one else's made it onto the extras. De Ravin plays the mysterious Tess, who brings a new dynamic into the group when she appears towards the end of the first series. There are two scenes involving Tess shown here.
The smaller extras are the Save Yourself music video by Sense Field and a very short deleted scene from the pilot episode (located in the extras menu from the episode screen, rather than on the final disc like the rest of the non-commentary extras). They're just fluff and a little pointless, but hey – it all adds up to a pretty decent extras package for the series.
Although I'd previously caught a couple of episodes of Roswell on television, this was the first time I'd actually watched the entire first season and I was pleasantly surprised by the plot, the writing and the acting. It's very much a teen drama, with that tinge of sci-fi that helps it stand out from the crowd – but even compared with similar it's often forgotten. Personally I preferred this first season to Smallville but the story arc worked so well that I find myself completely apathetic about ever watching the subsequent series which, I feel, can only go downhill. The DVD package presents the complete first season with a decent bunch of extras and a good transfer – so should appeal to fans of both the show and genre alike.