Salon talks about the season premiere of Roswell

This is an older review of the season premiere of Roswell that I found in Salon.

October 4, 1999
by Joyce Millman

Created and written by Jason Katims (“My So-Called Life,” “Relativity”), co-produced and directed by former “X-Files” director David Nutter and based on the popular “Roswell High” series of novels for middle-school readers, “Roswell” has the best-written, most charming pilot episode of the season.

Liz Parker (the captivating Shiri Appleby) is an A-student who works in her parents’ Crashdown Cafe, a diner that caters to/mocks the town’s place in UFO-hunter lore (it’s the site of the alleged 1947 crash of an alien spacecraft) — the Crashdown’s menu offers such items as “the Sigourney Weaver” and “the Will Smith.” One day at work, there’s an altercation between two patrons and Liz is shot by a stray bullet. A classmate of Liz’s, Max Evans (Jason Behr), who is in the cafe, leaps to her aid; in the commotion, he touches her wounded abdomen, she experiences some sort of mind-meld and the wound heals. He begs her to tell people the bullet didn’t touch her, only broke a bottle of ketchup near her, then he flees. Later, she finds a silver handprint on her stomach.

Liz staunchly protects Max’s secret (she always did have a crush on him, with his shy puppy-dog eyes), even though she’s a little freaked by his confession that he’s not of this earth. But Sheriff Valenti (William Sadler), who, unfortunately, is Liz’s jealous boyfriend’s father, is snooping around. Valenti’s father was an FBI agent who was laughed out of the bureau when he became convinced that the silver handprint he found on a corpse in the 1950s was proof that aliens really did crash-land in Roswell. Now the sheriff wants to believe, in order to clear his father’s name.

“Roswell” is an enchanting, bittersweet first-love story: “My whole life changed in an instant,” Liz writes in her diary. “It’s just so ironic that when something like this finally happened to me, it was with an alien.” And the sci-fi stuff is pretty cool, too. Max, his sister Isabel (the imposing Katherine Heigl) and their surly pal Michael (Brendan Fehr) believe they survived the spaceship crash at Roswell and were hidden in suspended animation pods for over 30 years. When they hatched (taking human form), they were found wandering around and were assumed to be abandoned children.

Max and Isabel lucked out and were adopted by loving parents; Michael lives in a trailer park with his abusive foster father. Max, Isabel and Michael have the power to heal, can change the shape of solids and listen to CDs by just holding them up to their ears. They also have a strange and as yet unexplained fondness for Tabasco sauce. When they learn about the sheriff’s autopsy photo of the corpse with the handprint, they become excited: Do they have a relative somewhere? Can they go home?

The “Roswell” pilot deftly blends breathless teen romance with witty nods to our alien-conspiracy soaked culture. At the show’s climax, everyone in Roswell dons sci-fi movie costumes and gathers in the desert for the Crash Festival, where a model of a UFO drops and alien dummies burn. (The show’s co-executive producer, Jonathan Frakes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame, has a cameo at the Crash Festival.) But “Roswell” also poignantly depicts what it feels like to be an outsider, a minority, a stranger in a strange land. The looks on the faces of Max, Isabel and Michael as they watch the dummies burn is heartbreaking.

The second episode of “Roswell” is less beguiling; the conspiracy widens to include the obligatory duplicitous government agent (played by Richard Schiff, doing double-duty between this and NBC’s “The West Wing”). And the theme of small-town secrets introduced in the episode feels a little “Twin Peaks”-y, without that show’s genuinely upside-down weirdness. (Peakheads will be amused, though, by the presence in “Roswell” of actor Michael Horse; he plays the sheriff’s deputy, just like he played on “Twin Peaks.”) For now, what grabs you about “Roswell” is its lyrical depiction of being 16 and in love and feeling like everything you thought you knew about yourself has become alien to you. “Five days ago I died,” recites Liz from her diary. “But then the really amazing thing happened. I came to life.”