Roswell a surprise on TV and online

Thanks to VanGirl for sending this in!

Roswell a surprise on TV and online

Alex Strachan, Sun Television Critic Vancouver Sun, March 6,2000

LOS ANGELES — From the outside, Stage 15 at Paramount Pictures at the corner of Branson and Melrose looks like any one of the many soundstages sprawling across this historic lot in the heart of Los Angeles’ film-making Mecca. It’s a low-slung white building about four stories high with no windows, like an aircraft hangar.

The only hint of the bizarre activity inside is a handwritten notice by a side door that reads: “Absolutely no tours, please.” Inside, one is immediately transported into the oddly skewed and screwy world of Roswell, the first-year WB-VTV television series with the absurd premise — present-day high-schoolers descended from aliens. Yet the show quickly confounded critics with its resonant humanity, realism and an attractive young cast of unknowns, and showed the promise of achieving Dawson’s Creek-style buzz.

One of the most unsung teams of set designers working in television today has crafted a labour of love that rivals feature films with 10 times the budget: a modern-day high school, surrounded by a town in New Mexico, complete with its own roadside diner that hasn’t changed a bit since that fateful day in July 1947 when a flying saucer from outer space supposedly fell to Earth.

The television show was inspired by events in the real-life Roswell, where this legendary event triggered more than five decades of what-if tall tales and carefully cultivated paranoia.

“Where’s the washroom?” a soundstage visitor from Ohio inquires, somewhat grumpily, on this sunny but unseasonably cool January day. “Over there,” he is told cheerfully by a Roswell set assistant. “No,” he replies, “the real one.”

In the Crash Down Cafe — real name, fake cafe — a postcard for the UFO Museum is tacked to a bulletin board with the legend “The Truth Is Here.” Below a wall menu flagging “Extra Terestral [sic] Taco Salad, $4.25” is the hand-scrawled notation “Add Unidentified Fried Objects to any sandwich for 25 cents.”

This year’s graduating class from Roswell High, a school poster dutifully records, is “the Class of ’00.” There are framed tearsheets from the real Roswell Daily Record of July 8 and 9, 1947. “General Ramey Empties Roswell Saucer: Ramey says Excitement is not Justified,” blares one headline. Another says simply: “General Ramey says disc is weather balloon.” The most telling headline, however, is written across the bottom of the page in big, bold type: “Harassed Rancher who Located ‘Saucer’ Sorry He Told About It.”

Looking impossibly young for their age, Vancouver native and Roswell star Brendan Fehr and his Venezuelan-born castmate, blond, thin and playfully wistful Majandra Delfino, sit in chairs at the cafe bar, in front of a soda machine that dispenses Bubble Lime, Dave’s Cola, Grape-A-Licious, Dr. Papson and Warren’s Cola. Fehr, in white T-shirt, jeans, unzipped black warmup jacket and sunglasses perched above a black toque, hops on to the counter and sits with his feet tapping against the bar. He is relaxed, tanned and a long way from home.

Roswell didn’t have a prayer, its critics said. The WB, the network that brought you Pinky and the Brain and a cast of pimply faced nobodies in a non-starter called Dawson’s Creek, was supposed to be a laughing-stock. A cross between The X-Files and My So-Called Life (for which Roswell showrunner and head writer Jason Katims was one of the key figures) sounded too silly for words.

Instead, Roswell — along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff Angel and the coming-of-age drama Popular, featuring Vancouver ingenue Carly Pope –have burned The WB into the pop-culture consciousness. Roswell, the top-ranked show in the U.S. among girls aged nine to 16, has a median viewer age of 27, which means that many people in their 30s and older are also watching.

Katims, who joins Fehr and Delfino for an informal late-afternoon chat with writers from the Television Critics Association, says Roswell was originally passed over by the Fox network because it thought the show skewed too young for its audience. (The WB’s gain is Fox’s loss. While the WB is TV’s fastest-growing network, Fox is in a tailspin, with ratings for even its flagship series Ally McBeal and The X-Files falling to Earth in a serious way.)

Fehr allows that Roswell continues to be a learning experience, not only for him and Delfino but for their fellow castmates. (The Vancouver contingent is not limited to Fehr; one of the show’s executive producers is former X-Files and Millennium director David Nutter and the series’ principal cinematographer is Vancouver Emmy Award winner John Bartley.)

“Definitely, if our show does help kids deal with [alienation],” Fehr says with characteristic candour, “then I think that may be one sign that our show is doing a wonderful job and that’s fine, but I would really hate to think that kids rely on something as trivial as a TV show to deal with real issues in their lives. I realize that people do want to get more out of a TV show sometimes than just entertainment, but we’re pretty grounded about what we’re doing here.”

Fehr credits veteran character actor William Sadler with being a stabilizing influence on the young, often rambunctious cast. Working on a popular series that has created ripples in the pop-cultural mainstream is rewarding in terms of personal gratification, he allows, but Sadler’s spare, thoughtful advice, based on years of experience, puts all the attention in proper perspective.

Fehr has emerged as the online favourite of many of the series’ teenage fans, which he admits strikes him as odd and somewhat intimidating. The show has more than 40 fan Web sites, including several devoted specifically to Fehr. His personal fan sites have been getting the most hits from infatuated fans.

In the beginning, Fehr says, he was getting regular letters from a girl who apologized for writing so much because he was probably being inundated with sacks of fan mail. “The funny thing is, she was the only one writing at the time,” Fehr says, with a self-deprecating smile.

What a difference two months makes, I tell him. “And how,” he replies.

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