Roswell – The Meaning of Roswell: …

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The Meaning of Roswell: When All the World Was Young
By Paul F. McDonald
Special to
posted: 07:46 am ET
15 November 2000

Author’s Note: best read while listening to Dido’s “Here With Me”

One of the reasons that the WB’s science fiction/teen drama hybrid Roswell works so well is because the show’s producers aren’t afraid of extremes. This is fortunate, because the series deals with aliens and adolescence, two highly volatile subjects that don’t lend themselves to understatement.

As with most teen shows, hearts are broken and angst about fitting in dominates. Yet Roswell produces teens who have also recently discovered their destiny is to free their home planet from enslavement, and that they themselves are currently being hunted by malicious alien beings who hide in plain sight. Suddenly gym class doesn’t look so bad.

With the second season, creators Jason Katims and Jonathon Frakes have decided to minimize the more run-of-the-mill adolescent crisis in favor of a more extravagant superpower-oriented SF storyline.

Still, even as the ongoing mythology becomes more and more elaborate, the timeless themes of adolescence are still there. Perhaps the life of a teenager is so cosmic — or at least that’s how it feels at the time — that it was inevitable that someone set it against a literally galactic backdrop.

Alien without a cause


The one thing that teenagers, as the only major consumer demographic forced to obey curfews and parental restraints, can control is the ebb and flow of popular culture.

The foundation of Youth Culture was the Baby Boom ’50s, a time of change and evolution, much like adolescence itself. Hollywood took notice of shifting population trends and interests, producing such experimental films as The Wild One or Blackboard Jungle.

Rebel Without a Cause, the film that became James Dean’s epitaph as well as the rallying cry for an entire restless generation, perfectly captured what it meant to be an adolescent in America. And much like Roswell, it had deliberately cosmic overtones.

The director, Nicholas Ray, filmed several key scenes around D.W. Griffith Planetarium. Listening to a lecturer drone on about exploding planets in an indifferent universe, the ’50s teenagers face a grand mockup of the heavens in an expansive auditorium. The stars themselves are in collision, the chaos the adolescents felt inside being projected into the farthest reaches of space.

With Roswell, the teenagers internalize the chaos of space, their existential angst and emotional homelessness shifting from alienated to outright alien.


Planet Teen

Last year, Esquire published an article by Tom Carson tracing the development of Youth Culture on television. Even during the ’60s and ’70s, most shows that claimed to focus on teenagers actually revolved around their everyday lives at home, in the context of adult-centered families. Carson noted that all that changed when famed TV creator Aaron Spelling sold a little show called Beverly Hills, 90210 to the then-struggling Fox network.

Suddenly, it was the hidden lives of teenagers, away from school or parents, a secret world of romance and sometimes violence, that became the focal point. No longer mired in the context of the adult world, the genre that began as cliched melodrama blossomed into some of the most smartly-written programming on television.

The result is what Carson called “Planet Teen,” its charter members now Buffy and Dawson, not to mention Max and Michael and Isabel . . . even if their homeworld’s zip code may be light years away from 90210.

That visionary gleam

This evolution climaxes quite neatly with Roswell, and it speaks volumes about contemporary culture.

With the exception of ambiguous adversary Sheriff Valenti, adult characters are almost absent from the series, leaving viewers to read the show’s SF metaphors — some of which are on the extreme side — almost exclusively through the eyes of its young characters.

Like most teenagers, Max, Michael, Isabel and Tess are in a transitional state, neither fully child or adult.

The difference is a matter of intensity. Adolescent angst is most tangible when you have to worry not only about your parents eavesdropping on your telephone conversations, but alien hunters bugging your house. Or when your deadbeat dad doesn’t just live in another state, but rather in another solar system. Or when politicians aren’t simply corrupt, they’re homicidal aliens who have to shed their skin every few days.

Having one foot in each of two worlds (alien/human, child/adult) makes the lead characters insecure, to say the least. In a recent episode, Isabel gave a haunting monologue, recounting the fact that not only did she not know her real birthday, she had never seen the face of her true mother, the woman who abandoned her.

Orphan dreams

Fear of abandonment runs strongly throughout the Roswell saga, but new episodes are shifting to tell the story of Max Evans in a different key.

For much of the first season, Max was little more than a mild-mannered boy scout, a kind of cosmic Holden Caulfield armed with nifty alien powers instead of colorful expletives. Shy and vulnerable, he seemed a little misunderstood but somewhat average, despite his DNA.

The season finale changed all that. On his real planet, he was not only popular, but royalty. The gap between his secret status of “king of the aliens” and his public persona is painful — on Earth, Max can’t even vote or buy a beer. And traditionally, teenagers have been the disenfranchised in a world that holds their opinions in low regard.

Meanwhile, despite all the recent allusions to JFK and the American Camelot, Max’s angst has grown to positively Shakespearean depths.

Appropriately enough, it was James Dean who once remarked that only a teenager could properly portray Hamlet.

Nothing new in the secret world

Even when shows charting the rocky geography of contemporary youth grow more fantastic, many can still easily relate to them. Perhaps the mundane angst of past television teens — two dates to the prom, cheating on a math test — is simply irrelevant now.

Adult society is not something to be trusted or depended on in the Roswell universe. Parents are either bizarrely absent like the Evans, De Lucas and Parkers, abusive foster fathers like Michael’s, or amusing but morally bankrupt father figures like Nasedo. Authority is more malevolent than benign, taking the form of ineffectual school counselors or terrifying government special units.

Those adults who become exceptions to this rule, be it Sheriff Valenti or the late Agent Topolsky, do so by becoming outsiders to the adult world themselves.

Roswell isn’t the tale of juvenile delinquents, but rather juveniles in a delinquent society. Max, Michael, Isabel, and Tess have very few people to look to for support. It’s telling that they came not from living wombs but rather were seemingly self-made in their “births” from the spaceship pods — they have no parents to speak of.

With no real guidance and leadership, they find themselves being saddled prematurely with adult roles and responsibilities. The mandate to “save the planet” must literally fall to them because there isn’t anyone else. Planet Teen has to look to itself for sustenance, play its own surrogate family roles.

And maybe it’s just the same old story. One of the most sublime tongue-in-cheek scenes in the series came when a therapist was asking Max about his problems in the recent season premiere. After the therapist assured him that he understood and that millions of teenagers were going through the same thing, Max replayed in his mind all the cosmic and cataclysmic events of the past year, then replied without a trace of irony, “It’s like you said. Just normal teen stuff.”

Perhaps teenagers are truly a planet unto themselves. They now face parents that not only don’t understand, but no longer can. Maybe the adolescent dislocation is so severe, no earthbound context remains for talking about their problems.

While no one was looking, the generation gap became the generation abyss.