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History of TV: Revisiting the Crashdown Cafe in 'Roswell'

October 7, 2021
4 min read time

"I’m Liz Parker and five days ago I died. After that, things got really weird."

Epic start to a short, three-season run of The WB’s cult hit Roswell, which premiered 22 years and a day ago. Its start was amid the X-Files peak, but this one was for teens. That quintessential coming-of-age trope that just won’t die. Kinda like Liz Parker turns out. Except in her case, it was thanks to an extraterrestrial that she survives and thus we’re introduced to Max, Isabel and Michael, survivors of the 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico — as well as your average teens with love, school, and hiding from the authorities on their minds. 

Nothing like watching the escapades of three teenage alien "siblings" experiencing unrequited love and battling the paradigm on TV to mimic your own high school experience, amiright?

Romeo and Juliet

Or rather, Max and Liz. Michael and Maria. A fresh take (for 1991) on the "wrong side of the tracks" star-crossed love story, these guys aren’t even from the same planet. The human girls they fall for, on the other hand, are intelligent, well-rounded characters with their own goals — female characterizations that were just starting to emerge more onscreen at the time. There were also the obligatory obstacles to said star-crossed romance: disapproving parents, ex-girlfriends (even if they are from another life and planet entirely), and simple, oh-so-relatable self-doubt. Pretty standard stuff for a teen romance, and yet also so basic and intrinsic to young adulthood, there’s a reason it’s explored again and again in books, television and film.

The "will they ever get together" relationships between Max and Liz, Michael and Maria, are arguably what kept the dwindling audience tuning in, while the rest of the show often found itself adrift in a sci-fi sea of confusion to the point where Emmy®-winning sci-fi writer Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Battlestar Galactica) was brought in to elevate the science fiction element.

The romantic heart of the show remains, undoubtedly, what Roswell is remembered for, however — ironic for a show about aliens... except that it isn’t; that all-too-human emotion can be found driving any number of genre stories to ground us in these fantastical other worlds. It’s what connects us to the characters and keeps us rooting for their happiness, salvation, or whatever their arcs call for.

Thematic resonance

I talk about it a lot in this space because theme is one of the golden ingredients to a successful— or at least highly memorable — show. It’s the driving force that pulls your story, characters, and all the rest of it together.

In Roswell, the simplicity of the hook is what makes it work so well: Most teenagers feel like outcasts, foreign to the world around them as they learn the ways of the world, not unlike Roswell’s actual alien protagonists. This "outsider" mentality drives the show, and not just from the perspective of Max, Isabel and Michael.

Another driving theme is that of secrets. The three "siblings" are trying to keep the fact that they’re aliens a secret, which creates a lot of plot points and tension, as well as setting the stage for fear of authority figures in their town, from Sheriff Valenti all the way up to the FBI.

Inherent differences among us are constantly examined through this extraterrestrial lens in Roswell and sci-fi in general; differences of opinions, of being — things that won’t resolve in a single hour of television, but can be tossed under the microscope to open the conversation to understanding. And that is a wonderful endeavor for any show to tackle.

The (alien) ship that launched a thousand careers

Okay maybe not that many, but Roswell is one of those fun shows to play connect-the-dots with. The series was based on the YA book series by Melinda Metz and developed for TV by Jason Katims of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. Most notable of the bunch is perhaps Katherine Heigl of Grey’s Anatomy and Knocked Up fame, who plays alien Isabel. Shiri Appleby (Liz Parker) went on to star in ER and UnREAL among others, while two of the boys — Brendan Fehr (as Michael) and Adam Rodriguez (as Jesse) — both ended up on CSI: Miami. Emilie de Ravin (Once Upon a Time) and Colin Hanks (Dexter) also starred.

Star Trek was even cited in a meta sort of way, with Max auditioning for Star Trek: Enterprise and STNG’s Jonathan Frakes had guest spots as himself on the show (and off, as one of Roswell’s executive producers and directors), while his real-life wife Genie Francis played the fictional Queen Mother of Antar on Roswell.

In retrospect

Roswell reemerged in 2019 as Roswell, New Mexico on The CW. While Max is still an extraterrestrial, this time around, Liz is the daughter of undocumented immigrants, which grounds the sci-fi drama in a whole new timely light. Jason Behr reappears, though not as Max, and Appleby returned to the familiar property but in the director’s chair this time. This re-imagining also appears to be outliving its predecessor, having been locked in for an upcoming fourth season.

For now, I’ll be dusting off my original television soundtrack to play Dido’s "Here with Me" on repeat...

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