“Roswell, New Mexico” (9 p.m. Eastern Tuesdays on The CW) is the latest in this decade’s mostly unfortunate trend of rebooting things we love that were already perfect. While I resist with almost every fiber of my being the idea of anyone other than Jason Behr and Shiri Appleby being called Max and Liz, I approached the pilot episode with an open mind and I admit it held my attention. What’s hard to parse out is: How much of my enjoyment comes from noting similarities and differences to “Roswell” Classic (1999-2002, WB/UPN) and how much comes from “RNM” being good in its own right?
The thing that most jumps out at me about “RNM” is that Nathan Parsons and Jeanine Mason actually are very cute together, and that show developer Carina Adly MacKenzie (who writes the pilot) respects this star-crossed love story. Unlike the high school-set original, this narrative gets jump-started 10 years after graduation, and it’s rather sweet that Max has gone a decade without falling in love because he can’t love anyone other than Liz.
“RNM” plays like an alternate reality of “Roswell,” one where the fateful shooting – where Max uses his alien powers to save Liz’s life – didn’t happen when they were teens; instead, it happens when they’re adults. I suspect this episode is the only one that will have scenes ripped directly from the original (the Crashdown Café shooting, Liz discovering Max’s hand mark), and that’s probably a good thing.
The pilot episode is a mix of “Hey, that’s familiar!” and “Hey, that’s different!” If I squint my eyes, Mason and Parsons resemble Appleby and Behr. The hairstylists and costume designers honor the source material – note the sky blue waitress outfit Liz wears when helping her dad upon her return to Roswell. Michael Vlamis, playing Michael, clearly studied Brendan Fehr’s performance, and I suspect the same of Lily Cowles (as Isobel) regarding Katherine Heigl’s turn.
Whereas immigration is an undercurrent of “Roswell” Classic if you Bring Your Own Subtext, it is front and center here. Liz, clearly Hispanic now with the last name Ortecho instead of Parker, rips into an officer about her Constitutional rights at a DUI checkpoint that she suspects is a thinly veiled immigration checkpoint. That officer is actually sheriff’s deputy Max, who acknowledges ICE has been leaning on Sheriff Valenti.
Elsewhere, Alex’s dad (Trevor St. John), a military man, shows a secret alien-observation bunker to Kyle (Michael Trevino) and speaks about aliens the way a particularly paranoid and racist person might talk about Hispanic immigrants. On the non-metaphorical front, many citizens of Roswell are outwardly racist; one mutters within earshot of Liz: “I thought she was deported.”
As for the major differences, first there are the expected clichés of the reboot era: Male characters become female, and straight characters become gay. In this version, Sheriff Valenti is a woman, played by Rosa Arredondo, and Michael and Alex (Tyler Blackburn) are gay. That probably means no romance between Michael and Maria (Heather Hemmens) in “RNM,” and frankly, that’s not a bad move, as that’s one comparison to the original this version can’t hope to win.
(In fact, there’s a grassroots push to make “Baron & Toluca,” with Fehr and Majandra Delfino already starring in a short test pilot. Since the makers don’t have rights to “Roswell,” they aren’t Michael Guerin and Maria DeLuca, but it’s not a coincidence that the actors banter in familiar fashion.)
“RNM” bids viewers to return with the hook of a couple mysteries. Isobel, Max and Michael reference an incident 10 years ago where Isobel had to use her powers to wipe Liz’s mind. Did Liz and Max have a romance that only Max remembers? If so, I dig the extra layer of bittersweet heartbreak. What’s more, it seems Liz’s older sister Rosa died in association with Isobel wiping Liz’s memory.
Beyond the rote amusement that comes from comparing versions, there’s something to “Roswell, New Mexico.” It’ll take more episodes to learn if it’s a little something or a lot of something, and if I can make room for another Max and Liz in my heart.