‘Roswell, New Mexico’ is a rare example of a reboot done right (TV commentary)

I

 generally reject reboots of my favorite franchises, but I flat-out love “Roswell, New Mexico,” The CW’s reboot of my beloved “Roswell” (1999-2002). So I should explain why this is. First of all, it’s really well made, with creator Carina Adly MacKenzie and her team showing respect and knowledge of the original material. Secondly, it doesn’t remake the original story; it plays with the same game pieces but has plenty of reasons to exist on its own. Third, it has a distinct title, making it easier to avoid confusion. And fourth, it didn’t cancel an ongoing story in order to start this new one; the original story was wrapped up in books in 2003.

I don’t follow Disney’s “Star Wars” because it breaks all four of those rules. The Boom! Studios comic-book reboot of “Buffy” is less offensive, since Joss Whedon wrapped up the Dark Horse “Buffy” comic narrative last year, and that timeline (originating from the TV show) has not been canceled; the “Slayer” book series is ongoing. If the comics had an “Infinities” or “What If?” label, rather than simply being called “Buffy,” I’d be buying them.

Through 10 episodes (it returns on April 8), “Roswell, New Mexico” has deftly walked the line between having a valid creative reason to exist while also respecting the original “Roswell” — yet not getting too blunt with the callbacks. The show’s soundtrack is all 1990s tunes, but it doesn’t use the original tracks, it has new artists cover classics by Third Eye Blind, Alanis Morissette, the Goo Goo Dolls and so forth. Enough of these covers are so good that I’d buy a soundtrack CD if they put one out.

The episode titles are ’90s pop-song titles. Rosa (Amber Midthunder), Liz’s deceased older sister, grew up in the Aughts but was a fan of music from a decade prior; a Third Eye Blind lyric – “fraudulent Zodiac” — that she writes on her palm serves as a clue as our heroes try to piece together the mystery behind her death.

“Roswell, New Mexico” doesn’t get too blunt with the callbacks. The soundtrack is 1990s tunes, but it doesn’t use the original tracks, it has new artists cover classics by Third Eye Blind, Alanis Morissette, the Goo Goo Dolls and so forth.

Another successfully walked tightrope is having actors and characterizations that fit the source material but bring something new. This is the case with Liz (Jeanine Mason) and Max (Nathan Parsons), who are cute star-crossed lovers but with the teen angst of Shiri Appleby’s and Jason Behr’s characters replaced with adult concerns, since they are 10 years older in this version. The fact that Mason and Parsons have amazing chemistry – something that the showrunners couldn’t be positive about until the show was up and running — is the biggest sign that the reboot gods are smiling on this show. Get Max and Liz wrong and this whole thing collapses.

Michael (Michael Vlamis) and Isobel (Lily Cowles) also fit the traits as laid down by Brendan Fehr and Katherine Heigl – rough-around-the-edges Michael and icy Isobel. (I’m not sure why her name is spelled “Isobel” in this version; “Roswell” and Melinda Metz’s original YA book series, “Roswell High,” spell her name “Isabel.”)

For the four main characters – the three aliens plus Liz – “RNM” wisely goes with the notion that these characters are now archetypes, that what defines them in the original series should be respected in new takes. It’s the same reason why Superman always has a certain look even when he’s being slightly reimagined for a new saga. Liz is now Mexican-American instead of white-TV-character-American (last name Ortecho instead of Parker), but that is in line with the true source material, the YA novels. Rosa Ortecho likewise comes from the books.

For the supporting cast, “RNM” allows itself much more leeway. Rosa is from the books, yes, but here she is Liz’s older sister rather than younger, and she is deceased in the present-day portion of the story. Sheriff Jim Valenti is also deceased, and the new sheriff is his wife (Rosa Arredondo). Maria (Heather Hemmens) is now black, and Kyle (Michael Trevino) and Alex (Tyler Blackburn) are so different from their original versions that I have to remind myself “OK, that one is Kyle, and that one is Alex.”

Alex is gay, Michael is bisexual and Isobel might also be bisexual (although perhaps some alien possession is in play), and taken out of context, these certainly play like cynical “moving the saga into this decade” changes. Watching “RNM,” though, it feels organic. There’s no heavy-handed lecturing via teleplay (although the characters in minority groups do deal with backlash from the occasional bigot); these are just character traits. Michael is bisexual, but it’s as much a political statement as him being straight in the original series.

Such changes are not only understandable, they are welcome, because if it’s all about trying to copy the original, then we could just rewatch the original. Or we could be watching a continuation of it. But that storyline was completed in the 2003 book series. I do very much sympathize with fans who want more of that story – indeed, a saga of Michael and Maria’s continuing, delightful bickering into adulthood is seriously being pitched, albeit in a way that respects copyright, under the title “Baron & Toluca.”

One thing that only a reboot can do is to restore the mystery of aliens among us. Watching “RNM,” I feel the same way I did in 1999 when Liz (and we as viewers) gradually learned more about the aliens, and the untrustworthy authorities were right there with us. But “RNM” isn’t telling the exact same story, and the stakes seem meatier here, although there’s still the appealingly colorful, slightly campy vibe. “Roswell’s” Sheriff Valenti is the classic authority figure who is actually a good guy, but military man Jesse Manes (Trevor St. John) is a direct threat, with a robust collection of evidence about the aliens that he keeps in a secret bunker.

(My prediction is that Jesse will turn out to be the evil fourth alien, something that would explain the personal, rather than job-related, nature of his obsession. It would also create a neat twist about why Jesse hates Michael, to the point of smashing his hand with a hammer. It’s not because Michael – and Jesse’s son, Alex – are gay. And it’s not because he thinks Michael isn’t good enough for his son. It’s because Jesse and Michael are old alien enemies.)

The mystery is also more layered. I love how the characters are learning about what happened a decade ago – the time of Rosa’s death – at the same time we are. This is made possible by the mysterious fourth alien’s mind-control powers. “RNM” has smoothly moved through the notions that Max, Michael or Isobel killed Rosa – something that’s slightly less preposterous with each iteration – into the concept of the “fourth alien.” There’s been tension between Liz and Max (and the other aliens), but while the scientist Liz has strong feelings about things, she’s also driven by logic; now knowing that Max, Michael and Isobel aren’t Rosa’s killer, Liz’s bond with the alien trio is tighter.

I don’t want to get too far into praising all the things “RNM” does better than “Roswell,” because it is standing on its shoulders, after all. But the production design must be noted. “RNM” is filmed entirely in New Mexico and the original series was shot entirely in California. While I adore the colors and vibe of the original – and indeed, the desert of California was a fine stand-in — I like the remote desert town feel of “RNM” more. Episode nine, “Songs About Texas,” features Max and Liz kissing as the sun sets on the desert scrub behind them, and it’s a beautiful summation of the advantages of shooting in a real Southwest location. And the fact that Appleby directs the episode gives it a nice stamp of approval.

The resistance and backlash to “RNM” among “Roswell” fans is substantial – probably not to the degree of old-school “Star Wars” fans to Disney’s reboot or old-school “Buffy” fans to a feared TV reboot – but it’s still a large group of naysayers. “Roswell” rates 7.5 on IMDB and “RNM” rates 5.8; that’s too big of a gap if one looks strictly at quality and doesn’t factor in many old-school fans’ disgust at the new show’s existence.

I certainly won’t lecture those fans about how they are missing out, as their feelings about not wanting a new version in any shape or form are just as valid as my dislike of Disney’s “Star Wars.” But I will say that “Roswell, New Mexico” is totally working for me — justifying its existence with a new narrative, respecting the classic version’s archetypes and style, and generally entertaining the heck out of me on Tuesday nights. While it might not be the best show on TV, it’s the one I most look forward to every week, and one that makes me fondly recall 1999. Not because I’d rather be watching “Roswell” (although I am due for a rewatch), but because I’m glad to have the experience again, in a fresh way.

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