Mistakenly, I had it my head that Max and Liz – aside from a few brief stretches where they are apart — are a couple throughout the three-season run of “Roswell.” On this rewatch, I was surprised to realize they are split up through the entire 21-episode run of Season 2 (2000-01, WB). Yet this season illustrates why I had the mistaken impression, and why “Roswell” is a special show.
Even though Max (Jason Behr) and Liz (Shiri Appleby) aren’t together, we experience Season 2 through the lens that they should be together. Every instance that pries them apart – Liz “sleeping with” Kyle (Nick Wechsler), Max taking up with Tess (Emilie de Ravin) – feels wrong, and it’s supposed to feel wrong. Compare this to contemporaries such as “Dawson’s Creek,” which fixate on the relationship playing out at the specific moment. Also, Appleby and Behr mature as actors in Season 2 — and I’m not only referring to the episode that shows Future Liz and Future Max.
A lot goes wrong this season – both creatively (some episodes are outright bad, which wasn’t the case in Season 1) and in the narrative (with not only faltering romances, but also the death of a friend). But with Season 3 to follow on UPN, there’s an “Empire Strikes Back” quality to Season 2: These are the dark times before things are set right again.
Famously or infamously, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” veteran Ronald D. Moore joins the creative team, and it’s easy to assume the early lack of confident narrative direction is because there are two top chefs in the kitchen. But judging by the commentary tracks, Moore and Jason Katims were on the same page; the opposing force was the WB network, which felt “Roswell” could draw more fans if it was faster-paced and had more sci-fi doodads.
Speaking of that sci-fi stuff: Several episodes remind us that the four aliens are not truly the aliens who lived on the faraway planet, even though they have vague memories of that life. To put it bluntly, the four aliens are alien-human hybrids, with half of their DNA coming from an alien (hence their vague memories and powers), and half from a human donor (hence how they look). Also, they are not even one-of-a-kind: Their Duplicates live in New York. Nonetheless, they are treated as if they are not mere clones, but instead are crucial to the politics of the faraway planet. But as a viewer, I often think “Live your lives as humans; forget all the alien politics.”
As uneven as the narrative flow is, that’s ultimately the essence of the journey of Max, Michael (Brendan Fehr), Isabel (Katherine Heigl) and Tess; it simply takes them longer to figure it out. Here are my rankings of the 21 episodes of a season that starts off all over the place but eventually finds its way back home:
1. “A Roswell Christmas Carol” (episode 10, written by Jason Katims) – It starts off clunky with a random dude being hit by a car as Max and Michael shop for a Christmas tree, but it ends up being both a beautiful portrait of Max-as-healer and a transcendent holiday episode. It’s sort of a standalone episode that can be watched every December, as Max and Liz reconnect as friends, and Michael and Maria (Majandra Delfino) reconnect romantically with help from Isabel, “the Christmas Nazi.” Fehr is outstanding as Michael struggles to get the right gift for Maria. Along with Jim’s (William Sadler) horror (but ultimately happiness) at Tess inviting Amy (Diane Farr) over for dinner, “Roswell’s” humor game has never been more on point. The loss of the Wallflowers’ “Babybird” on the DVD hurts, but Jane Siberry’s “Calling All Angels” is a tear-jerker when Max heals child after child. The conclusive snowfall in a southwest climate is – as with the “Buffy” episode “Amends” – an earned piece of illogic.
2. “Cry Your Name” (17, Ronald D. Moore) – I would assume this classic hour – where Alex (Colin Hanks) is killed in a car accident, and where everyone grieves in their own way – was inspired by the “Buffy” episode “The Body,” but the timing doesn’t work out because there’s not enough of a gap between them. Rather, Moore was inspired by the death of his friend, similar to how Joss Whedon drew from his own experience of the loss of a loved one. Every actor brings their A-game, but Appleby gives the performance of her career, blending Liz’s grief (note her mechanical “I don’t want to be alone” at Max’s window) with her feeling that something’s not right (Liz outright yells at people, which was unimaginable when we first met her). The pivotal scene in Alex’s bedroom is intense, as Liz spells out a theory that builds from “suicide” to “accident” to “murder.” I love how the final moment shifts from character (Liz breaking down as she looks at photos of Alex) back to oh-so-Roswellian mystery as the last student to see Alex alive (future “Veronica Mars” star Jason Dohring) braves the rain to serve up a clue that propels the rest of the season’s narrative.
3. “The End of the World” (5, Katims) – Liz having to break Max’s heart to save the world is extreme tragic romance stuff, and convoluted on paper. But this episode sells the time-travel tragedy beautifully, culminating with an image of Future Max disappearing amid his dance with Liz as Sheryl Crow’s “I Shall Believe” plays. (Thank god Max says the name of the song, as it forces the DVD producers to get the rights.) Behr does his best work yet as the “Quantum Leap”-ing Future Max, and the makeup for Future Max and Future Liz is better than I remembered.
4. “Heart of Mine” (16, Katims) – Liz’s journal-writing narration makes a return appearance at a good time, as it helps sell the idea of Liz-and-Sean (“My So-Called Life” veteran Devon Gummersall). Despite that odd pairing, and the fact that Max and Tess kiss to cap prom night, this is a genuine portrayal of people’s confusing feelings about love. It goes beyond the question of which couples we’re ’shipping and gets at something deeper, as illustrated by Max-Liz, Michael-Maria, Alex-Isabel and Tess-Kyle. Also, it’s awesome how Alex attracts Isabel by playing it cool, even if it plays like a “How to Attract Girls” instruction video made by a guy.
5. “Viva Las Vegas” (15, Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts) – This doesn’t reinvent the (roulette) wheel of “the Vegas episode,” but it gives us what we want: the Michael-Max outing humorously balloons to include everyone, Michael uses his powers to cheat, Liz and Tess have their IDs rejected while Isabel saunters through, Michael ultimately comes through for Maria (who sings – yay!), and Max returns to dance with Liz. Then the sheriff’s lecture brings everyone (and us) back down to earth, reminding them that this jaunt goes against the principle of lying low.
6. “The Departure” (21, Katims) – Yes, it’s happening too fast, but Isabel says those exact words, so we feel a kinship with the aliens as they must return to their home planet before they are ready – just as we must say goodbye to “Roswell” before we’re ready. By this time, we knew it would be coming back on UPN, but the shaky knowledge about the future still informs the season finale’s vibe. I find myself thinking “What if this had been the end?” Then I’d feel like Max when he tells Liz “I wish this all could’ve been different. I wish that so much.” “Roswell” is not supposed to end with Max and Liz apart. But it would have, if not for UPN plus the final twist in this episode: Tess killed Alex, so they’re all staying on Earth (except Tess). It’s a shame the writers couldn’t portray Tess as more of a tragic villain. By the end, she’s 100 percent evil, as we learn she was going to betray Max, Michael and Isabel upon arrival at their home planet. The DVD’s excising of Coldplay’s “Trouble” when the Jeep blows up stinks, but the whole cast steps up to portray the pain of saying goodbye to family and friends, particularly Fehr when Michael finally lets Maria in. Michael has completed his role swap with Max: He’s now the sensitive one, and Max – thanks to Tess carrying his son — is the one focused on their alien roots.
7. “Baby, It’s You” (19, Lisa Klink) – In an episode where Liz and Maria infamously take a break from pursuing Alex’s killer to groove to Nelly Furtado’s live performance of “I’m Like a Bird,” there’s nonetheless some good stuff here — even though it springs from the fact of Tess’ baby, traditionally a “jump the shark” element in TV. Since alien pregnancies last a mere month, and since the baby can’t breathe on Earth, we now have a sense of urgency for the return to their home planet. A viewer can’t help but feel for Max, as he has accidentally made enemies of Liz and Isabel. Also, there’s a real sense that he’s not into Tess the way he’s into Liz – and I think this is purposeful by the writers and actors. I know we’re supposed to hate Tess, but I feel for her at this point. It’s a nice touch to have Max flat-out (if sarcastically) ask Tess if she killed Alex – a way to get us off her scent in the murder mystery.
8. “Ask Not” (2, Moore) – Moore shows right off the bat that he knows what he’s doing in this episode that would’ve been a better season premiere than “Skin and Bones.” In a nice parallel to how JFK handles the Cuban Missile Crisis, Max decides to talk to new UFO Museum owner Brody (Desmond Askew) rather than kill him. When Max tells Liz (who has decided she wants out of the relationship) that he’s “coming for her,” this is a new, assertive Max. We get a nice dose of humor with Tess moving into the Valenti home and challenging Kyle and his Zen philosophy by wearing his football jersey as a nightshirt; unfortunately, this well of comedy would go mostly untapped after this.
9. “We Are Family” (12, Berg and Harberts) – When Michael finds the photo of Laurie’s (Allison Lange) grandfather who looks exactly like him, it’s “Roswell’s” best cliffhanger, capping the best episode of the Laurie Dupree quadrilogy. The Eraser Room scene where Max tells Liz he wants her to have a normal life cleverly (or perhaps accidentally) reframes the Max-Liz tension not as an issue of who has the upper hand in the non-relationship, but rather as an emotion-versus-logic conflict; both Max and Liz go through that inner conflict, but they lean different ways at different times. It’s wonderful that Alex not only returns from his trip to Sweden, but that he has a newfound confidence and he’s not going to wait around for Isabel anymore.
10. “To Serve and Protect” (11, Breen Frazier) – “Roswell” has its groove back after the refreshing Christmas standalone and launches into a new mystery sparked by Isabel’s secondary power: She has a vision of a kidnapped girl a la “Medium.” The vague mystery, along with the tension of Valenti being investigated by his higher-ups, gives this a Season 1 vibe, and the humor is still in place as Tess toys with Kyle, who fears he is turning into an alien. I’m not on board with Liz having eyes for Maria’s older cousin Sean, but I do feel sorry for the guy since everyone seems to hate him when he comes to town.
11. “It’s Too Late and It’s Too Bad” (18, Berg and Harberts) – Liz is full-on obsessive here, at one point pointing to a string-and-pushpin-laden wall resembling that Charlie Day meme from “Always Sunny.” It’s strange that Max ignores the clues that are obvious to Liz and viewers, and it’s tough to watch Liz and Max argue, although Appleby and Behr do excellent work. Max harshly rejecting Isabel’s move to San Francisco is another disappointing and illogical thing: Since they don’t know the precise nature of their return ticket home, it shouldn’t be out of the question that Isabel can move to another city.
12. “Wipeout!” (7, Berg and Harberts) – The Skins are not great villains, led by the smarmy “kid” Nicholas (Miko Hughes) (who strikes me more as a short adult), but this episode where they get dispatched is a solid Big Idea hour. Thanks to a Skins weapon, our heroes begin to disappear in the style of “The Leftovers,” so everyone appreciates what they have – except that we don’t get the Max-Liz reconciliation, because the writers’ room has decided it’s not time for that yet. Here, Tess kills the Skins with her secondary power. So now Michael, Isabel and Tess have killed, while leader Max has not; however, the writers won’t go on to explore this contrast.
13. “Disturbing Behavior” (13, Moore) – The last half of the Laurie Dupree four-parter is weaker than the first half because it’s stretched out too much. A lot of this episode consists of Laurie not saying anything to Michael and Maria. Overall, this is a decent throwback to “285 South”: M&M are on the road and we get the most serious challenge yet from questioning parents, as Amy DeLuca holds Liz at her house until she tells her where the hell her daughter is.
14. “Summer of ’47” (4, Berg and Harberts) – Reminding me of “The X-Files” in so many ways (the flashbacks, the narration by an old dude, and the actors playing different roles), this flashback episode is an interesting experiment. The production values are cheaper than they should be for a period piece, and it’s distracting to see the familiar actors playing different roles; it shrinks the world. We get the exciting piece of information that there were two sets of four pods, thus paving the way for the Dupes duology – which turns out to be not so exciting.
15. “How the Other Half Lives” (14, Berg, Harberts, Frazier, Katims and Moore) – The Laurie Dupree quadrilogy stumbles to the finish line with a tonally unbalanced episode that has logistical problems — Grant’s (Jeremy Davidson) attack on the house, the question of how everyone gets there, and the oddity of Laurie acting nuts when she never was nuts. Michael and Maria take up the life of rich folks, probably for the sake of comedy that never quite lands; meanwhile, the others solve the gandarium problem. It’s a testament to the mediocrity of the episode that Wechsler and Hanks – who at times seem like “Roswell’s” two best actors other than Sadler — share the sequence of Kyle and Alex being trapped in a cave, and nothing much comes of it.
16. “Harvest” (6, Fred Golan) – “Roswell” is fully in “X-Files”-Lite mode here, stirring up palpable “Red Museum”-style menace as the gang investigates a small-town cult that turns out to (rather obviously) be the Skins. These evil aliens are about to transfer to their new husks, so that gives us another “X-Files”-ian image: the rows of pods with “people” in them.
17. “Skin and Bones” (1, Katims) – The season premiere sets up a premise that’s partially like Season 1’s — a government agent, Congresswoman Whitaker (Gretchen Egolf), is interested in the goings-on in Roswell — and partially about an immediate rival-alien threat: the Skins, who murder Nasedo (Jim Ortlieb). The distance and tension among our heroes is forced and unpleasant, and considering how the Skins storyline later fizzles, this is a weak launch to the year.
18. “Surprise” (3, Toni Graphia) – Contrasting with the satisfyingly slow-burn Season 1, here we get revelations and important character beats at a rapid-fire pace, without being allowed to absorb them. Only three episodes in, and we learn Whitaker is a Skin, and what’s more, she is killed … by disheveled birthday-girl Isabel, who resembles Cordelia in the “Buffy” episode “Homecoming.” This is the most Isabel-centered episode so far, but she doesn’t come off well. The fact that Isabel kills a living being should be huge, but it’s brushed aside after this. And I don’t know why she’s so cold to Alex – practically accepting a date with Grant right after she tells Alex she can’t be involved with anyone. From the “Dang, the DVD didn’t get the rights” department, Alex now dances to a generic tune instead of “C’mon ‘N Ride It (The Train).”
19. “Max in the City” (9, Moore) – We saw in the previous hour how awkward Fehr and Heigl are as their New York-“accent”-talking Duplicate versions, and this hour gives us more of that, along with unconvincing stock footage to establish the Big Apple. At the alien summit, the politics of the planets are nebulous, which I think is intentional, but it’s still unengaging. When Liz dreamwalks (via Isabel) to give a warning to Max, it’s perhaps a sign that she will develop powers, but nothing more is done with that this season. I thought for sure we’d learn that Tess’ and Ava’s pods were switched at birth, but that revelation doesn’t come.
20. “Meet the Dupes” (8, Graphia) – The New York punk versions of the four aliens are goofy, but the interactions with our group are sometimes amusing (“Michael” kissing Liz!) – and there is a surprising amount of interactions considering how expensive split-screen is. But for an episode with such a big revelation (the alternate Royal Four), this is the forgettable calm before the storm.
21. “Off the Menu” (20, Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner) – This is a total record-scratch episode, as all the momentum of the “Who killed Alex?” arc is put on hold for a UFO Museum hostage yarn – and a bad one, at that. It seems like Max could’ve stopped the hostage scenario before it started by simply telling Brody the truth; what’s one more person in the loop at this point? The only substantial thing of value is that the Brody/Larek duality is addressed, but even that is ultimately pointless, since Brody is back to square one by the end; he thinks he’s been abducted again. Also considering that this slot could’ve been used to flesh out the mystery of Leanna, the “alien” girl who supposedly killed Alex, and “Off the Menu” is wildly off the mark.