As “Roswell” fans, we often lament that we only got three seasons. But a positive way to look at it is that we got two bonus seasons after the commercial failure of the first season, entirely because of the small-but-passionate fanbase. Season 1 is the only season where “Roswell” achieves greatness, and that’s the season that most sticks in my mind – and I’m guessing that’s true for other “Roswell” fans too. But the sequel seasons never sink so low that I regret their existence.
Although it falls short of Season 1’s near-perfection, Season 3 (2001-02, UPN) is better than the wildly uneven Season 2. It starts off with UPN trying to sex up the show as Max (Jason Behr) and Liz (Shiri Appleby) rob a convenience store and Liz does a dockside striptease for Max (and the network’s promo makers). (I admit I watched this promo more than I watch most promos.)
The concept of the parents – namely Jeff (John Doe) and Nancy (Jo Anderson) Parker and Phillip (Garrett M. Brown) and Diane (Mary Ellen Trainor) Evans — being “villains” who investigate the aliens’ secrets is a good one, but it’s too dragged out. Brown especially does yeoman’s work as a detective who never quite finds a clue. Phillip has a mystery board in his office but doesn’t gain any solid evidence until the point where he finally captures Isabel (Katherine Heigl) using her powers on video.
I’m not a fan of the Isabel-and-Jesse (Adam Rodriguez) rom-com that dominates episodes 3-7. I suspect this was done to appease Heigl, and indeed the storyline does prepare her for the next phase of her career. (She became such a big star that “Roswell” DVDs were reissued with Isabel prominently featured on the cover art.) When their newlywed problems overlap with alien problems, it can get good, but too much screen time is spent on this couple. Rodriguez isn’t bad by any means, but I never see Jesse as anything other than trustworthy and loyal, so all the hand-wringing about him potentially learning the alien secret is overblown.
If I was running the show, I’d swap out Jesse for Diane Farr’s Amy DeLuca. Farr’s unavailability for Season 3 seriously hurts the parents-focused storyline. And it makes no logical sense that Amy has disappeared from Jim’s (William Sadler) life, let alone Maria’s (Majandra Delfino). She should be up in her daughter’s grille for pursuing a music career in New York instead of going to class.
It’s hard to not notice the flaws of Season 3 when I love this show so much. The good things are a given at this point. It’s great to have Max and Liz back together, and Liz’s newfound powers are a great twist as well as a new reason to split up the couple – fortunately only for a short time. Michael (Brendan Fehr) and Maria continue to be entertaining as their relationship hits another rocky patch.
Except for the gorgeously shot premiere and Max’s Los Angeles adventure, Season 3 is hurt by its lower budget. But I’m able to see the intent rather than the execution. To its credit, although “Roswell” obviously accepted a Snapple sponsorship to pad out the books, the regular references to the beverage are always funny — especially when Tess (Emilie de Ravin, back for one episode) asks if Michael has milk for the baby, and he says no, but he has Snapple.
Season 3’s highest points come thanks to writers Russel Friend and Garret Lerner, whose only prior credit was Season 2’s awful “Off the Menu.” They emerge out of nowhere to write the four best episodes. Here are my rankings of the 18 episodes of the final season of “Roswell”:
1. “Behind the Music” (episode 8, written by Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner) – Clayne Crawford gives the best guest turn in all of “Roswell” as Billy, who knew Maria when they were younger. Throw in Delfino’s music and this is a winner. Billy and Maria are everything Isabel and Kivar (from the previous episode) are not; they have sparkling chemistry, and nothing is forced by the teleplay. Despite being a chronicle of their breakup, this is one of the best M&M episodes, humorously illustrated by Michael’s out-of-control powers. The late Alex (Colin Hanks) is incorporated here less awkwardly than in his episode three appearance, as we learn Maria has not sung since Alex died.
2. “Secrets and Lies” (4, Friend and Lerner) – “Roswell” sometimes gets out of its depth when the scope expands, but Max’s adventure in Los Angeles is strangely entertaining. The guest cast is loaded with talent, notably future “Monk” star Bitty Schram as a woman whose boyfriend is roasted by an alien. Joe Pantoliano (“The Matrix”) turns out to be that alien, the “Groundhog Day” guy (Steven Tobolowsky) plays a talent agent, and Jonathan Frakes plays himself again and drops an “Enterprise” reference (that “Star Trek” series was on UPN at the time). It’s great to see Liz and Kyle (Nick Wechsler) working together on a school project, and the portrayal of Jim’s dad missing his son is touching, despite this being a new actor (Stanley Anderson taking over for John Cullum). This is a rare early season episode that avoids being weighed down by the Isabel-Jesse rom-com.
3. “Four Aliens and a Baby” (17, Friend and Lerner) – This hour chronicles the Redemption of Tess, as she drops off her baby Zan — wearing adorable Antarian baby clothes – with Max and then sacrifices herself in a blaze of glory at the Air Force base without further involving our heroes. It’s too bad Tess remains a hated character among fandom given this episode, which is strong even beyond her story. It’s bittersweet when Max has to give up Zan for adoption yet at the same time he gains Liz, whose faith in the relationship is bolstered by Tess having told her that Max loves only Liz. Tess’ reunions with everyone have heft, especially when Michael wants to kill her and when Liz flings her across the room then says “Get up, bitch!” On another darkly humorous note, I love how Max takes Zan from Tess and doesn’t react at all to Tess dropping to the floor, injured. Poor, misunderstood Tess.
4. “Panacea” (13, Friend and Lerner) – This episode has both a clichéd story (Maria’s music producer, introduced in the previous episode, turns out to be a slimeball) and the biggest surprise of the series (Max is dead!). It’s fun to see Liz interacting with a new person, her Vermont boarding school roommate Eileen (Ashley Johnson). The idea of the school is a little strange – Liz claims to crave discipline, but then she gives that up immediately. This hour serves as the long-awaited sequel to episode two, as it turns out Michael is still working as a security guard at Med-Corp. We never learn if Michael was hired on purpose or by coincidence, but we do learn that Med-Corp has been following and studying the aliens for years. It’s genuinely shocking when Max (in excellent old-age makeup) turns to dust and Liz senses his death from across the country.
5. “Chant Down Babylon” (14, Ronald D. Moore) – The events aren’t too surprising (no experienced TV viewer thought Max was really dead), but this is among the best acting showcases of the series. Behr plays an old man in Max’s body with Max gradually regaining control. Appleby plays an angry drunk Liz. And Fehr is outstanding in Michael’s monologue to a sleeping Isabel when he thinks he’s going to lose her to a gunshot wound and subsequent fever. Although the setting of Liz’s boarding school – which is devoid of teachers during spring break – is convenient, the empty halls and lawns are a nice setting for the surreal saga of Max seeking out a depressed Liz and returning to life. Jesse learns the truth about the aliens in this episode, and my overriding feeling is “Finally!”
6. “Busted” (1, Jason Katims) – The stakes are familiar but heightened so much that “Roswell” temporarily feels like a new show. Liz could go away to prison for 20 years for the armed robbery she pulls with Max, and this is weighty enough to establish the rift between the parents and teens that hovers over the season. Liz is seemingly out of character, not only with the robbery, but also when she stages a scene to steal a diamond (which is the key to an alien spaceship). But it illustrates her devotion to Max, so I won’t complain. The cinematography flips the script by using a muted palette for present day and normal colors for the flashbacks. Although “Busted” is a blatant attempt to give Season 3 its own feel for the UPN era, I don’t mind it, and kind of wish it had continued.
7. “Samuel Rising” (9, Katims) – Although not as good as Season 2’s Christmas episode, this spiritual sequel is another strong standalone where Max delves into the idea of doing some good with his healing powers. Katims shows a good understanding of how the autistic Samuel (Gavin Fink) is different, not damaged. The DVD’s replacement Christmas music in the Max-Liz ice skating scene can’t compete with the original airing’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Tori Amos, but laughs are had with Michael’s Santa belt getting caught on Maria’s elf costume and Isabel putting Jesse’s ugly stocking on the back of the tree.
8. “Ch-Ch-Changes” (12, Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts) – The absence of Isabel and Jesse is refreshing as we focus on Liz’s newfound powers and Maria’s music career. Liz feeling physical pain when Max is around is a creative way to split them up, and it’s nice that the soundtrack song “More Than Us” by Travis survives the DVD transition. Maria’s story, wherein an industry rep (Meredith Scott Lynn) wants to make her into a star, is in danger of becoming a cliché until Liz wisely suggests that maybe Maria can compromise a little bit in order to launch her career. The lack of Farr in Season 3 is especially noticeable when Amy isn’t around to share her opinion about Maria going off to New York amid a school year. Kyle commenting on the weirdness of Jim and Maria singing a love song with the Kit Shickers is a nice way to hang a hat on the awkward scene.
9. “Crash” (16, David Simkins) – This seems like it could be a UFO-themed hour like the old days, and I was disappointed when Jeff Parker has to put away the Crashdown Café’s stock of alien-themed knickknacks (the press conference doesn’t play up the “unexplained” angle, so he knows there won’t be a tourist rush). It ends up being an unusual episode in that the gang uses their powers entirely to help someone else – an Air Force pilot (Larry Poindexter) who strikes the alien craft and now will be killed because he knows too much. Michael changing his appearance to look like the government baddie (Paul Schultze) is the most impressive use of his powers so far. Finally, Philip has solid evidence of Isabel using her alien powers (Diane hides a camera in Isabel’s room), so we can move ahead with that thread at long last.
10. “A Tale of Two Parties” (10, Laura Burns and Melinda Metz) – The “Roswell High” authors make a respectable guest-writing turn by giving us rare scene pairings like Michael-Liz, Max-Maria and Isabel-Kyle as they search for a secret party (which is ultimately beside the point). I like the Crashdown’s New Year’s tradition wherein they celebrate at 10:30 p.m. so the old folks can keep their normal schedule. It’s weird that Jeff isn’t in the Kit Shickers, since Doe is a musician and we see him playing guitar at the start of this episode. Kyle having a crush on Isabel is random and unconvincing, plus it’s a reminder of how Kyle-Tess should’ve been a thing in Season 2 but was not. Ten episodes into the season, we get clarification on the location of Isabel’s college: It’s in Roswell (a classic example of a TV town suddenly acquiring a college when a character needs to go there).
11. “Graduation” (18, Katims and Moore) – The series finale has the impossible task of wrapping things up four episodes before the traditional end point. (The silver lining is that a lot of threads are available for the novel authors, who will write a virtual “Season 4.”) Dodging the question of “How did Max, Liz and Maria graduate when they never go to class?,” the ceremony has a bizarre twist wherein Max tells the student body he is an alien (in coded terms) as a way to distract the Special Unit agents. Buffy’s speech from “The Prom” this is not. We get a series of nice farewell scenes, and I like how the Parkers and Maria’s mom are covered by Liz’s journal entry/voiceover, wherein she explains the whole alien thing. It’s satisfying fan service when we get the slight flash-forward to Max and Liz’s wedding, backed by Ash’s “Shining Light.” But because it’s a rush job, this doesn’t resonate like a series finale should.
12. “Who Died and Made You King?” (15, Berg and Harberts) – This is a strange episode on the heels of Max’s death and resurrection. We skip over the emotional reunions and jump into Michael’s revived jealousy of Max. Granted, he is sort of possessed; the writers don’t invoke Michael’s alter ego from Antar (Rath), but Michael does tell Jesse that Isabel was “his first,” which tells veteran viewers that “Rath” is speaking. Michael’s acquisition of Max’s powers reminds me of when Buffy dies and her powers go to the next Slayer, except that the status quo is quickly restored here. I thought perhaps Max’s temporary death would inspire the gang to let all their parents in on the secret, but instead it’s back to business as usual, with Philip Evans back on the prowl. This is the ep where Jesse proves himself trustworthy, and that development is not at all surprising.
13. “Interruptus” (7, Simkins) – The Isabel-Jesse rom-com segment of “Roswell” comes to an OK conclusion in this honeymoon chronicle. The writers always struggle to explain why Isabel doesn’t tell Jesse her secret, and a daydream segment humorously answers the question: Isabel imagines telling Jesse the truth, and it’s hilarious when Jesse awkwardly tries to back out through the patio door. The use of black eyes to illustrate Villandra controlling Isabel is a nice try, but ultimately cheesy. This episode ends with a seemingly huge logistical element – a portal whisks Kivar (Spence Decker) back to his home planet, and that’s perhaps a way for Max to travel to Antar as well. However, it’s a dead end because our heroes have no clue how to open the portal themselves.
14. “I Married an Alien” (11, Moore) – This is among the most high-concept episodes of “Roswell” (in a good way) but also one of the most off-point episodes (in a bad way), making it a weird blend. The actors – particularly Heigl – have fun channeling “Bewitched” in the scenes that play in Isabel’s head. But the “normal” scenes don’t contrast enough, so things that should be serious are played lightly. A reporter (Kristoffer Polaha, later of Appleby’s “Life Unexpected”) comes closer than anyone to learning the aliens’ secret, and he doesn’t even dig all that deep; he’s just observant. Michael, who has randomly taken up golf, gets incredibly sloppy by moving trees with his powers, and he’s way too casual about being found out.
15. “Control” (5, Berg and Harberts) – It’s a nice twist that Max is able to tell Kal Langley (Pantoliano) what to do, as per their alien bond, but overall this is a big step down from the first half of the two-parter. The conflict between Isabel and her mom is tough to watch. Sure, Isabel is getting married too quickly, but she’s mature for her age, she clearly loves Jesse (who is clearly a solid guy), and you have to support your daughter in something like this once she’s an adult. Especially considering their rift with Max, it doesn’t ring true that Philip and Diane plan to skip Isabel’s wedding.
16. “Significant Others” (3, Simkins) – The rom-com stretch of Season 3, dominated by Isabel and Jesse with the SF elements pushed to the side, starts here. But the funniest parts are actually between Maria and Michael, who does that sitcom thing of scheduling a date at the same time as his bowling league match. I can’t say Jesse makes a bad first impression – Rodriguez is charming and pairs well with Heigl — but he’s primarily connected to Isabel, and he never does shake his “odd man out” status.
17. “To Have and to Hold” (6, Moore) – This hour is all about Isabel’s anxiety over her upcoming wedding, and a prime example of Heigl transitioning into the romance genre (with some Kivar stuff peppered in so it’s still “Roswell”). The bachelor party is the most awkward and unconvincing sequence in the series; we’re treated to network TV’s version of “strippers” and Michael gets into a fight with Jesse’s friends. The wedding is a little better, as the Evanses show up, ending their awkward rift with their daughter; plus, Ivy performs. Thank god Ivy is mentioned in the teleplay so the performance is kept for the DVD.
18. “Michael, the Guys and the Great Snapple Caper” (2, Moore) – This hour makes an aggressive case for being the worst of the series (although I’d vote for “Off the Menu”), and it’s not because of the product placement, which comes off as funny. And there are other positives: Doe finally gets to do some acting (as Max’s timeless enemy – the girlfriend’s father), and it’s fun to wonder if Max and Liz’s glider flight is a jab at timeslot rival “Smallville.” The ep boasts a top-flight guest cast with Terry O’Quinn, Martin Starr and Michael Pena. Here’s the problem: The story makes no sense. How does a high school kid, Michael, get a job as an overnight security guard? Why does the building need five security guards on one shift (especially since they are fine having zero, after O’Quinn’s Carl fires them all)? Why does Carl hire yet another guard (we’ll assume he had no say in hiring the others) if Carl is stealing something from the company? How does the sheriff’s office have the authority to ask non-employees to guard the building after Carl is arrested? And finally: What is Carl stealing? Some mysteries remain forever unsolved.