A better look at teen-age alienation

Review: The WB's `Roswell' portrays a more realistic view of the search for identity in high school, even while dealing in the realm of sci-fi.

Fall television

October 06, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Roswell" gets my vote for the best opening lines of a television pilot in years.

The camera pans down from a starry, starry night to a rooftop where a young woman sits on a lawn chair wrapped in a blanket. She's surrounded by lit candles and writing in a notebook on her lap.

"Sept. 23rd, journal entry one," we hear her say in voice-over as the camera closes in on her sweet, schoolgirl face: "I'm Liz Parker, and five days ago, I died. After that, things got really weird."

Part science-fiction, part teen soap opera, part Shakespearean love story, with a healthy dose of "The Fugitive" thrown in, "Roswell" has more than enough to make a believer out of me. It might not be as good as "The West Wing" or "Once and Again," but it is my favorite new series of the fall season.

With its teen angst, a desperate search for identity and belief in UFOs, "Roswell" puts the "alien" back in alienation. It also proves the word "quality" can appear in the same sentence with the phrase "teen drama."

Speaking the language of television, in which pictures and music often convey far more than words, writer-producer Jason Katims ("My So-Called Life") cuts from his two distilled sentences of rooftop exposition by Liz Parker (Shiri Appleby) to the Crashdown Cafe to show us how weird things got. Liz, a high school student at Roswell High School, works as a waitress at the cafe.

Two customers there get in a fight over money, and a gun is drawn. As they wrestle, it goes off, and Liz is shot in the stomach.

As she lies on her back, a classmate to whom she has always felt an attraction, Max Evans (Jason Behr), jumps out of his booth and runs to her. He kneels over the semi-conscious Liz, orders her to look into his eyes, and places the palm of his hand over the blood that is oozing out of her stomach.

The blood stops, she regains consciousness, and he runs off just as the sheriff arrives. Before leaving, though, he splatters Liz's waitress uniform with ketchup, and tells her she was never shot.

She might almost believe him, except for the eerie, day-glow handprint that remains on her stomach where Max touched her.

Yes, this is Roswell, where a UFO was supposed to have crashed in 1947 -- the place to which all roads of American conspiracy theory that don't end on the grassy knoll in Dallas seem to lead. This is where it all starts in the brilliant mythology of television's greatest source of conspiracy theory, "The X-Files."

And, yes, Max is an alien. In fact, he was on the UFO that crashed. I'll spare you the goofy details of how he and two fellow aliens (Katherine Heigl and Brendan Fehr) happen to be only of high school age in 1999 and such good-looking humans to boot (except for those slightly large ears).

Come on, this is a teen drama. Go with the flow of emotions and feel the us-against-the-world love of Liz and Max, as a suspicious sheriff (William Sadler) tries to expose Max's secret.

Katims and director-producer David Nutter ("The X-Files") have created an hour of television that flows like a dream. Logic is not what matters; impressions, images and feelings are. There are nifty, funny, little scenes like the one in the high school band room in which Max confides in Liz by pointing his index finger up when she asks where he's from.

"Up north?" she asks, looking at his finger. He shakes his head and raises his finger even higher.

And there is a great spectacle scene in which all the characters come together at the end of the hour in costume for the Roswell Crash Festival, a kind of Mardi Gras in New Mexico with UFOs and alien beings as the theme. Knowing full well I risk the wrath of film critics in saying this, I think Hitchcock would be proud of what Nutter and Katims conjure with this sequence.

You're right, Liz. Things do get really weird in "Roswell." But, in this case, weird is good, very good.

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