In 1998, Melinda Metz introduced a new series of young-adult science fiction: the story of three teenagers whose earliest memories were of climbing out of incubation pods in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico. When they emerged, they appeared to be human children, and — wandering around in the desert — were scooped up by the local authorities and adopted by various families, oblivious to their origin. Max, Isabel, and Michael likewise had no clue where they came from…but they knew it wasn’t New Mexico. In The Outsider, the trio’s lifetime of mutual secret-keeping is derailed when a stray bullet nearly claimed the life of the girl Max loved. A sheriff is soon sniffing around, but he’s not any sheriff — he’s an agent of a secretive government agency whose task is to conceal and contain the threat of the Roswell Incident. There are other aliens out there…and what follows for the three and their friends (Liz, Alex, and Maria) is nothing but trouble.
I adored this series in middle school. My best friend and I discovered it together, feeding our mutual addiction. I was confused and appalled when, midway through the series, the cover art abruptly changed to feature some random-looking teenagers who were nothing like the characters I’d grown so fond of. Roswell High had been made into a television show! I wouldn’t be able to watch that show for another six years, when it appeared on DVD, and when I did I realized it wasn’t so much an adaption of the books as a completely different story. The television show and book series are so completely different, in fact, that they only share the setting of Roswell, and the names of most of the main characters. (I say most, because Liz Ortecho becomes Liz Parker; Isabel is the only character whose character is recognizable in both, but she’s something of a trope,being a blonde ice queen.) The origin stories are utterly different: in the books, the kids are the children of alien scientists whose ship was sabotaged, who are concealed by the lone surviving crewman. In the television show, the kids are…cloned reincarnations of alien rulers killed in a civil war, whose personalities have been made manifest in human bodies.
The television’s drama was a story that could never decide where it wanted to go, and as science fiction it was far inferior. The original books had an overarching and integrated plot; for instance, the second villain is leading a revolution against the third villain, the teens’ home planet’s social order, and while he’s psychotic the history books will pretty him up if he wins. The television show was almost random in the baddies. (The less said about “The Skins”, the better. ) But as much as I regard the plot of the books and the development of most of the characters inferior, I am still a fan of the show — I’ve watched all three seasons through perhaps four times in the last ten years. Why?
It’s all about William Sadler, who plays Sheriff Jim Valenti. (You may recognize him as Agent Sloan from Deep Space Nine, or Chesty Puller from The Pacific) In the books, the sheriff is nothing but evil incarnate. He is misery wearing black shades, a grey man who silently stalks and kills. His son Kyle has slightly more personality, being an obnoxious jock with a penchant for evil, but both creatures are beyond redemption. In Roswell, Valenti is the best character in the series. He begins as the aliens’ antagonist, trying to figure out what happened in that restaurant when Max saved Liz,but by the second season he is their ally — and he pays for it. His son Kyle likewise starts an obnoxious jock, and while he’s never as gloriously redeemed as his father, he is utterly sympathetic…and, hilariously, Buddhist. (There is a “I Love Kyle Valenti” tumbler.) Valenti’s character is written far more humanely here, but Sadler’s acting is what really sells him. I’ve never liked clean-shaven and professional heroes; Sadler is more weathered — craggy, even. He wouldn’t be out of place in a western. Sadler is given some of the same threads as the teenagers in Roswell — relationships, trying to find his place in the scheme of things — but his acting outclasses the stars, giving the drama an earnestness. Sadler gives a show of teen drama a level of adult seriousness; it is he who loses his job and nearly his son trying to protect the aliens, and it is he who breaks the news to them when one of the show’s main characters is abruptly killed off.
While Sadler’s acting and Valenti’s storyline are the main reason I found the show appealing, it has other aspects going for it. The supporting characters are a good lot; Agent Delco from CSI Miami appears here as Jesse Ramirez, another solid addition. There are a few novelty episodes, like Isabella fantasizing that she is in a wacky 1960s sitcom called I Married an Alien, or using the characters in a retelling of the Roswell incident. Personally, I enjoy the first season the most, skipping around on the second and third. The show was cancelled and ends abruptly, but it has its moments. As far as book-to-box adaptions go, Roswell remains the furtherest from the source…if enjoyable in its own ways.
(And if nothing else, there’s Katherine Heigl, in character as Isabel, whose fears are hidden by aloof superiority…)