'Roswell' mixes sci-fi, teen angst

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Oct. 18, 2001 at 9:27 PM   |   0 comments

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- In a post-Sept. 11 world, the UPN sci-fi series "Roswell" is uniquely positioned to address important issues in an entertaining way without resorting to explosions, mayhem or terrorist-themed stories.

The hour-long drama -- which ran on the WB in each the past seasons before switching to UPN for 2001-02 -- uses the 1947 crash of what many believe was a spaceship as a jumping off point to tell stories about the offspring of the ship's occupants as they navigate their adolescence in Roswell, N.M.

Its young stars -- Jason Behr, Katherine Heigl, Brendan Fehr, Majandra Delfino and Shiri Appleby -- perform weekly in stories that show their characters, largely, in full teen angst. Executive producer Jason Katims said that, while teen angst is what attracted him to the project in the first place, "Roswell" is more generally about humanity.

After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the entertainment industry went into full reevaluation mode, questioning its reason for being and its pronounced tendency to rely on high-octane explosions and other cheap thrills in order to attract and hold an audience's attention.

Katims seems as concerned as anyone else with examining his show's values. But he also knows that, because he's working in the sci-fi genre, he can explore important themes without fretting over images that might refer specifically to the scenes or the victims of the terrorist attacks.

"It does give you a certain freedom," he said in an interview at his office on the Paramount lot in Hollywood.

"We haven't really addressed in a conscious way recent world events, because it's frankly all too new," said Katims. "But what I have thought about is the importance of the power of writing in a genre, because for the first time in my life there are things that need to be talked about that can't be talked about directly."

Katims -- who wrote and co-produced the 1996 movie, "The Pallbearer," starring David Schwimmer and Gwyneth Paltrow -- is part of a generation of Americans who came along too late to experience the Cuban missile crisis, or even Vietnam and Watergate, so the terrorist attacks must have occurred as more of a cold slap for them that it did for their elders.

"We're in a world where we need to figure out a way to understand this," he said, "but we need to do it with a view into some other world. We can't look directly at it."

All of this might make it sound as though "Roswell" has an inflated sense of self-importance, but Katims is quick to point out that the show can also be very funny.

"It's ironic, it's fun, campy at times," he said. "But I really do feel it's about something."

As a matter of fact, Katims said it upsets him when the show strays off course and doesn't have a significant point to make.

"In the second season, the mythology took over a little too much and we lost the humanity of the show," he said. "The humanity is what It's all about."

The show's premise -- young people searching for the truth about their own identities even as they struggle to hide the truth from the world the live in -- is fertile ground for such storytelling.

Katims' résumé suggests that he didn't just develop this value yesterday.

He created and co-executive produced the 1996 TV series "Relativity," starring Kimberly Williams and David Conrad. He also served as executive story editor on the 1994 series, "My So-Called Life."

Both shows received excellent reviews when they premiered on ABC, and both developed loyal followings -- but neither achieved commercial success.

"Roswell," while enjoying a longer run, is still something short of a breakout hit.

"We were on the bubble from the moment we turned the pilot in to Fox and the WB," said Katims, using entertainment industry-speak for a show that does well enough in the ratings to hang around, but not quite well enough to inspire unbridled confidence among the network brass. "We've never stopped being on the bubble."

The challenge got tougher Tuesday night, when the WB premiered "Smallville" opposite "Roswell."

Presenting a young Superman without the conventional trappings, "Smallville" gave the WB one of its best ratings ever.

Nielsen reported the 68-minute premiere not only attracted the largest audience ever for a series premiere on the WB, it also finished third in its time slot -- ahead of ABC's comedy line-up of "Spin City" and "Bob Patterson," and Fox's "Love Cruise."

Following another former WB series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Roswell" lost an estimated 29 percent of its 18-49 viewers from the previous Tuesday in straight-up competition with "Smallville."

This is not new terrain for Katims.

"All the shows I have worked on have struggled in their own way," he said. "If I were worried every time 'Roswell' faced a challenge, I wouldn't have any time to work and write."

He sounded ready to let the show rise or fall on its own merits, and confidant that he has the goods.

"Our audience has a history with these characters and the show," said Katims. "Our cast and our storytelling is very strong. We've hit our stride."

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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