The youth-crazy WB launches an invasion of adolescent angst with an out-of-this-world twist

By Kristen Baldwin
Updated September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

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Another day, another teen drama on The WB. On a sawdusty Hollywood soundstage, two young, blithely beautiful players, Shiri Appleby and Jason Behr, perch side by side in preparation for their close-up. So what will the scene call for today — the usual dramatic recitation of hormone-fueled melancholia? Another teary-eyed insight into the teenage condition articulated in dizzying SAT-speak? Um, not exactly. Let’s listen in, shall we, as Appleby breathlessly addresses her co-star: ”Before you took human form were you three feet tall and green and slimy?”

Yep, a show about adolescent extraterrestrials — you just knew it had to happen. It’s Roswell, a moody teen drama centering on three aliens — Max (Behr), his sister Isabel (Katherine Heigl), and their friend Michael (Brendan Fehr) — who fell to earth (specifically, New Mexico) in the infamous UFO crash and now hide in plain sight as everyday kids in the titular conspiracy-theorist capital of the world. Based on Melinda Metz’s book series Roswell High, the story was adapted for television by the odd couple of Jason Katims (a writer-producer for touchy-feely fare like My So-Called Life and Relativity) and sci-fi guru David Nutter (a well-known X-Files director and helmer of last year’s MGM Stepfordesque teen flick Disturbing Behavior).

”Before the studio killed [Behavior] and chopped it all up, I was trying to make a film dealing with the metaphor of teens as the aliens among us,” Nutter says. ”I got [the Roswell] script and I said, This is exactly what I want to do. All the metaphors are there.” Behr, who exudes soft-spoken charm as the alien trio’s levelheaded leader, perused the part while guesting on Dawson’s Creek last year. ”I thought it was a great premise,” he says. ”It kind of reminded me of Buffy and The X-Files. It’s a nice hybrid.”

And one The WB was near-apoplectic about snatching up. Says network president Susanne Daniels: ”Teenage aliens? We were like, Yes! We get that!” Originally, Daniels’ landing Roswell was about as likely as those 7th Heaven kids lighting up a joint: The show’s studio, Twentieth Century Fox TV, planned to sell it to sister network Fox. When Fox wanted a revamp and a mid-season start date, however, Twentieth went with rival WB — but only after securing an out-of-this-world 22-episode order and the plum post-Dawson‘s time slot. ”It’s a large commitment and it makes one nervous,” admits Daniels. ”Basically, that’s what it was going to take to make a deal.”

The producers, meanwhile, felt they had finally landed in the right TV galaxy. ”I had heard that The WB liked us for who we were, while Fox possibly wanted us to adjust more to their 90210/Melrose Place audience,” says Nutter. ”One of the things The WB has about it that a lot of other networks don’t is they lead with their heart.”

There’s no question it’s a match made in demographic heaven, but really, isn’t it stretching the youth-soaked zeitgeist just a bit to throw backpacks and Adidas on little green men? ”There’s something innately silly in the idea,” concedes Katims. ”If you allow the audience to dismiss it, they will. So we wanted to make sure the show played as real as possible.” Meaning Roswell eschews My Favorite Martian-style antics for a soulful, serious approach: In addition to tales of teen self-discovery, Max, Michael, and Isabel will search for a fourth alien who may hold the secret to their cosmic past. Upping the dramatic ante are an alien-hunting sheriff (William Sadler), who knows there’s something spooky about Max and his pals, and the truly star-crossed romance between Max and Earth girl Liz (Appleby), a waitress at the town’s Crashdown Cafe.

“It’s written in a realistic way,” says the 20-year-old Appleby. “It really spoke to me.” Adds Katims: “The thing that first drew me to the show more than the sci-fi aspect was the love story. A lot of writers love that idea of two people who want to be together but can’t, and it’s hard in telling a contemporary [love] story to find a real obstacle. This one really has it — they’re different life-forms.”

Sure, but they both come from the Planet of the Impossibly Attractive Teens. So tell us, Mr. Behr, what would a hottie like you know about teenage alienation? “Oh, come on,” groans the blushing 25-year-old. “I can tell you that growing up I was a little shrimp. I was probably half the size of my friends, and half the size of most of my girlfriends. I felt just as awkward and misunderstood and lost as a lot of people do.” Uh-uh. You’re going to have to do better than that. “Um, sometimes people said that I sounded like a girl on the phone.” Not exactly intergalactic geekdom, but it’ll do. — Kristen Baldwin