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Saucers' Apprentices

The WB's surprisingly moving "Roswell" is a friendly merging of "E.T." and "The Catcher in the Rye."

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Desert spawn: From left, Katherine Heigl, Jason Behr, Shiri Appleby, and Brendan Fehr in Roswell.  

That angels and aliens so frequently attend us, on our screens and in our dreams, should not come as much of a surprise. Besides the millennial heebie-jeebies, we are afflicted with a lightness of being -- unsafe on the tribal streets; equally weightless in orbit and in cyberspace; balloonlike, in exile or migration; fled abroad, like jobs and capital; disappeared, like Argentine dissidents; abducted or missing, like runaway children; bugged, tapped, Minicammed, downsized, hijacked, organ-donored, gene-spliced, lite-beered, vacuum-sealed, overdrawn, nonrefundable, void where prohibited, and stealthed. And this is not even to mention those dislocations caused by sleep paralysis, temporal-lobe lesions, overmedication, bad-trip drugs, lousy workspace ergonomics, seasonal affective disorders, frequent flying, and the Blue Meanies.

Thus Roswell (Wednesdays, starting October 6; 9 to 10 p.m.; WB) was inevitable. The real Roswell, New Mexico, has been so eager to capitalize on its reputation as the Ellis Island of the alien hordes that two years ago it actually sponsored an "Encounter 97" celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the first visitation. The affair included a flying-saucer soapbox derby, a UFO belly dancer, and a speech by Erich von Daniken. The TV series asks us to believe that when a saucer crash-landed in the summer of 1947, it littered the desert not only with hairless, earless, four-fingered ETs whose gray corpses were whirlybirded by black choppers to a secret military compound like Area 51 but also with incubating seed packets. And these tiny time capsules hatched only sixteen years ago. And now Max (Jason Behr), his sister Isabel (Katherine Heigl), and their buddy Michael (Brendan Fehr) have to go to high school.

While teen aliens may not be such a spandex stretch after Buffy and the Heathers, the fact that Max, Isabel, and Michael don't know who they are, where they came from, or what they're supposed to do with their superpowers gives the show if not its edge then at least its sicklied cast of thought. Who among us in high school hasn't asked the same questions about our origins and purpose? Hasn't looked in a mirror and seen through fractal acne a Klaatu, a Pod, a Body Snatcher? Hasn't feared that if our secret truth were out, man-eating dandelions would get us, or meteoric slimeballs, or bloodsucking carrots, or collectivized Bolshevik killer ants? What else is high school really all about except alienation in gym clothes, with a combination lock?

Add to this glum luck an alien-hunting local sheriff (William Sadler, determined to rehabilitate his father from all those old Roswell jokes about poor old "Sergeant Martian") and a star-crossed love affair (a smitten Max just can't stop his healing hand from saving the life of Shiri Appleby's lissome Liz when she's gunned down while waitressing at the Crashdown Cafe), and what you've got is a cross-pollination of The X-Files and Romeo and Juliet, or The Fugitive and Catcher in the Rye, or Beauty and the Beast meets Judy Blume, or Close Encounters with a Blue Lagoon. In high school we're all of us on the run, a Third Kind, with heavy petting our only hope. That Max's manipulation of Liz's molecules should leave palm prints on her perfect tummy suggests, of course, stigmata. That they should then find themselves in the ultimate interspecies boundary situation can be understood to symbolize or paraphrase class difference, race division, gender confusion, and anything else we've ever stressed about, from pregnancy to aids.

Executive producers Jason Katims (My So-Called Life) and David Nutter (Disturbing Behavior) are clearly in touch with their Inner Teen -- a lost soul with call-waiting. Besides the obligatory pop-cultural references (Sigourney Weaver, Will Smith, Beavis and Butt-head), there are witty guest-star turns (Jonathan Frakes from Star Trek: The Next Generation shows up at the Crash Festival). Roswell, moreover, is wonderfully played. Behr is a sensitive hunk, with ears the girls will want to nibble. Appleby is composed of equal portions of Winona Ryder and Ophelia: "Five days ago, I died," she confides to her journal. "After that, things got weird." She will also have the last word in the pilot, after Max has explained to Liz that their love dare not speak its name, because "it's not safe." "I don't care," she says. Surprisingly, I do.


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