Review: The young and otherworldly of ‘Roswell, New Mexico,’ ‘A Discovery of Witches’ and ‘Deadly Class’
Genre series for viewers of all ages and all interests — or three, anyway — debut this week across the television platforms. Streaming channels Sundance Now and Shudder offer “A Discovery of Witches” (also includes vampires, demons); basic cable network SyFy unveils “Deadly Class,” based on a graphic novel about a high school for assassins; and the CW has brought back the WB’s turn-of-the-century sci-figh school (yes, I just invented that) series “Roswell” as “Roswell, New Mexico,” with an adult cast and timely correspondences.
All have to do with the ill effects of tribalism — a timely and timeless issue — and how love, or at least cooperation across lines, might improve things for all sides. Which is not to say they will be in any rush to fix things; there are second seasons to consider. Funnily enough, the ones with aliens or monsters are more credible than the one without them.
For the record:
9:40 a.m. Jan. 15, 2019In an earlier version of this story one reference to the series “Deadly Class” was incorrectly stated as “Deadly Academy.”
The elegant and satisfying “A Discovery of Witches,” based on the first book of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, is the classiest of the lot, an expensive-looking British production with a premium cast, including Teresa Palmer (“Hacksaw Ridge”) as scholar-witch Diana Bishop and Matthew Goode (“The Crown”) as Matthew Clairmont, the vampire scientist in her tousled hair. She’s got a pedigree that goes back to Salem, but keeps her powers on the back burner; he’s the scion of an old French line and a one-time pal of Charles Darwin. The action gets underway when Diana, doing research at the University of Oxford, is able to access a book that has been hiding from the world for more than a century — a book everyone in Magicland is suddenly after, like the Maltese Falcon or the “Mad” money Smiler Grogan buried down in Santa Rosita under the Big W.
Puny humans are present only as bit players, and we do not miss them. The focus is on the witches, the vampires and the demons, who don’t get on particularly well. (As a class, none is especially demonic, not even — or perhaps especially — the demons, a marginalized race struggling with a rise in “mental health problems.” But the age of miracles has been passing for them all. (“Once the world was full of wonders,” we hear Matthew say at the top of each episode, “but it belongs to humans now.”) The devil does not come into it, any more than into, say, an episode of “Bewitched.”
Will love be the key to a less bigoted supernatural future for all?
Set in the present day against a background of old places, including location filming at Oxford and Venice, Italy, it has a winning stateliness matched by the actors’ underplaying. There are villainous creatures here, but they are competing for political power or defending a tired status quo in ways familiar from merely mortal dramas. And at the heart of it all is I guess what you’d call a slow-blooming interracial romance. Will love be the key to a less bigoted supernatural future for all?
‘Just a guy from Roswell’
The original “Roswell,” which can currently be visited on Hulu, was a well-tooled, efficient sci-fi drama about three alien orphan high schoolers— survivors of the famous 1947 crash of Whatever It Was, gestating in “birth pods” long enough for them to be normally aging young adults on the eve of the 21st century. Though it was based on a series of YA novels, it owed its existence above all to the success of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dawson’s Creek”; all ran on the WB, which is now the CW, the network of the revival.
The characters in this enjoyable reboot, developed by Carina Adly MacKenzie (“The Originals”), have been aged about a decade from their high school models. Liz (Jeanine Mason) is a scientist, back home from Denver, where she had been “working on an experimental regenerative medicine study … but we lost funding because someone needs money for a wall”; Max (Nathan Dean Parsons), whom Liz remembers as an aspiring writer, is in law enforcement; his sister, Isobel (Lily Cowles), is an energetic pillar of the community; and fellow space kid Michael (Michael Vlamis) a genius screw-up living in a trailer on the site of the Roswell crash.
What’s new? It’s 2019, so the soundtrack is louder, the hookups are hotter, the bodies more buff and the complications more complicated. Crucially, Liz has been given a dead older sister, Rosa, the circumstances of whose passing are thrown into question, giving Liz a mystery of her own to solve.
The series may or may not have been brought back to comment on current events at the southern border, but given the premise and the place it could hardly look away. In the new series, Liz is Latina, her father in the country illegally and reluctant to leave Roswell for “a sanctuary city.” Indeed, the point can hardly have been made more explicit: “Aliens are coming,” says a weirdo podcasting from the diner, “and when they do; they’re going to rape and murder and steal our jobs.”
As in the original, Liz is shot in the course of working at her father’s alien-themed diner, and Max surreptitiously brings her back to life with his alien touch, occasioning the disapproval of Isobel and Michael and the renewed attention of local uniformed alien hunters — the trio’s fear is being “dragged off to the Pentagon by men in hazmat suits.” It also strengthens the bond between Liz and Max, who have now been in each other’s heads, and leads to this choice bit of romantic dialogue:
“We grew up watching movies where aliens abduct people, violate them and blow up the White House. I’m a son, I’m a brother, I’m a cop. My life is ordinary, which was fine until you blew back into it two days ago. You ask me what I am. I’m just a guy from Roswell.”
The only monsters in “Deadly Class” are the human kind. Based on the Rick Remender-Wes Craig comic book, with the Russo brothers (“Avengers: Infinity War”) as executive producers, it’s set in a secret academy for teenage assassins improbably located, among other improbable things, in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s the early 1980s. Protagonist-narrator Marcus (Benjamin Wadsworth), on the run from the home for boys the police believe he burned down, is kidnapped and delivered as a likely prospect to the feet of King’s Dominion headmaster Master Lin (Benedict Wong), who drinks tea with a raised pinkie finger and says things like, “There can be nobility in killing.” It’s no Hogwarts.
“Deadly Class" cast members Benjamin Wadsworth and Benedict Wong discuss their characters and co-creator Rick Remender explains how the show will be very faithful to his comic book series.
Like other fictional academies, it’s all about the cliques. There are the “legacies” and the “rats,” the unaffiliated “losers” with whom Marcus is lumped and who come in various flavors of punk and goth. (Watch for actual ’80s punk Henry Rollins, quite delightful as a professor of poisons.) Marcus also makes connections with cool girls Maria (María Gabriela de Faría) and Saya (Lana Condor) and with Willie (Luke Tennie), this world’s version of a sensitive jock; Michel Duval’s Chico is the school bully. Then there are the cartel kids, the Yakuza kids, the preppy progeny of American intelligence officers. There are white supremacists and boys from the hood. Which is to say, it’s also a prison drama. (High school as prison — who hasn’t lived that metaphor?)
Animated sequences that ape the look of Craig’s comic art illustrate characters’ sad back stories. One episode takes off on the “Breakfast Club,” throwing antagonistic characters into weekend detention. “Rat, legacy, jock, goth — why do we let differences define us?” someone asks. And: “We live our lives behind these fictitious ideas of what we think other people will accept.” Indeed, the less the characters are called on to enact those ideas, the more interesting they are.
“Deadly Class” doesn’t make much sustained sense, either as practical reality or pointed satire. (It is, in any case, no way to run a school.) But it has rude energy (and many bad words) and a certain conviction, and possibly what seem like bugs in its system will prove to be features instead; the creators do not seem unaware of internal inconsistencies in their creation. And many viewers won’t see a problem.
‘Roswell, New Mexico’
Where: The CW
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rated: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)
‘A Discovery of Witches’
Where: Sundance Now and Shudder
When: Any time, starting Thursday
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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