What Went Wrong?
About This Column::
Good ideas, good qualities...BAD flaws; that's the trouble with many promising entertainment products. Every once in a while there's that one product (movie, television, video, or game) which had it all --concept, sound, visuals-- yet fell like a rock because of a few grating mistakes. Techtite's "What Went Wrong?" commentary examines such titles.
Earlier What Went Wrong Columns :---Montezuma's Return (PC)
For the current WWWrong page, click here.
An Analysis Column, by Techtite
The current entertainment product discussed is:
(TV series, WB and UPN networks, 1999-2002)
After an understandable hiatus --after the tragic events in Sept. 2001-- I took some time deciding on what would be the first entertainment product roasted in 2002. Well, what about a TV series that many respectable TV critics admired, had great producers behind it, and had a strong gathering of fans to keep it afloat, AND was renewed at least twice by nothing less than a sheer network miracle...yet had a cast so arrogantly flippant, they treated every renewal notice with total disdain. Yes, this is a true story, when thinking of the WB/UPN sci-fi drama, Roswell. What Went Wrong?
First, as always, let's discuss the positives:
What Went Right?
In three words: its first season. Praised by many critical sources at the time, including Techtite.com, this series concept was unique, inspired, and best of all, very promising. A young high school girl, Liz Parker, is shot by a stray bullet at her family's restaurant, yet is healed by a secretive student that goes to her school. This student turns out to be an alien/human hybrid...who, as it so happens, has fallen in love with Liz. A nice "interstellar love story" ensues...one that appealed, at first, to both high-school drama and sci-fi fan bases.
This was of no surprise given the credit roll. Jonathan Frakes, best known as "Commander Riker" on Star Trek TNG, is one of the executive producers. David Nutter, who has worked on episodes of The X-Files, is producer. Meanwhile, Jason Katims, whose prior works include My So Called Life, was producer as well, making a production crew that was not about to let their latest series turn into some mere aliens in Roswell cliché. This was to be about three teens that were half-alien, half-human, with no idea of who they were or where they originally came from. They must deal, in their own special way, with discovering their origins, honing their latent special powers, as well as dealing with adolescence itself.
The best fun in those first episodes was the occasional view of how these teens used their alien powers. Isabel, for example, could enter the dreams of other students, just by touching their yearbook photo. She could also melt taco cheese with only a wave of her hand, listen to a music CD just by holding it to her ear, and turn a bottle of ketchup into her favorite other condiment, and back again. Max has healing powers; Michael has defense powers. All three, for that matter, have very "alien" appetites, leading to their overuse of Tabasco sauce on all their food. This could have led to an amusing, modern spin of the classic Bewitched/"I Dream of Jeannie" magical tale...though sadly wasn't taken as far as it could have been. However, the first season's use of the teen's powers was definitely among the What-Went-Right category...
The thing that really helped this show, though --with a threat of cancellation as early as its first season-- was its fans. So intrigued were they of the developing Max and Liz interstellar love story that they sent countless bottles of Tabasco sauce to the production offices, in an attempt to get the series renewed. No such save-our-show campaign, to my knowledge, has ever been attempted. After all, it's one thing to put pen to paper and lick a stamp; it's another thing entirely to purchase thousands of bottles of Tabasco sauce and have them shipped to a Hollywood office in droves. There's any number of TV series which would bend over backwards to have the type of loyal fans this series had. After all, what actor doesn't want to keep working in a series fans love?
What Went Wrong? For one thing, experience. None of the cast had ever worked in a long-term TV series as a lead star. Some had done guest starring work (Jason Behr was in one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), though nothing long term. What's worse, many of the cast apparently only took this job as a one-time gig --you dig, man?-- and were slowly growing animosity, as the series lasted longer than expected. Consider a final-season online chat with Majandra Delfino, where a fan asked her how she felt about being renewed for a third season after being oh-so-close to cancellation; "I tried not to think about it" was her answer. It seems like many of the stars thought this would be a one --or at best, two-- season deal, and had no idea it could last as long as its producers (or its fans) wanted it to. Gee. "Bummer."
To be fair, it is no picnic whenever someone is told what to do. Even a child being ordered to eat cake may not enjoy it. Such was apparently the case when these kid actors were told --horrors!-- their show was renewed, twice, and they had to come back...again. Any other series' cast would yell "Yippee!"; these kids, well, no. They seem smart, yet totally oblivious to how lucky they were. Their reaction was more like, "I'm bored being a TV star; I'd like to start a career in singing!...or a movie career! After all, just look at how easy TV stardom was!" Any more-seasoned actor (or singer) would smack these kids upside the head for such naïveté. This series was a big break that at least half of them did not deserve. However, yes, in two-dimensional thinking, they were being ordered to do what they'd lost interest in altogether.
Not that the series' writers were making it a picnic to stay. Ingenious storylines involving their origins were replaced with inane in-show commercial spots. No sooner did Snapple become a major (and, more or less, the only) sponsor, then cliché Snapple references took place of the unique Tabasco sauce references (it sounds silly, though it's true). Suddenly, the aliens who needed Tabasco sauce to make Earth food strong enough for their super-strong taste buds, all of the sudden loved the fruity-goodness of Snapple. What does Michael steal from his new job's cafeteria? Snapple. What does everyone drink? Snapple.
You have to cut the writers some slack though; they had their own difficulties dealing with the casts' growing needs...like on-the-set romances and breakups. While behind the scenes buzz was very hushed, it was severely hinted in season one that Shiri Appleby and Jason Behr were dating in real life. By as early as season two, no scene with them together could hide the truth; Behr and Appleby did not get along at all. Behr, during an AOL chat in February 2001, put it as nicely as he could about their characters: "I am not actually sure how that is going to go, the relationship between -- the two of them have been through so much. I'm not sure what they are going to do." Was this because in real life, the stars had gone their separate ways? Some would say so; others wish to not speak of it. In short, the core uniqueness of the series --the interstellar romance-- was in jeopardy, as early as the second season!
What happened in two seasons? Few would say. All that can be said for certain is that by the end of season two, Katherine Heigl was dating Behr, not Appleby. Regardless of their sibling status on screen, "Max" and "Isabel" were very much the couple off-screen. She even had a Claddaugh ring on her finger, pointed inwards, to signify "she's taken" (the biggest sign of commitment aside from an engagement ring). Did this annoy Appleby? Maybe not, though whatever did annoy her about Behr, she lacked the expertise to hide professionally; her "I hate you" eyes were quite obvious. While these later turned to, "Okay, I guess we can be friends" eyes, it wasn't enough; the spark between the characters was sorely lacking. The whole uniqueness of this show, mind you, was this high school romance subplot...and now, it was failing.
Shiri's other female co-stars fared no better. Majandra "Maria" Delfino had dated Brendan Fehr (her "boyfriend" on the series), broke up with him, then just as suddenly, was ready to leave skid marks when the show was cancelled. Was this because of a messy breakup, or because she hated the series, period? Either way, her voice against her own show was quite brazenly negative, as she now pursues a singing career. "I don't even care if no one comes to the shows," said Majandra in an interview. "I just don't want anyone to come and yell, 'Maria!' If they do, they'll be quietly escorted out by security." In other words she hates everyone who knows her because of this show...which, aside from friends and family, is nearly everyone who knows her at all.
As for the men of the show, little can be said; if they were more laid back --in both their publicity for the show, as well as their performances-- they'd be asleep. Two of these lead stars got in big trouble when they didn't show up for a major press junket for the series' third season. Which two? I forget...does it matter? All three made their ambivalence for the series obvious in every episode, in scenes that seemed read via cue cards. The problem wasn't with the writing; the problem was with the acting. This was particularly grating with lead actor Jason Behr, whose suddenly monotone, expressionless reading of his lines made it hard to know whether his character was being cynical, angry, jovial, or perhaps, ironically taken over by aliens.
So, as of early 2002, the series had been placed on "hiatus" and replaced with two sitcoms. The sitcoms earned only half the ratings of Roswell, yet UPN was not to be fooled by the brats-of-Roswell a second time; the command was delivered to destroy the sets, long before the official word of cancellation was ever given. The series' last episode was May 14th, and all the cast seems to want to do is shout and cheer about it. You got your wish, kids; the series is kaput. Congratulations.