Youthful passion has its day TV: The new Fox series 'Roar' may strain the powers of suspending disbelief, but it is fun. And as Conor, Heath Ledger just may make heartthrob status.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Litmus test for whether or not you'll enjoy "Roar":

Its hero, a fourth-century Celtic warrior, wears an earring.

But if you can get past such affectations, "Roar," debuting at 9 tonight on Fox (WBFF, Channel 45), is a lot of fun, a sort of "Star Wars"-meets-"Beowulf" mutation with a debut episode that borrows heavily from "Romeo and Juliet."

The series, up for a 13-episode tryout (it's not part of Fox's fall line-up), is set at "the edge of the known world," a place we know today as Ireland (which explains all the Irish music heard throughout the show). Conor (Heath Ledger) is a 20-year-old Celt who, in the first few minutes of "Roar," establishes his basic decency and his qualifications for hero-dom by, first, refusing to kill a young deer and, second, saving a Celtic woman from slavery.

The latter act nearly gets him killed; fortunately, the family protector, big-hearted and big-muscled Fergus (Sean Connery look-alike John Saint Ryan), arrives in the nick of time and, truncheon in hand, fetches Conor back to the family homestead in time for a wedding.

But youth must have its priorities (not that 20 is young for a fourth-century Celt, but we said we'd be forgiving). That night, Conor tends to his: stealing into the night to rendezvous with his lady love. When he returns, he finds that the evil King Gar (Leo Taylor) has gotten there first, burning the family home to the ground and killing everyone (except for Fergus, who was lucky enough to take a drunken fall down the basement stairs and pass out).

All this leaves Conor with one overriding hatred -- for the invading Romans and their ally, Gar -- and one overriding love, who just happens to be Gar's daughter. This is where the Shakespeare stuff comes in; you just know tragedy's a-bornin'.

Lurking in the background through all this is Galen (Norman Kaye, looking just a little too bemused), a magician who convinces Conor his destiny lies in leading the Celts into battle against Gar. He also lets his charge in on a secret: The Roar, the collective sound of the land and its people, from which Conor can gain wisdom, power and a battle cry.

Any resemblance between Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Force is strictly intentional.

Its derivativeness aside, "Roar" holds considerable promise, not least of all because we never get enough Celts in prime time.

Comparisons to "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess" are inevitable, but while it has its tongue-in-cheek moments, "Roar" seems to take itself a bit more seriously than either: It's hard to imagine Conor helping start the Olympics or entering the "Mr. Known World" pageant.

Conor is all youthful naivete and uncertain bravado; he's not sure he can -- or wants to -- be a leader, but he's willing to try. Australian newcomer Ledger fits the part well; he comes across as brave and a bit foolish, but not cocky.

That character trait is reserved for Fergus, who seems all-but-indestructible. Rounding out Conor's band of merry warriors is Tully (Alonzo Greer), an apprentice magician, and Catlin (Vera Farigma), who turns out to wield a mean sword and kick as hard as any male warrior.

Written and executive-produced by the team of Shaun Cassidy ("American Gothic") and Ron Koslow ("Beauty and the Beast"), "Roar" could have trouble living up to its pedigree: It doesn't have the otherworldly menace of "Gothic" or the underlying romance of "Beast."

But it does have spirit -- lots of spirit -- and a perfectly evil anti-heroine in Queen Diana (Lisa Zane, oh-so-slinky), who first appears on-screen nude, bathing in cow dung. What an entrance!

Can "Roar" last? Maybe, if the Force that is, the Roar, is with it.

'Roar'

Premiere; 9-10 tonight Fox (WBFF, Channel 45)

Pub Date: 7/14/97

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