Tuesday, August 20, 2013


The late Heath Ledger is known primarily for playing the sullen cowboy Ennis in Brokeback Mountain and his anarchist take on The Joker in The Dark Knight. The former got him an Oscar nomination while the latter earned him a posthumous win, a first for an actor playing a comic book character, but Ledger was just that good. He got his start in 1997 with the lead role in the short-lived television series Roar that hooked me one summer before it abruptly vanished.

Roar followed in the footsteps of popular fantasy shows like Hercules and Xena, using 4th century Ireland as its locale. The major struggle was between the Celtic tribes and the invading Roman empire, although this show was far closer to fantasy than history. It treated both Celtic and Christian mythology as absolutely true, leading to all sorts of oddball plots. The unique setting pulled my teenage self in, especially when the last three episodes shown on Fox considerably raised the dramatic stakes. The next week, it was gone, replaced by Ally McBeal. I watched that for a while just because I didn't want to give up the ritual of watching at that time, but it obviously wasn't the same. This was during an era where Fox became notorious for canceling shows prematurely (with Joss Whedon's Firefly being a more infamous example). The complete series came out on DVD shortly after Ledger's Oscar nomination for Brokeback and, to my great surprise and delight, included five episodes that never aired!

Ledger plays Conor, whose family is killed by the Romans and reluctantly takes up the fight against them. His partners include Fergus (John Saint Ryan), a middle-aged badass with an epic Fu Manchu mustache, former Roman slave Catlin (Vera Farmiga, who has since become a very successful actress), Fergus's estranged daughter and Druid apprentice Molly (Melissa George), and token black guy Tully (Alonso Greer). I don't use that phrase lightly - Tully contributes nothing to the overall storyline. The writers seemed to realize this towards the end of the series since he's absent from the last three episodes. The villains are pretty far from what you expect on a show like this. I don't really know what to make of Lisa Zane as Diana, the self-appointed "Queen" of the invading Roman force. She takes a pragmatic approach to her villainy, which I like, but there's never a moment where she becomes intimidating. Her adviser, Longinus (Sebastian Roche), is the Roman centurion who finished off Christ on the cross with a mercy kill and has been cursed with immortality as a result. In the fascinating "Red Boot" episode, one of the show's best, he coerces a Roman historian to paint him in a positive light, assuming correctly that he will eventually be granted Sainthood.

It was fun to rediscover this show, but it was quickly clear that it doesn't hold up to the high standards people have come to expect in today's era of television. The tone is surprisingly inconsistent - sometimes deadly serious, other times campy and whimsical. Ledger and Ryan are the only actors who even bother with the Irish accent. The show was filmed in the Queensland region of Australia, which is very pretty but looks nothing like Ireland. The show often manages to be compelling in spite of all this - my favorite episode is still "The Eternal," the last one that aired on Fox, which features a full-tilt performance by Ledger during its epic ending.

As for the previously unseen episodes, it's mostly a mixed bag. The last episode, "Sweet Brigit," is just bizarre...not to mention unnecessary, since the penultimate episode, "The Cage," is a far better finale. Gripping, full of twists and surprisingly hilarious, "The Cage" offers an awesome ending to the Longinus storyline plus an out-of-nowhere musical number (really). Even though I was let down as a kid when it left the airwaves, I'm not sure where it would have gone in a second season after these episodes. I was surprised at the amount of closure I got from this DVD set, unlike the woefully unfinished Pirates of Dark Water. Of course, it must also be said that returning to Ledger's debut drives home just what a skilled actor the world lost when he died so abruptly. He was only 17 when this was filmed, but the talent was already there and at moments, it's almost blinding. Rest in peace.

The Nostalgia Series is done for now, but I have some more stuff coming up - another Spider-Man thing (don't worry, it will just be a one-off) and then a brand new series I'm pretty excited about. Keep reading!