Roar: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Rome

If you grew up in the ’90s, chances are your Saturday mornings were a time when you became engrossed in the myth and legends of Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess. Both shows followed their heroes as they navigated difficult times, dealing with barbarians and mystical Roman monsters. Since both hit it big with American audiences, it was only a matter of time until a series would appear with a similar concept, this time involving Celtic mythos.

Roar is the brainchild of Shaun Cassidy and Ron Koslow (Beauty and the Beast). It follows Conor, played by a young Heath Ledger who was still relatively unknown at the time. His family is murdered by the Romans in a similar manner to the Starks in Game of Thrones. As a result, he swears to follow in his father’s footsteps and unite the remaining Celtic tribes so their culture can live on. Meanwhile, the Romans set forth their plans to create a land that they could rule over, led by Diana and Longinus. Diana is the wife of a recently deceased Roman general put in charge of controlling that area and Longinus is cursed to live eternally for having been the one to stab Jesus Christ on the cross.

Roar struggled in the shadow of Hercules and Xena due to its similar themes and look. With the show unable to maintain its audience and the ratings dropping, it was canceled after eight episodes. It’s unfortunate because the series had a lot of potential. If it could have gotten out from the shadow of those two giants, it could easily have turned into one of equal standing instead of getting lost in the television void.

When trying to be like Hercules and Xena, Roar couldn’t decide if it wanted to keep its writing straight or allow for the campiness that the other shows were so well known for. This problem often resulted in scenes and characters appearing as if they came out of a poorly directed soap opera. No one fell victim to this more than Lisa Zane’s Diana.

Lisa Zane as Diana in Roar

Diana was a character that was entertaining to watch, but when you really paid attention, she didn’t have much direction. She felt out of place most of the time with her big expressions and loud presence. She was more cartoonish than anyone else, which could have been fixed if she had been told to pull back. One episode, after having the last straw over Longinus basically abusing her, she spends the remainder lugging her suitcase across the island in order to catch a boat back to Rome. When she misses it, she gives a passionate speech about how she is done. If she must live there, then she’s going to fight to make the land hers. It’s a big step for her character since up until then she usually just ran away or allowed herself to be belittled.

This moment, on the hilltop, I fell in love with not only her but also how Roar presented its female characters. Each one is strong in their own way, and that goes for the supporting and guest cast as well. It makes a lot of sense since the Celts thought highly of their women. In creating a show that is about this time and these people, it would have been wrong to make any of the women weak. 

The poor direction of some of the series’ characters and plots became very obvious when the same format would be recycled week after week. In particular, episodes dealing with some sort of creature were formatted in such a way that it felt as though it was taught in a Screenwriting 101 course. A creature (usually in the form of a beautiful woman) would appear in distress, Conor would somehow save them, and they would save him in return.

Heath Ledger as Conor in Roar

One of Conor’s driving characteristics is that he leads with his heart. After his family is killed, he attempts to attack the Roman General that ordered the hit. In the process, the love of his life, Claire, is fridged, and her death then becomes his driving force to bring the tribes together. The problem with having such a repetitive layout for episodes is that whenever the supernatural creature appears, one instantly thinks, “Oh, it looks like Conor is going to be in heart-eyes mode again this week.” This completely takes away from the death of Claire, makes it awkward when actually trying to introduce a proper love interest for him, and just gets extremely boring. 

When the formula works, it works well. In the episode “Banshee,” Shannon—a woman who is gifted with the ability to see the future and an ear-piercing scream—finds herself at the mercy of Conor and his band of misfits. This band, by the way, includes Catlin (a fresh-faced Vera Farmiga in her first role), John Saint Ryan as Fergus, and Alonzo Greer as Tully. After Shannon has a premonition, which she attempts to stop because it involves Conor being killed, she discovers that it was really predicting her own death.

This episode works well because the focus may have begun on Shannon’s instant connection to Conor (possibly because Shannon looked an awful lot like Claire, so he might have been seeing double) but it then shifted to Shannon’s effect on each of the other characters. Having moments shared between each person allowed viewers to really connect with her more. In the end, it allows her death to hit us as much as it hits everyone else. 

The character-based stories that were more about a personal conflict than about a magical one (even though sometimes the two intertwined) were indeed Roar at its best.

Vera Farmiga as Catlin in Roar

In “Tash,” a young Catlin cuts herself in order to prevent being sold to a leper. Cut, she is damaged goods, and the leper doesn’t want her. Instead, she watches as her older sister is dragged away to her impending doom. For years Catlin struggles in secret with trying to come to terms with what happened. She throws herself into being able to rescue those who need it. When night comes, the nightmares of reliving the moment over and over again haunt her. While going to pay tribute in a tomb of fallen warriors, she becomes possessed by her sister’s vengeful spirit. In order to save herself, she must reconnect the bond that was broken that day and allow herself to forgive. As children we would do anything to keep ourselves safe, but that doesn’t mean we love those around us less. Catlin needed to understand that in order to move on.

Fergus is in a constant state of “what if” after he passes out drunk while Conor’s family is slaughtered. His growth over the course of the show comes from achieving responsibility and regaining trust. He pledges to protect Conor and soon finds himself face to face with the daughter that he abandoned, reiterating how far he still has to go. As he reconnects with Molly (Melissa George), he is forced to face his mistakes. With him not being around, she substituted a father figure with Doyle, a cult leader who manipulates children to join him. The battle for her affection allows Fergus to accept his past wrongs, acknowledge Molly’s hurt, and begin to rebuild a bond between the two.

Fergus (John Saint Ryan) and Molly (Melissa George) reconnect in a scene from Roar

A lot of the Celtic culture is nature-based. Unlike most Roman tales, it doesn’t need theatrics. 

One of the best episodes in the series is “Traps.” It took a drama/fantasy series and added a hint of psychological thriller that still managed to keep the show grounded. In this episode, Conor and Fergus travel to a smaller island to attempt to find Molly and Tully, who had gone to discuss uniting with the island’s tribe. They are too late, though, because the leader of the clan, Megan (Brenda Strong) had decided to join with Longinus. What is discovered is that Megan and her people had been hunters. They built their entire living around hunting, but food to hunt for had become scarce. With the lack of food many of them ended up losing their sanity, Megan included. The scary thing is that they manage to hide it, but by using science (a different type of magic) to create modern booby traps, their new nature is revealed. The traps range from nets to a device that releases spears. The episode then becomes a cat-and-mouse game as they attempt to survive the night while Megan and her people test out their newest creations for Longinus and Diana. Along with their external conflict, there is also Megan’s internal one as she realizes that what is happening might not be the best, but she would do anything for her people.

When Roar attempted to become theatrical, it missed its mark. “The Spear of Destiny” was so far over the top that one wonders if the episode was even meant for the series. Even at its cheesiest, Roar managed to be subtle. This one looked and felt more like a ’90s experimental rock video. Tilted angles and strange editing made it feel completely out of place. It was supposed to be a story about being overwhelmed and consumed by power, but all of that was missed while trying to pay attention to what exactly was going on. 

Heath Ledger as Conor in Roar

Roar had 13 episodes and that was not enough. Diana had just gotten Conor his peace treaty, Longinus was finally gone, and there were just so many amazing female characters that needed to be built upon. It would have been fantastic to have seen Megan one last time since she was snapped back into sanity. There really was so much that Roar could have done if given more time. It had just begun to understand that it didn’t need to be big or loud—that its quieter, subtler stories and episodes were its strongest. Kind of ironic for a show that is named after an action that is big and loud.

Written by Katie Bienvenue

Katie is a writer, cosplayer, craftswoman, and Barista. When she isn't talking about Chainmaille she is usually found discussing some television series, film, or how to properly make one's latte.

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