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SURPRISINGLY ENOUGH, `COVINGTON CROSS' IS SWASHBUCKLING FUN

OK, I'll admit it. I thought that ABC's new series "Covington Cross' was the dumbest idea any network had come up with for the new television season.

The network described it as sort of a medieval family comedy/drama, about a beleaguered knight who's also the single parent of a difficult teenage daughter and three rambunctious teenage boys.I mean, it does sound pretty dumb, doesn't it?

But I have another confession to make. "Covington Cross" is a whole lot better than it sounds. As a matter of fact, it's pretty darn good.

In the pilot, which is being "previewed" tonight at 9 p.m. on Ch. 4, begins with an elaborate swashbuckling scene. A pair of combatants outfitted in armor battle their way around a castle, dueling in the best Errol Flynn fashion and generally making a mess of things.

In the midst of this battle, Sir Thomas Gray (Nigel Terry) suddenly enters the room and, with that note of exasperation so common to parents, tells his two sons, "How many times have I told you - not in the castle!"

"Covington Cross" is a curious and strangely effective mix of medieval knight errantry and '90s sensibilities. Sir Thomas is a wise, patient but put-upon businessman, father, lord and protector. A widower, he's trying to work out a romantic relationship with the rather feisty Lady Elizabeth (Cherie Lunghai).

His 18-year-old daughter (Ione Skye) is a 14th-century feminist, much more interested in crossbows than in playing the harp.

His youngest son (Glenn Quinn - who plays Becky's boyfriend on "Roseanne") is being groomed as a cleric but wants only to be a knight. And the two older boys (Ben Porter and Jonathan Firth) are well on their way to knighthood, spending much of their time battling each other.

There's also a delicious villain, Sir John Mullens (James Faulkner), a neighboring black knight with designs on Sir Thomas' lands.

The action in tonight's debut episode surrounds a plot by Mullens in which he offers a false peace to Sir Thomas - as long as Sir Thomas agrees to hand over his daughter in marriage to Mullens' loathsome son.

Terry is perfectly cast as Sir Thomas. He's no stranger to medieval England, having played Prince John in "The Lion in Winter," King Arthur in "Excalibur," among his other credits.

In just one episode, he manages to form a complex man who's trying to do the best he can within a system he didn't create.

And, among the other cast members, Faulkner is a delight as the wonderfully wicked Mullens.

"Covington Cross" is relatively violent, what with the bad guys burning down peasant huts and a good number of people dying at the point of swords. But it's very much prime-time television violence - meaning exceptionally little in the way of blood and gore.

Adding to the substance of the series is the fact that it's shot on location in Great Britain, using actual castles. There's no feeling that this was slapped together on some studio backlot.

Not that "Covington Cross" is by any means a historical drama. These characters could be plucked out of the 14th century and dropped into the 20th without suffering much in the way of culture shock.

Still, the point here is to entertain. The show offers a good story, plenty of action, a nice dash of humor here and there, and strangely believable characters in this decidedly odd setting.

As entertainment, "Covington Cross" succeeds far better than I ever would have imagined.

- Tonight's episode of "Covington Cross" will also air on Friday, Sept. 11 and Saturday, Sept. 19, when it moves to its regular, 7 p.m. time slot.