Birds of Prey
I’m surprised to see Birds of Prey out on DVD, since I discovered recently that few people remembered it. It ran only 13 episodes in 2002 on the WB, which may have been part of the problem — there wasn’t a WB affiliate in our city at that point, for instance. And it didn’t have the popularity among teens (demographic appeal) that protects other low-rated WB shows.
Actually, I’m having a hard time figuring out who the target audience for this was supposed to be. It seems to have the same problem many works centered on female characters struggle with. Are these attractive women running around in tight costumes for the benefit of pleasing male viewers? Or are they meant to be putting forth role models for women? If creators try to split the middle and appeal to both, they end up risking pleasing neither. Thankfully, the eye candy here isn’t as extraneous as it might have been. The inability to easily answer the question “who should watch this?” may have contributed to the series’ short life. Still, I’m glad to see it out, because I welcome the chance to see it again.
Then there’s the question of balancing material aimed at those who already know the characters with new viewers, at a time before comics were as popular as they are now among the general public. Because I was curious how this would be received, I asked a co-worker to join me in watching it. Liz likes Buffy and Angel and blogs at Not Always About Monkeys, but she doesn’t read comics (unless they’re by Neil Gaiman). She’d never heard of the series before, but she was interested in checking it out. So we watched the pilot together.
The tagline of this show was “Batman’s little girl is all grown up”, and the pilot is introduced by the voice of Alfred Pennyworth, so from the beginning, these characters were positioned as associated with the missing male hero. Yet it’s a show full of women, relying only on each other, which is refreshing. They’re clearly adults, which may have necessitated one of the odder changes from the comics, about which more later.
The major male character is Shemar Moore, gorgeous soap star, playing the cop. About the only thing he does in this first episode is deliver what Liz thought was the best bad line: “There is something going on in this city when the sun goes down, and I’m going to find out what it is.”
The premise is that Helena Kyle (played by Ashley Scott), daughter of Batman and Catwoman, teams up with Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl (Dina Meyer, best of the lot), after the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) ruins both their lives by paralyzing Batgirl and killing Catwoman. (I had to explain to Liz why it was a big deal that Hamill was credited prominently, since she didn’t know about his playing the same role on the cartoon around this time.) Helena calls herself the Huntress, and her defining characteristic is that, as Liz put it, “she’s angry.”
I guess she has reason to be. She didn’t know who her father was until her mother died; until then, she’d been raised and influenced only by her. (Batman didn’t know about this daughter, either.) After her parent’s death, Helena moves in with Barbara, who’s turned herself into a computer genius but pretends to be an English teacher — badly, as Liz points out, since the set dressing is just names of famous authors written on the blackboard and she’s introduced hanging a picture of Shakespeare. The next time we see her she’s hanging out in a bar with Angry Girl Helena, who bartends when she’s not smacking bad guys around.
Helena’s family structure isn’t the only change that might upset fans of the comic (shown left). The comic focused on the partnership of Barbara and Black Canary, world-ranked martial artist, with the Huntress as an add-on. Here, Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten) is much younger, practically a teen (WB demographic!), and instead of having a sonic scream, she’s a clairvoyant. For comic readers, she’s more Gypsy than Canary, but Liz found her the most believable character as a runway gone to the big city, and what happens to her the most interesting so far. (Change successful for new viewers!)
We both agreed that we liked the other two better once Dinah got involved and they had a third person to play off of and take care of. There was more texture in their relationship; before that, their interaction consisted of Helena nagging Barbara to buy groceries. I don’t get a sense of Scott as much of an actress, which is a problem, since the show asks the Huntress to carry a lot of the emotional weight. And some of the delivery of what would have been decent lines fell flat.
Then there’s the unnecessary supernatural aspect of her eyes changing into cat pupils when she goes into battle, which is ludicrous, and her ability to leap up buildings, apparently an homage to the movie Catwoman (not Halle Berry, Michelle Pfeiffer). Other bits don’t make sense without having seen the comics. We stopped the episode several times to talk more about the whole Batgirl/Joker shooting/Oracle situation, the Huntress’ background, how the characters relate to each other, and the depth of their history, material that doesn’t all make it on-screen.
I haven’t mentioned yet Mia Sara, playing the Huntress’ psychiatrist, Harleen Quinzel (aka, as the packaging has it, Harley Quinn TM). She’s previously best known as the girl from Ferris Bueller, and here, she doesn’t have a substantial enough presence. As a result, the evil plan revelation at the end raised the reaction “hunh” instead of being exciting or intriguing.
The strongest element, in my opinion, are the visuals, which are gorgeous, strongly styled in a gothic/deco approach full of shadows. The clock tower is an excellent secret lair (an actual phrase used by the characters). The Huntress’ costume looks terrific for a Renaissance costume party, but would never be chosen by someone who needs to change clothes in a hurry, what with all the jewelry and mesh wrap. The music (including the score) was better than expected.
Liz liked the shoutout to Smallville. The other two scan Dinah’s brain to confirm her powers, after which Oracle explains that people are special, and nobody knows where the specialness comes from. Huntress then comes out with “there have been interesting cases with meteor showers”. Effects-wise, they were attempting to do more than they might have had budget for. There were some Matrix-inspired shots that didn’t quite come off as well as you’d hope. And some of the pan shots made you downright dizzy with their cartooniness.
I found the episode slow going, so I welcomed the chance to stop and talk more about background. Perhaps expectations have changed in the half-decade since this aired, but I didn’t need the scenes of the women poking around dark rooftops or abandoned buildings to find some clue or flashback. I wanted the creators to have more faith in the audience and move things along faster. That’s probably the wrong approach, though, given that I’m complaining how some explanations were left out.
Liz liked it more than I did, which surprised me, but then I realized, when retelling the Killing Joke to her, that I still had anger over what Alan Moore did to Batgirl. (Not the crippling, but the way she’s treated solely as a plot device for the development of the male characters.) In short, I had a lot more preconceptions going in. It’s more fun without them.
This DVD collection of the complete series is due out tomorrow. In addition to the 13 episodes, the set contains the unaired pilot, of interest because Sherilyn Fenn plays Harleen. Also included are 30 webisodes of “Gotham Girls”. You can find photos and clips at the official website. (A complimentary copy of this DVD was provided by the studio.) There’s also a fan site. I look forward to watching more episodes and seeing how the characters continue to develop.