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Birds of Prey
July 14, 2008

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.

Birds of Prey cover
Birds of Prey
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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.

Birds of Prey cover
Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds
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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.

19 Responses  
Bill D. writes:  

I always found the show too “off model” from the source material to watch regularly (and the idea of Batman just up and leaving Gotham always seemed pretty ridiculous), but I did think Dina Meyer made an awesome Babs.

 
Vincent J. Murphy writes:  

If I recall, the first couple of episodes did great ratings for the WB, and it was expected to be picked up for a whole season. But the ratings started tanking after those early episodes.

I enjoyed the show a lot and can’t wait to pick up the DVDs.

 
Lyle writes:  

The show really lost me right at the beginning when they felt the need to give the audience that long explanation by Alfred. That suggested to me they didn’t have the confidence to explain who these characters were through the stories (though, IIRC, wasn’t there some dialogue also explaining Helena’s background?) and that lack of confidence probably also explains why the Babs/Helena relationship lacked much depth.

 
Tommy Raiko writes:  

With regard to: “I’m surprised to see Birds of Prey out on DVD, since I discovered recently that few people remembered it.”

On the other hand, if I recall correctly, BIRDS OF PREY always scored very high on TVShowsonDVD.com’s list of most-requested-but-yet-unreleased TV shows, so there was something of a demand for it. And if rights issues still preclude the Adam West Batman TV series from getting to DVD, it makes some sense to release new Batman-related DVD product out along with the new movie.

Anyway, what I recall of the BIRDS OF PREY series from watching it pretty much jibes with your assessement. I remember thinking that it looked good in terms of sets and art direction, and the cast was reasonably solid (Dina Meyer is one of the better seemingly-consigned-to-genre-work actresses there is, IMO), but the whole thing didn’t fully come together.

Which, I suppose, makes a fine candidate for a DVD release for a collector’s shelf, even if it doesn’t make for must-see TV viewing…

 
Dave writes:  

I recall making it most of the way through the first episode and then really losing interest. This was before I or nayone I knew had DVR, and I wasn’t motivated to remember to tape it so that was pretty much it for me. As one of the other commenters noted, it just seemed too “off-model” from the comic for me to relate to – and I have generally been a defender of various “reimaginings” when comics material is adapted to other media.

One big positive effect of the show, however, was the effect on the comic. Typical of DC (and Marvel, too), changes were made in the editiorial direction of the comic series to make it hew closer to the show. So, Huntress was brought in as a regualar player, a move which warranted a new creative team – Gail Simone and Ed Benes. Good call. The book had been floundering and directionless for about a year since Chuck Dixon left and I was about to drop it. Gail’s run really re-energized it. Too bad she’s gone – I’m still having a hard time with the stupid moves DC has made to nullify all the positive character-development Gail did with Dinah. I’m still picking it up regularly but it no longer hits the top of my reading pile and as I look for places to cut back, I can’t guarantee its’ safety.

But back to the show: Was I the only one who had a hard time processing “Mr. Pitt” as Alfred?

 
Tommy Raiko writes:  

“One big positive effect of the show, however, was the effect on the comic…”

Plus, I like to think that the existence of the BIRDS OF PREY tv show, somehow, in some way, influenced DC’s decision to finally collect the Paul Levitz Huntress stories in that HUNTRESS: DARK KNIGHT DAUGHTER tpb.

OK, sure, there wasn’t any direct tie-in–the book was published something like 3 or 4 years after the show was cancelled–but, still, I like to think that having a Batman’s daughther character kicking around on the teevee got at least some wheels turning in the reprint division…

 
Kelson writes:  

I remember watching maybe 5 or 6 episodes before I lost interest. The changes in dynamic didn’t bother me that much, since I haven’t read the comics, though I remember finding it odd that Barbara would use a motorized wheelchair — until I realized it placed her head higher, making it easier to frame shots with other characters.

The thing that really didn’t work for me was the fact that they basically set it in the Marvel Universe instead of the DC Universe, with mutants renamed as Metas.

 
chasdom writes:  

When the show was originally on, it reminded me a lot of Charmed, which my girlfriend-at-the-time watched religiously. 3 women with a difficult relationship teaming up to fight the baddie-of-the-week. The antagonists in Birds of Prey always had weak set-ups and motivations, but so did the baddies in Charmed, and my girlfriend never seemed to mind; it was just exciting window-dressing for the soap opera aspects.

For the same reasons as Charmed, it didn’t hold my (male) interest very much, even if the premise and characters were appealing. As for why the female viewership abandoned the show as well, I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t marketed to them in the first place, thus missing the key demographic? But it was on the WB, which had high female viewership, so that doesn’t make much sense.

Just some random thoughts. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, actually, especially with there being only 13 episodes.

 
Kiki writes:  

What made me drop the show after a few episodes was its reliance on the meta menace of the week – or at least it seemed like that at the time. Relationships never got a chance to develop because they were trying to work too many guest stars into an already crowded show. Though the episode with Dinah’s mother was pretty good.

 
Raymond Tate writes:  

I pre-ordered the set, which just arrived today, because I enjoyed this show for several reasons.

One, Babs is employing her brilliant mind to reverse her condition. She isn’t giving up. This isn’t reality. This is fiction. In one episode, she walks again, but with great pain.

I’ve always wondered about this. If Babs is so smart, so technologically savvy in the comic series, why hasn’t she come up with a way to repair the damage?

Two, Birds of Prey does not take place in the wholecloth of the DC universe. Therefore, there is no supernatural or high tech way to permanently repair Babs’ spine.

Babs might a solution in the television series, but there’s no Zatanna, nor are there such things as advanced Kryptonian or Thanagarian science readily available to her.

Three, the Huntress is based on the earth-two original hero not the generic post-Crisis vigilante that lacks a single tie to Batman and hasn’t a good reason to exist. The writer/creator of the show was a fan of the original Huntress, not Valerie’s cousin.

Four, Batman occasionally shows up in flashback and isn’t portrayed as an emotionless, unfeeling manipulator. Batgirl was his trusted partner.

Five, we don’t know exactly why Batman left Gotham City. Grief over Catwoman’s death doesn’t seem likely. Now that he knows about Helena, it would be more likely that he would return. So, I always suspected that Batman is searching the globe, seeking a way to fix Babs’ spine, which is a helluva lot more than he did for her in the comics. Granted, this is merely hypothetical, but I’m sticking with it.

Ray

P.S. SPOILER.

Young Dinah isn’t the Black Canary. She’s the daughter of Black Canary, who shows up later, complete with sonic scream.

 
Johanna writes:  

Some great background y’all are sharing, thanks!

Chas, if I had to guess why the women dropped the show, it’s because the soap opera wasn’t very entertaining. Based on this first episode, it felt flat instead of involving.

 
Dan Coyle writes:  

One of the more ludicrous bits of the show was the father of Shemar Moore’s character. In the first episode he appeared in, he was played by Stephen McHattie. In what universe would they be related?

Even better, since the father was severely injured at the end of said episode, he came back played by another actor with a completely different body type and facial structure, Mitch Pileggi. Now they just think we’re idiots.

As charming as I find her, I must admit Ashley Scott was definitely the show’s weak link, hammering the slow burn angst button for, well, everything.

Mia Sara became the scene stealer, because, well, her character wasn’t feeling sorry for herself all the time, instead enacting a plan for REVENGE, albeit a ridiculous one.

 
Adam writes:  

Raymond Tate wrote: “Two, Birds of Prey does not take place in the wholecloth of the DC universe. Therefore, there is no supernatural or high tech way to permanently repair Babs’ spine.”

You know, that reminds me of something. It’s been a while since I’ve read all those Knightfall/KnightQuest/KnightEend issues, but was did we ever see Batman talk with Oracle at all about the fact that he was now in a wheelchair as well? What about any conversations after Bruce’s back was miraculously healed by Dr. Kinsolving?

 
Glaurung writes:  

My partner and I watched this when it aired. I lost interest quickly, driven away by the godawful writing more than by how much they were deviating from the source material (another commenter has noted the horridly clunky opening credit exposition and how it showed the producers had no faith in their ability to convey the backstory through the actual writing of the episodes).

I also remember how very annoyed I was by how Barbara/Oracle was supposed to be paraplegic but was always sitting and moving in a way that would be impossible for someone who is paraplegic to sit and move — one of the episodes had the three leads lounging and talking in a U-shaped couch, and there’s no freaking way Oracle would have been able to get to the place she was sitting without either crawling over the coffee table or the back of the couch.

Another thing I didn’t like was how they failed to understand the brains/brawn character dymamic of the Birds of Prey comics. Not getting that meant Helena did all the work and Barbara/Oracle was given very little to do, which sucked.

IIRC, the showbiz news coverage of the time talked about how the show’s producer was not very experienced, and the network failed to assign her a good showrunner exec, which explained a lot about the clumsy, awkward feel to the show as a whole.

 
Lyle writes:  

“Another thing I didn’t like was how they failed to understand the brains/brawn character dymamic of the Birds of Prey comics. Not getting that meant Helena did all the work and Barbara/Oracle was given very little to do, which sucked.”

Good point, I think BoP suffered the way the animated Legion suffered — the writers knew how to write action but not how to write superheroes who’s powers weren’t visual, like Saturn Girl or Oracle.

 
Dave writes:  

Two unrelated points:

“You know, that reminds me of something. It’s been a while since I’ve read all those Knightfall/KnightQuest/KnightEend issues, but was did we ever see Batman talk with Oracle at all about the fact that he was now in a wheelchair as well? What about any conversations after Bruce’s back was miraculously healed by Dr. Kinsolving?”

This has come up a few times over the years in various ways – sometimes as meta-commentary couched in the dialogue. Toward the end of Chuck’s run on the title, IIRC (and it’s been a while so maybe I don’t), Babs was even offered a chance to take a dip in a Lazarus Pit (which is how Dinah got her Canary Cry back) but declined. My impression -perhaps KC would know and be willing to comment – is that DC editorial beleives Barbara is just much more interesting character as Oracle than Batgirl and giving her the use of her legs would, um… what exactly? Make it impossible for her to still be Oracle? The whole thing breaks down under scrutiny but you probably get the idea.

As for the villain of the week premise: The producers of Smallville took similar heat during season one for the “Kryptonite-irradiated freak-of-the-week” format – and if you try watching Smallville Season One on DVD, as I have, it is pretty tedious. But the producers’ reasoning on this was logically sound: They claimed the average viewer would only catch 1 out of every 3-4 episodes and so they wanted to make every ep pretty much done-in-one to make it accessible for as many viewers as possible. As the series progressed, they moved away from that format – but therein lies the danger: I was a big fan but lost track of it due to various circumstances around season four and never really got back into it again because I couldn’t figure out much of the backstory or the motivations of the characters. —- Sound familiar?

 
Johanna writes:  

I don’t know what DC’s attitude is, but I do think it’s not a bad thing for DC to have a somewhat known differently abled hero, in the service of having a more diverse universe. And her message, that she’s going to find a new way to contribute no matter what, is a good one.

I don’t think people would complain as much about the freak-of-the-week structure if the individual episodes were good and interesting. After all, Buffy did something similar in early days, and those are still very rewatchable (with a couple of notable clunkers).

 
Sarah writes:  

Basically, some of the acting was super-clunky (poor Shemar Moore) and the effects weak. I watched it, but not super-enthusiastically. Dinah Meyer wasn’t bad, I got to like Harley, and it did feature Joe Flanigan as a guest bad guy who was basically defeated by a pride parade. It’s hard to object to a Joe Flanigan guest shot anywhere.

 
Spaced » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[...] terror of the blank page and one of the most wonderfully realistic female characters ever on TV. Liz came back to watch this with me, because she’s a Pegg fan but hadn’t previously heard of Spaced. [...]

 
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