Birds of Prey
Wednesdays, 9 p.m., WB
Pilot episode reviewed by Claude Lalumière
I had high hopes for Joss Whedon's new SF series Firefly. After all, his Buffy the Vampire Slayer, now in its seventh season, has been consistently excellent. The spinoff series Angel, now its fourth season, has had both highs and lows but remains at least entertaining. In Firefly, none of the wit, intelligence, genre-bending perversity, and storytelling flair that characterize Whedon's other two TV ventures are present. Instead, we're offered banal action scenes, wooden acting, embarrassing dialogue, and stale clichés. Did Whedon really work on that stinker?
There's another new show, though, that obviously learned a lot from Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Birds of Prey. And it's far from a regurgitated copy. The creators of Birds of Prey the same people responsible for the excellent Smallville, an unexpectedly entertaining and successful combination of Dawson's Creek, The X-Files, and the Superboy mythos understand the delicate balance of camp, drama, humour, and genre thrills necessary to make this kind of material work. And they've deftly applied the classic Whedon approach to the Birds of Prey concept.
FROM COMICS TO TELEVISION
Birds of Prey is a very loose adaptation of the DC Comics series of the same name. In the comics, former Batgirl Barbara Gordon, who lost the use of her legs after the Joker shot her through the spine, is now Oracle, a behind-the-scenes communications and computer expert who helps other costumed crime fighters by gathering and collating information. The Birds of Prey comics series follows the story of her most frequent partnership, with veteran adventurer Black Canary (aka Dinah Lance). They are sometimes joined by (among others) the Huntress, the crime fighting daughter of a dead mobster. However (and this is important in regards to the TV show), before DC revamped its continuity in the 1980s, the Huntress was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman. The original version of this character is fondly remembered by many comics fans, including, it seems, the creators of the TV show.
In the TV version, Huntress, aka Helena Kyle, is a central character and is restored to her original identity as the daughter of Batman (aka Bruce Wayne) and Catwoman (aka Selina Kyle), with two added twists: (1) one of the Joker's henchmen killed her mother in front of her eyes and (2) she's a metahuman. She is joined by Barbara Gordon/Oracle, whose backstory and status remain essentially the same as in the comics. The mysterious runaway Dinah completes the trio. Dinah is the most transformed of the characters here. For the show, she gains psychic powers and is, instead of a veteran, an inexperienced teenager.
There are several other basic changes to the concept. For one, Gotham City is now called New Gotham City; another is that this series is set in the near future (the comics series is present day); and the final change involves Batman. In the wake of Barbara's shooting and Catwoman's murder, Batman, overcome with grief, left New Gotham City. The show opens seven years later, with the Huntress/Oracle duo having taken over his mission to protect the city from supervillains and other criminals.
In a secret headquarters hidden in the Gotham Clocktower, Oracle (played by Dina Meyer), surrounded by high-tech equipment paid for by the Wayne fortune, helps and guides the Huntress (played by Ashley Scott) in her nightly mission to protect New Gotham City. Meanwhile, a mysterious teenage runaway called Dinah (played by Rachel Skarsten) arrives in New Gotham City, in search of Barbara and Helena, whose tragic lives haunt her dreams.
Helena saves Dinah from a would-be rapist, and Dinah recognizes her from her dreams. Helena brushes off the strange and distressed teenager, but Dinah manages to infiltrate the Clocktower, where she reveals her metahuman powers to Barbara and Helena and her desire to join them in their mission. Helena remains suspicious of young Dinah, who, in fact, has not disclosed the whole truth about herself.
Barbara and Helena keep not only their identities but also their crime fighting activities a secret. Metahumans, superheroes, supervillains, and even Batman himself are nothing more than urban myths to most people, including the police.
One police officer, Detective Reese (Shemar Moore), believes there's truth behind these urban legends. He crosses paths with the Huntress while they are working on the same case, a string of suspicious suicides.
Other supporting characters include the Wayne family butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Ian Abercrombie), and Doctor Harleen Quinzel (Mia Sara), a psychiatrist with a hidden agenda.
My biggest fear was that Birds of Prey with its premise of three attractive young women (a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead) fighting crime would turn out to be the Charlie's Angels of the superhero set. But to my surprise and delight, it's much too intelligent and savvy for that, more in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer style of showcasing strong quirky women, rather than the more objectified gender portrayals of cheesecake series like Charmed or Charlie's Angels.
To its credit, Bird of Prey's cheesecake factor is much lower than the promo pictures indicated. Barbara is a thirtysomething schoolteacher confined to a wheelchair, and she dresses accordingly. The teenage Dinah favours ample clothes and a jean jacket. The only character to vamp it up is Helena, and it's consistent with her in-your-face confrontational attitude.
All that said, the pilot isn't quite as good as it could have been. The most jarring problem is that plot relies overmuch on coincidence. But I suspect, from the nature of the elements that suffer from this, that this was nothing more than a shortcut to establish the premise in only one episode not a simple feat considering the convoluted histories of the three lead characters. Still, the writing's a bit lazy in that respect, but the show's many strengths helped me get past that lacuna and become genuinely excited and curious about future episodes.
Beyond the coincidence syndrome, the writing is excellent. Each character has a distinct voice, and the Buffy-like repartee is a constant pleasure. The challenge here is to be able to balance the camp fun, the drama of the investigations, the character arcs, and superhero action so that these don't undermine each other and, more, that they be mutually complementary. And Birds of Prey succeeds, combining a sardonic attitude with fast-paced intensity.
Of course the best scriptwriting in the world will fall flat if the actors can't convey its nuances to the audience. The cast of Birds of Prey is more than up to the challenge, juggling with grace the wry subtleties of the material. Contrary to current TV convention, the leads were cast so that their ages matched the ages of their roles, and this adds much credibility to the characters. The teenage Dinah is played by a seventeen-year-old. The angry young woman Helena is played by a twenty-five-year-old. And Meyer, playing the elder/leader of the trio, is in her mid-thirties. There's real chemistry between the three. Their reasons for becoming crime fighters are very different from each other's, and each are at a different stage in their lives. Dinah is filled the enthusiasm and inexperience of adolescence. Helena is still coming to terms with adulthood, fighting to become her own person, haunted as she is by the strong personalities of her larger-than-life parents. Barbara is secure in the knowledge that she has chosen her life's path correctly, and she has the intelligence, confidence, and focus to make it happen. And in a brave move, the leads are far from entirely sympathetic: Dinah is deceitful, Helena is snide and contrary, and Barbara gets carried away by her mission with fanatic zeal. All this is conveyed convincingly by Skarsten, Scott, and Meyer. The supporting cast is fine as well.
The esthetic of New Gotham City is borrowed from the Gotham City of Tim Burton's two Batman films, giving the series a more striking and distinct visual signature than most TV shows. In fact, the designers of this series were clearly influenced by Tim Burton in many details, for example, the high-tech goggles Barbara gives Dinah evoke Ichabod Crane's surgical equipment in Burton's Sleepy Hollow. In typical Joss Whedon fashion (although I have to keep reminding myself that this is not a Whedon show), the underlying plot that will carry the season is revealed near the end of the first episode (although fans of the Batman mythos will have recognized the clues leading up to that revelation). In another nod to Joss Whedon, the frequent (and effective) use of frenetic cityscapes to punctuate scene breaks recalls a similar technique in Angel.
There's also a reference to events in Smallville, but I wouldn't expect that to grow into a crossover. I think the timelines would be too difficult to untangle. But it still made me smile.
All in all, the Birds of Prey pilot hooked me. The characters and their relationships are complex and intriguing. The dialogue is sharp and engaging. The acting is robust and playful. The design is visually exciting. The set-up leaves ample room for change and evolution; in fact change is built into the premise. The show is serious without taking itself seriously, and it delivers campy fun without compromising its integrity. I look forward to being solidly entertained as the series unfolds and its mysteries are unveiled.