Television that Home Video Forgot: Birds of Prey (2002)

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Showcase Inventory

Created by Laeta Kalogridis
Produced by Warner Bros. Television, Tollins/Robbins productions
Aired on The WB for 1 season from October 9th, 2002 – February 19th, 2003

Cast

Ashley Scott as Helena Kyle
Dina Meyer as Barbara Gordon
Rachel Skarsten as Dinah Redmond
Shemar Moore as Detective Jesse Reese
Ian Ambercrombie as Alfred Pennyworth
Mia Sara as Dr. Harleen Quinzel

Show Premise

After legendary hero Batman abandons Gotham City as a result of a devastating battle against the Joker, the city enters a new era, rebranding itself New Gotham City, with a trio of vigilante heroines determined to protect the fair city from the threat of villainous Mafiosos and meta-human powered criminals, all while dealing with their daily life, relationships, and deep seated hang-ups. The trio is led by Helena Kyle, aka The Huntress, a meta-human half breed who is driven by the memory of her mother’s murder, which she seeks vengeance for. Helena learned after her mother’s death that the latter had been a notorious criminal, Catwoman, who had a love affair with Batman, which led to Helena’s birth and Catwoman’s retirement. Helena now takes out her aggression on the street thugs of New Gotham, wanting nothing to do with her father, whom she feels abandoned her.

Huntress is joined by Barbara Gordon, codename: Oracle, a former partner to Batman who became a victim of the Joker’s cruelty, which left her wheelchair bound. The final member of the team is Dinah Redmond, a meta-human with special abilities that include precognitive visions, a canary cry, and telekinesis. Together, along with local officer Detective Jesse Reese as their police connection, they fight a war against criminal mastermind Harley Quinn, a villainess that wants nothing more than to take over New Gotham City and herald the return of the Joker.

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Series Run

After Batman and Robin killed the film franchise for a time, due to being poorly received, the opportunity for the franchise to return to live action television became viable again. In 1999, the development for a television series that would focus on a young Bruce Wayne and his exploits before he would become the Batman was being pitched around Tollin/Robbins productions, which eventually hit a dead end when the production for a Batman: Year One based film got the greenlight, in the wake of the box office success of the comic book based film X-Men. After the young Bruce Wayne series went dry, the idea transferred over to the Superman franchise instead, and resulted in the hit series Smallville. With the success of Smallville, the market for superhero genre television was renewed again, and the idea of devising a post Batman series, rather than a pre Batman series, went into development, and became Birds of Prey. Oddly enough, the Batman prequel series idea did eventually get made with Gotham; it only took fifteen years.

Laeta Kalogridis developed Birds of Prey in 2002, as she had great affection for the characters as well as the comic book property. She had every intention of doing it justice with the television series adaptation, but she was taken off the project shortly after the pilot was shot. The series was not well received, despite having well produced action and an easy to follow standalone case-of-the-week structure. The reason why the series did not last very long could be because the show pandered to its audience in ways that didn’t entirely gel as well as it could have.  The take on the Batman mythology, albeit interesting, was not the version that fans were probably expecting from the series. The entire series is built off the premise that Batman abandoned Gotham City after having fallout with the Joker; now that right there is a hard pill to swallow for a fan of the Batman franchise, because it seems out of character for him to just leave the city, much less without explanation. If the series had continued, there may have been a good reason for his disappearance, but as it is, it’s a bit prickly of a plot point. The series also tinkered with character traits in a way that was unusual, by having certain characters have superpowers that crossed the line of credibility of what fans would expect. For instance, Catwoman in this series is a meta-human with heightened cat-like abilities, and although this is a strange trait to add for the character, there may have been some wiggle room to go along with it for the sake of narrative. But when you have the Joker display wizard-like powers that allows him to shoot beams of light at his enemies, that’s just wrong and ridiculous, and a misguided decision.

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The series, despite having these glaring incoherences in mythology, does have some strong positive qualities. The episodic structure of the season is actually fairly well done in its simplicity. The character dynamics are all well established and consistent in a way that is extremely watchable. The relationships between the three main leads are rather interesting, and work for the most part. There is Ashley Scott as the Huntress, who appears fit for the part and looks good fighting and delivering snappy dialogue, Dina Meyer as the wheelchair bound Oracle gives a credible performance and believable exposition, and lastly there is Rachel Skarsten as Dinah Redmond, the most uneven player of the three. There are times where Skarsten shines, but more often than not, her performance falls flat.

One of the key relationships that really make up the strength of the series is that between Ashley Scott’s The Huntress and Shemar Moore’s Detective Jesse Reese. At first their dynamic is weak, and they have little chemistry, but as the season goes on, their banter varies from being too innuendo heavy and unbelievable to actually funny and charming. Shemar Moore has a very likable persona, and has a fairly interesting arc throughout the season. In particular, the way these two characters establish trust and a partnership parallels that of a romantic courtship in a way that is pretty heavy handed, but somehow still enjoyable. The other performance that is worth mentioning is that of Mia Sara as the villain Harley Quinn. This character doesn’t entirely work, and part of it is Sara’s inability to sell the crazy that Harley Quinn should be, but the character is also not well integrated into the series. There is a problem with making scenes featuring Quinn as Huntress’ psychiatrist compelling, as their conversations have low stakes, despite Quinn being the series’ big bad.

The production values of the series are not too shabby; in fact, most of the fight sequences are very well done. There are some cheesy and/or campy elements in the production that may have contributed against the series, such as the voice over narrative by Ian Abercrombie as Alfred, which is well spoken, but makes the tone of the series seem more like a fairytale than an action drama. The cutaway to the New Gotham Cityscape looks computer generated and unrealistic, and in the end of some episodes, when the camera pans away, there is a CGI bat that screeches towards the camera that is super cheesy, but pretty hilarious. Also, there is a point in the pilot where Huntress is displaying her meta-human inherited cat-like powers, and for some reason when she leaps into frame, a sound bite of a tiger roar can be heard as if it’s coming from her, a sound mix that is just comically bad to just throw in like that.

The season highlights

As a whole, the entire season is not all that good, but there are a couple of episodes that are worth checking out, for either genuine quality or for straight up ridiculousness that must be seen to be believed.

Ep. 4, Three Birds and a Baby

This episode is pretty out there, with a ridiculous premise of Harley Quinn commissioning a test tube baby whose sole purpose is to be an assassin. The weird thing is that the assassin starts off as a baby, and every time it falls asleep it ages exuberantly. It’s unsure whether this episode would’ve worked even on the X-Files.

Ep. 5, Sins of the Mother

One of the better episodes of the series has Dinah Redmond meet her estranged mother, in an episode that has a really good guest performance by Lori Laughlin as Black Canary. An interesting tidbit about this episode is that one of the credited writers is Melissa Rosenberg, who would later work on Dexter and the Twilight film series.

Ep. 7, Split

In this episode, they introduce a character named Darkstrike, who is played pretty blandly by Kristoffer Polaha. The episode also features Brian Thompson as the bad guy Darkstrike is in pursuit of. This episode was written by the Lost writing team of Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis.

Ep. 8, Lady Shiva

This is another well done episode featuring a great performance by Dina Meyer as Barbara Gordon, where she is faced with a mistake that she made during her hothead Batgirl days. Another Horowitz and Kitsis episode, this one is of a much better quality than the previous one.

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Preservation Claim

There are not a whole lot of Batman live action TV shows, and this one is probably the worst interpretation of Batman on television, but if one can look past that and see what the show really is, it reveals itself as a fairly decent show about a trio of women who are bonded together with a goal to protect the city and honor Batman’s legacy. It’s not a great series, but it is still very watchable, more so than most would give it credit for. Does it deserve all of the ill will that it gets? Not really. It’s definitely better than the criticism it gets, but it’s still not the best the genre could offer, and not as good as the potential of the original source material, although Dina Meyer did pull off Barbara Gordon pretty well.

In the long line of live action adaptations of Batman on film and television, I would put this show over Catwoman, Batman & Robin, Batman Forever and the original Batman 1966 series. It’s definitely not as good as FOX’s Gotham, but I would say that the best episode of Birds of Prey is equal to or maybe even a little better than the ‘Viper’ episode.

After Birds of Prey, Laeta Kalogridis would go on to write Alexander, which was directed by Oliver Stone, Shutter Island, directed by Martin Scorcese, and most recently co-wrote the screenplay of the upcoming Terminator Genisys film.

Ashley Scott went on to star in Jericho and will be a series regular on a Lifetime television series titled Un-Real.

Shemar Moore would go on to star in Criminal Minds, where he is currently a series regular.

After being on the writing staff of Birds of Prey, writing team Adam Horowitz & Edward Kitsis would go on to write on ABC’s LOST, and are currently the showrunners on ABC’s Once Upon a Time.

Writer Melissa Rosenberg would go on to join Showtime’s Dexter writers room, and will be showrunning the upcoming Netflix series Marvel’s AKA Jessica Jones, which will star Krysten Ritter.

Availability

There is a Home Video DVD of the complete 13 episode series released by Warner Bros. television, with special features that include the unaired pilot (featuring Sherilyn Fenn as Harley Quinn in place of Mia Sara) and the complete 30 episode run of flash animated web series Gotham Girls. Although this is the best release of the series, there is some notable discrepancy on this release. For instance, some of the music differs from the original airings of the episodes, including the theme song (formerly Aimee Allen’s ‘Revolution’), which has been replaced. In addition, the video is non-anamorphic widescreen, and so there will be black bars boxing in the image of your widescreen television screen.

Amazon:

The series is available for streaming purchase, with the pilot available to view for free.

The DVD is available for purchase.

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