Birds of Prey: The Complete Series Review
As unusual premises go, a Batman series in which Batman doesn’t appear takes some beating. Birds of Prey feels like the spin-off to a show that doesn’t quite exist, being rather the direct descendant of the Burton Batman films and Batman: The Animated Series. Fittingly, it follows the adventures of Batman’s own progeny Helena Kyle, played by Ashley Scott, the product of his relationship with Catwoman who, following her father’s mysterious disappearance, has taken up his mantle as protector of Gotham City (or, in this case, New Gotham, the first city having been razed to the ground by an earthquake). When she was still a child her parents were caught up in a deadly confrontation with the Joker who killed her mother, sent her father into exile and consigned Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, to a wheelchair. Barbara (Dina Meyer) adopted the newly-abandoned Helena and turned the no doubt wayward teenager into Gotham’s new champion, known on the streets as the sleek Huntress who combines her father’s sense of justice with her mother’s feline superpowers and revealing dress sense. Working from their own hi-tech Batcave substitute, the New Gotham Clock Tower, Huntress and Barbara, who now calls herself Oracle for no readily apparent reason other than it sounds cool, battle the various evil “metahumans” who threaten the safety of the city. As the series begins they are joined in their mission by a teenage metahuman called Dinah (Rachel Skarsten), and discover that a new crimelord is operating in the city who is, unbeknownst to them, Helena’s own psychiatrist Dr Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn, the Joker’s lover (played by Mia Sara) who is out for revenge against those who brought down her beloved “Mr J.”
Adapted very loosely from the comic book of the same name, Birds of Prey comes from the same stable as Smallville, Warner Bros no doubt hoping to emulate the success of that earlier series. That it didn’t work out like that is down to several factors, not least of which being a misguided insistence in relating the rather complicated backstory at the beginning of each episode, which no doubt made the series seem far more inaccessible to the casual viewer than it needed to be. Essentially, all anyone tuning in needs to know is that it’s Charmed in Gotham City, with three female heroes fighting villains of the week while combating personal problem. The show’s main flaw is that every episode rigidly follows the same pattern. Someone dies in a mysterious way. Huntress swoops down and exchanges some enigmatic dialogue with her puzzled detective friend Reese (Shemar Moore) with whom she is developing a relationship, investigations happen which lead to this week’s baddy, there’s a final showdown and then our heroes reconvene at their base and discuss the life lesson to be learnt from the adventure before the credits roll. There are broadly the same problems and lessons that young women have been dealing with for at least the past decade on TV, in everything from Dawson’s Creek onwards - it’s okay to be different, life is tough but your friends will stick by you, the real hero doesn’t kill but walks away (okay, maybe that particular one never cropped on The OC) and so on and so forth. With all the profundity of a fortune cookie, the emotional trappings of the show are far more Gossip Girl than Gotham Girls.*
As such, on paper it’s very difficult to be particularly moved by much of what happens in the personal problems stakes, especially as they follow such familiar lines. The development of the relationship between Huntress and Reece holds precisely no surprises, while the one between Barbara and her fellow teacher suffers both from a lack of interest - it’s difficult to think of a more straightforward romance - and a lack of momentum, in that the storyline is forgotten for several episodes at a time before cropping up again. This is emblematic of a wider problem, in that the show never quite manages to establish a convincing worldview. Barbara and Helena’s real life world only crops up intermittently, usually appearing either as an afterthought or only when necessary to the story (while poor old Dinah’s never gets a chance to get going) so that their whole world, which mainly consists of the clock tower and the same dingy street, feels insular and two-dimensional. Regretfully, one can never forget that one is watching a television series.
And yet, despite these fundamental flaws, Birds of Prey is surprisingly diverting. This is mainly down to the fact that while the content is cookie-cutter formula, this is a very stylish show. Evoking its Bat-antecedents from the Nineties (even down to making poor Ian Abercrombie’s Alfred dress up as closely as possible to Michael Gough’s) New Gotham is a nicely grungy place, while the Dark Knight sensibilities extend to Huntress who has a Kate-Beckinsale-from-Underworld vibe about her which matches her surroundings well. If an element of cliché creeps in (will there ever again be a superhero show in which a hero doesn't stand on top of a tall building looking out over the city?) that’s forgivable given the execution is done with such panache, with the strongest example coming right at the beginning of the first episode which, in an extended flashback, tells the story of the Joker’s rampage which killed off Catwoman and injured Barbara. It’s slightly unfortunate that the CGI swoops around the city now look rather primitive, and even more so that each week’s crime appears to take place on the same street, but these are minor quibbles.
There’s also the sense that the makers really love the source material - although the series is a bit of a mishmash of the comic book continuity (as the title’s creator Paul Levitz cheerfully admits in a foreword included in this DVD set) there’s a real fidelity to the Batman world. Not many shows would dare to show the let’s-face-it rather daft Batgirl costume so often, while members from the second tier of the Rogue’s Gallery, who will never see the inside of a multiplex, make welcome appearances - as well as Harley Quinn, other characters from the Bat universe who pop up include Black Canary, Clayface and Lady Shiva, and all three Robins are name-checked at one point. Even if the take on them isn’t strictly accurate to their print equivalents, the spirit is most definitely there, as is a more general comicbook sensibility - the device of “metahumans” is the same idea that began life years ago in X-Men and is still being used to this day in the form of Heroes.
The other advantage the show has is its two central characters, or rather the performers who play them. Although in theory this is a three-woman show Skarsten never comes close to matching her two companions in charisma and makes for a rather forgettable, if game, screen presence. Both Scott and Meyer, on the other hand, manage to make more of their roles than the writing really affords them. Scott makes for a convincing, sassy heroine, well able to stand alongside the likes of Buffy Summers and Sarah Connor, while Meyer as the brains of the organisation manages to give a far rounder, warmer portrayal than her somewhat restricted character would appear to offer. A real shame is that they don’t have stiffer opposition to face: Sara is a rather ineffectual villain for all but the last episode, let down by scripting which makes her little more than a plot device, and an unnecessary one at that, in that she hires the villain of the week at the beginning of the episode and stamps her foot crossly at the end when said goon has been defeated. She’s pretty much superfluous to requirements, something one senses the creative team realised as she vanished for several later episodes, making no difference at all. It’s also a slight oddity that Huntress seems to win her fights so easily - I’m sure over the course of the season she does lose the odd one but the overwhelming impression is that she wins far more than she loses, which make her claims to vulnerability less than convincing. (On the subject of overcoming obstacles, however, there is one point of characterisation in the finale to which I objected quite a deal. Barbara, in the wheelchair, creates a device which enables her to stand up and fight the baddies along with Huntress and Dinah. Given that nearly episode up to that point has hammered home the message that different is good and that one should play to one’s strengths rather than attempt to conform, I found it unsettling that the only way she could be seen to be a hero was to ditch the chair, a real case of not practising what one preached.)
Birds of Prey only lasted for thirteen episodes, and for once there’s the impression that cancellation did a show a favour. Had this season run to a normal length I suspect that tedium at the relentless, and non-varying, formula would have set in but as it was I found myself regretting having reached the end of the road. One feels that we had seen everything the show had to offer, and that there wasn’t in truth very much of that - there’s no sign at all that the writing would ever have dared to expand from its own comfort zone and risked innovating, or perhaps that there was even scope for such deviation within the premise. However, as a minor triumph of style over substance this succeeded far more with me than I suspect it should have done, especially given it’s a very girlie-sort of superhero series. An unusual attempt to marry the very different worlds of DC Comics and The OC which works better than it should do, as a short-lived indulgence this isn’t bad at all.
*I hope. I’ve never actually watched Gossip Girl and am therefore making possibly entirely unfair assumptions about what it’s like. But I bet I’m not.
The thirteen episodes are presented on four dual-layered DVDs. Complementing the series the packaging is pleasingly stylish too, with a generous eight page leaflet inside detailing each episode and coming with a foreword from the comic book’s creator Paul Levitz. It’s simple but effective. Things look good too when one first puts in the discs, presented with a typical comic-book-panel style menu with the options Play All, Episodes, Special Features and Languages. The episodes are all subtitled.
Unfortunately the AV presentation lets the side down. For some reason the Video transfer is presented in a matted widescreen format, which is something I haven't seen in goodness only knows how long. As such the resolution is not what we're used to these days, and the image can sometimes look fuzzy and lacking in detail - darker scenes especially (and there are a lot of them) suffer from lack of definition at times. While not terrible, it certainly doesn't look nearly as good as a series so recent should. The Audio track, meanwhile, is perfectly acceptable if unremarkable, but as with many other TV releases many of the music tracks have been replaced, including the end theme music, understandably raising much ire among the show's online fans.
There are only two Extras but they are fairly substantial. The Unaired Pilot (49:52) features a differently-edited prologue and Sherilyn Fenn as Harley Quinn; while the idea of Audrey Horne as a Batman villain is very appealing, it’s easy to see why the part was recast. The other is all three seasons of Gotham Girls, thirty Flash-based webisodes that were made around the same time as Birds of Prey and starring, as you can assume from the name, the female denizens of Gotham - in addition to those from BoP there are also starring roles for, among others, Catwoman and Poison Ivy. Each episode totals around four minutes. The first “season” makes Batfink look like The Sopranos but things improve with the second and third (which is one story in ten parts), making for mildly amusing, if juvenile, entertainment (and doing a far better Harley Quinn than the main feature).
It's hardly The Dark Knight but Birds of Prey makes for an entertaining, if fairly mindless, diversion and it's a pity the AV presentation lets down what is in every other regard a rather nice set.
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6 out of 10