Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Entertaining ‘Birds of Prey’ TV series focuses on girl power

Inspired by reading the first BATGIRL AND BIRDS OF PREY trade paperback, I decided to binge-(re)watch the 13 episodes of the 2002-2003 “Birds of Prey” TV series.

“Birds of Prey” is just as entertaining as the first time I watched it, but it takes a few fan-mindsets to accept its underlying concept — that Batman and Catwoman would have a daughter, who is half metahuman (the DC Comics name for mutants). Having inherited her parents’ skill in fighting, Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott)’s metahuman ability is enhanced jumping.

The TV series combines the Tim Burton-Joel Schumacher film costumes of Batman and Catwoman with the BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE backstory and BIRDS OF PREY team concept.

The special effects and set-design teams do their best with obviously small budgets. The fight scenes, while a feast for the eyes, obviously are heavily choreographed and lack the organic feel that “Arrow” has developed.

One mindset approach is accepting that “Birds of Prey” is set in a variation of Earth-2, which was used by DC Comics so writers could incorporate its Golden Age superheroes and villains with those from the current continuity.

In the comics, the Earth-2 Catwoman (Selina Kyle) gave up her life of crime and married Bruce Wayne. She eventually was killed when she reluctantly donned her Catwoman guise again.
The only time fans see Batman and Catwoman together in the "Birds of Prey" TV series
is in this quick clip from the narrated introduction.

In the TV series, the teenage Helena lived with her mother, who gave up being Catwoman, while Wayne is an absentee father. Hired by the Joker, a mugger we later learn is Clayface stabs Kyle to death before Helena’s eyes.

The second mindset — and possibly the most difficult one for Batman fans to accept — is that for the seven years after a final battle with Batgirl vs. the Joker, Batman has gone into hiding. This means that New Gotham citizens consider the Dark Knight an urban legend.

Barbara Gordon (the stunningly gorgeous Dina Meyer) has been in a wheelchair for many years, having been paralyzed when shot at point-blank range by the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill in one episode). The happens after her final Batgirl adventure with Batman as they take on the Joker.

After Kyle's murder, Gordon raised Helena from when she was an orphaned teenager and the two now fight crime in New Gotham (built on the ruins of Gotham City, which was destroyed in an earthquake). Gordon is Oracle, a computer hacker mixed with an amateur police lab scientist, and is often the voice of reason and conscience for Helena, who kicks ass on the streets as Huntress.

Alfred Pennyworth (a prim and proper Ian Abercrombie) is still around. He splits his butler and cook duties between the presumably abandoned Wayne Manor and the New Gotham clock watchtower, which is where Gordon has set up her Oracle headquarters and where she and Helena call home. No explanation is given for what happened to Jim Gordon, but I’ve always assumed he passed away of old age.

“Birds of Prey” is all girl power. Until about halfway through the series, each episode ends with the trio of Barbara, Helena and Dinah Lance — or a variation thereof — on the balcony in front of the clock face having a conversation about the life lessons they’ve learned.
Helena Kyle (aka Huntress, played by Ashley Scott) and Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer)
share a moment of reflection in front of the clock face at the New Gotham clocktower.
In the pilot, Barbara takes in Dinah, a runaway teen whom we learn in Episode 5 is the daughter of the legendary Carolyn Lance (aka Black Canary), a retired espionage agent and superhero played by Lori Loughlin (“Full House”). Dinah, also a metahuman, has grown up in a foster home and lived in a community where she was treated as “a freak” for her telepathic abilities. She is trained by Barbara and Helena to be a crimefighter, yet she is never given a codename and doesn’t regularly become a true asset on the streets until very late in the series.

Actress Lori Louglin plays Black Canary
in one episode of "Birds of Prey."
In addition to Alfred, the other supporting characters are Detective Jesse Reece (Shemar Moore before he hit it big in “Criminal Minds”) and actress Mia Sara as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist who has been given Helena court-ordered counseling.

Unknown to Helena, Quinzel has her eyes set on ruling New Gotham’s underworld. Her related moves and identity evade Oracle, Huntress and Dinah until the last episode (more on that later). Quinzel’s overall plan isn’t entirely clear, making it evident that the writers made it up as “Birds of Prey” progressed. Sara is deliciously manic — calm and sultry one minute and bats*** crazy the next.

In the New Gotham Police Department, Reece builds an testy working relationship with Huntress throughout the series. Of course, there are sexual undertones — why wouldn’t there be when you have two actors who are easy on the eyes? — until it is hurriedly consumated with a kiss (and possibly more) in the second-to-last episode.

Reece, as expected, is the Jim Gordon to Huntress’ Batman, and Moore has to find new ways of looking perplexed at the vigilante’s sudden departures. Or at least the writers had to create ways for Reece to be distracted or look away momentarily.

Throughout the series, Helena is challenged by Barbara (who reminds Huntress that heroes don’t kill and stresses that saving people “is the job), Quinzel (wants Helena to open up to her in their therapy sessions) and the by-the-book Reece.

There are some wink-wink, nudge-nudge Easter eggs to Batman’s history: A Shakespeare bust similar to the one from the “Batman” TV series; a New Gotham intersection named for the iconic comics creative team Neil Adams and Denny O’Neil; and No Man’s Land Collectables, named for the crossover series “No Man’s Land,” in which Gotham recovers from a catastrophic earthquake. In the basement is a hidden bar, a safe place for metahumans (who in New Gotham apparently are all teens and young adults).

The best episodes are: the pilot; “Prey for the Hunter” (Episode 3 featuring a “meta-bigot,” a police officer who transferred to New Gotham from Bludhaven); “Sins of the Mother” (Episode 5 featuring Black Canary); “Lady Shiva” (Episode 8 allowing us to see Barbara in action as Batgirl, both in a flashback and briefly in the current time); “Nature of the Beast” (Episode 9, in which Dinah and Reece must make decisions regarding their respective parents’ fates); and “Reunion” (Episode 11 in which Huntress finally tells Reece her real name is Helena Kyle).

Part 2 of the finale (really two episodes) is a rush job.
Actress Ashley Scott poses as Huntress in this promo photo for "Birds of Prey."

It’s as if the producers and writers suddenly were told by the Powers That Be that “Birds of Prey" wasn’t being renewed for a second season, so they quickly had to wrap up plot lines. Quinzel conveniently gets Helena to share just enough information to discover her relationship with Barbara, Dinah and Alfred and Quinzel invades the clocktower. Combine that Helena and Barbara getting some happy endings with their love interests with Quinzel suddenly getting the metahuman ability to control people (via a corny, C-movie science transfer) and the finale borders on being a hot mess — not what the otherwise solidly entertaining series deserved.

Grade: B

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