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Reviewed by Will Harris
n an era where Jon Favreau pays close attention to the mythos of “Iron Man” before making a film and you lose count of how many frames in the trailer for “Watchmen” have been taking straight from the pages of the original comic book, it’s important that we occasionally take a step back and see where Hollywood took some perfectly good source material and tried to unnecessarily improve on it. The end result? The fans that would’ve ordinarily been chomping at the bit for a comic book-inspired property were left annoyed and disinterested, resulting in a quick cancellation. In truth, there’s quite a lot that works with “Birds of Prey,” the WB series which takes its cues from a DC comic, but it’s such a total mishmash of concepts that the fanboys were always going to rebel. Rather than simply number off what was changed between the comic and the show, however, which would only serve to further incite the geeks and bore the non-geeks, let’s just look at the premise of the series itself first.
“Birds of Prey” takes place in Gotham City, once the home of the Dark Knight himself: Batman. It’s a slightly different world than the one which takes place in the “Batman” films, however. Here, Bats hooked up with Catwoman at some point, and their passionate liaison resulted in a daughter, Helena (Ashley Scott); unfortunately, The Joker got personal in his battle with Batman, and in addition to killing Catwoman, he also shot Batgirl, paralyzing her from the waist down. Now, the former Batgirl – Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer) – is a computer whiz known as Oracle, Helena has become a crimefighter known as The Huntress, and the two of them have taken on a young super-powered apprentice named Dinah (Rachel Skarsten), whose mother is the super-heroine known as The Black Canary. Together, they fight crime, often aided by Detective Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore), a member of the Gotham P.D. who’s developed a tenuous relationship with Helena. Sometimes the villains are super-powered, other times they’re just plain ol’ gangster types, but the common thread between them all is that they all generally work for Harley Quinn, the Joker’s former moll who’s found herself a secret identity as psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Mia Sara). And – wow, what are the odds? – one of her patients is Helena! Even more unlikely is the fact that neither has figured out the other’s identity, despite the fact that Helena has been seeing Dr. Quinzel for quite some time. But, okay, it’s a live-action comic book, so we can suspend our disbelief that much, at least.
Still, there was a major problem with “Birds of Prey” that proved impossible to surmount: the way DC Comics tied the hands of the show’s producers and writers.
If you take the time to search around the ‘net, you’ll discover that, due to DC’s interest in further pursuing the “Batman” film franchise, they limited the amount that “Birds of Prey” could utilize the Caped Crusader and his nemesis, The Joker. Indeed, what you see of them within the opening credits is the extent of what you see of them within the series as a whole, since that footage is borrowed directly from the pilot episode. There’s only the slightest reference to Robin within the dialogue, but we never actually see him, either. Oh, sure, the Wayne family’s trusted butler, Alfred (Ian Abercrombie), is around to provide an element of the familiar, but that’s about as close as we get. It’s teased that The Joker is still alive and in custody, while Batman mysteriously abandoned Gotham City after their climactic battle, but we never see them in the series beyond the pilot, and even if the series hadn’t ended, it’s unlikely that we ever would have. The only member of Batman’s rogue’s gallery who turns up is Clayface, who’s unabashedly (and lamely) portrayed like he’s Arkham Asylum’s own Hannibal Lecter. There are a few teases at other members of the DC Comics universe, such as an appearance by Dinah’s mother, Black Canary (Lori Loughlin), along with some semblance of a DC villain (Lady Shiva), but that’s the extent of the exploration of the world beyond Gotham. Hell, this isn’t even taking place in Gotham City! It’s called New Gotham, so as to create a further dividing line between the TV series and the movie franchise.
As a DC Comics translation, “Birds of Prey” fails everywhere that “Smallville” succeeds, but as an action show, it does well enough, with every episode generally featuring a few solid fight sequences. The chemistry between the primary trio of actresses works, too, but it’s disappointing to find them forced to follow clichéd plot lines like trust issues between Helena and her pal in the police force or Dinah dealing with everyday teen problems. Only Barbara’s struggle with finding time for a real life while fighting crime works consistently, so it’s a plus that it plays out in a dramatic fashion during the final episodes of the series.
Those who missed “Birds of Prey” during its original run but have been chomping at the bit to see it ever since will probably find themselves disappointed. It’s not a lost classic by any means. It is, however, a testament to missed opportunities, so let us hope a few producers check it out and learn from the mistakes of their forefathers.
Special Features: It was touch and go for a little bit, but Warner Brothers did indeed step up and include the original pilot for the series, which – in addition to a few other differences – featured Sherilyn Fenn playing the role of Harley Quinn rather than Mia Sara. (Sara’s good in the role, but I still think Fenn would’ve been better.) Also included is the entire run of the online series, “Girls of Gotham,” which will no doubt entertain fans of Paul Dini’s animated “Batman” series; it’s not the most elaborate animation, but it’s fun to watch, and your kids will no doubt enjoy it more than “Birds of Prey.” Come to think of it, you probably will, too.