“Myths are just the truth a few generations later.”
–Detective Jesse Reese, about to learn a very unique mythology
The sources for television shows are many, but certain things are quite often tapped as places where creative ideas can be born. The costs of, say, comics are decidedly less, and yet the combination of the visual and description is not really that far away from what is needed for many series. Combine that with the style and action-orientation of some graphic novels, and you have the makings of a potential success. Sometimes, you get 10 years worth of Smallville based upon the Superman mythos. Other times, you end up with Birds of Prey.
In the fall of 2002, The WB network had just found success with the aforementioned Smallville and its take on the formative days of Superman. Looking for a companion series, they took the ideas from a comic called Birds of Prey, and adapted them for television. Birds of Prey focused on three super-heroes instead of one, along with a parade of super-villains and characters with a legacy full of angst and problems, set in the city of New Gotham. Taking place roughly seven years after the traditional Batman stories (and slighty farther in the future of our own time), Birds of Prey was an ambitious series, with lots of character interplay, special effects, large amounts of back-stories… and asked probably a bit too much out of those who watched it.
As far as characters, let’s start at “television normal” and work our way up. There’s a detective on the New Gotham police force, Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore), who wonders about some of the strange goings-on in the city, especially at night. His partner obliges with an information dump for viewers, speaking of the history of the city, and the development of “meta-humans”, with powers beyond those of normal people. Each is different… and each can be deadly.
While investigating a break-in, Reese discovers Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott), a.k.a. Huntress. Endowed with significant strength and a combination of abilities and a costume that allows her limited flight, their meeting is… tense. While there’s obviously an attraction, and while they both share a willingness to rid New Gotham of the criminal element, their methods are significantly far apart… so, at least for now, their relationship is the similarly distant, despite their connection.
Reese: “I thought you worked alone.”
Helena Kyle: “I keep trying.”
Helena is (as told to us in a flashback sequence in the pilot) the daughter of the criminal Catwoman and the heroic Batman (although Batman wasn’t aware of her existence). If that isn’t enough to cause personality difficulties, she watched another person gun down her mother right in front of her — an event which has recently resurfaced in her therapy sessions. It also caused her to go into the vigilante business like her legendary father, and she now scours the city at night as Huntress, seeking those who break the law, even as she struggles with her own past.
In her fight against crime, she teams with Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer). In the past, Barbara also had a secret identity. As Batgirl, she fought side-by-side with Batman, and knows what the whole “alter-ego” thing is about. At the same time as Catwoman was killed, Barbara was also felled by a bullet, this one shot by The Joker. Barbara lived, but she was confined to a wheelchair. She took the now orphaned Helena as her ward (shades of Robin!) and became known as Oracle, a computer and technical expert in manipulating sources of information and knowledge.
Teamed with Helena to hunt down villains in their own way, their “lair” is inside New Gotham’s clocktower. Looking out over the city as a protective duo and helping to fight the good fight, they’re hoping to be able to do their work in secret, but things don’t always go as planned….
“Sometimes, when I touch people, I see things… things that only they know. And sometimes, when I dream things… they come true.”
In the pilot, they team up with one more person, a teen named Dinah (Rachel Skarsten) who has the ability to see inside the minds of those she touches. Dinah had visions as a child of both the shootings above, and as a teen she’s sought out both Helena and Barbara to understand her gift, and what had happened. They decide (after Dinah saves their lives with her ability) to help her understand her powers, and so she becomes the third of their trio.
Also assisting them is Alfred Pennyworth (Ian Abercrombie), the loyal butler from Wayne Manor. A reminder of Helena’s past (as she ostensibly is the heir to Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne, now sadly deceased), he is also the only other person who originally knew of Barbara Gordon’s secret identity as Batgirl. He provides a sounding board for various members of the team, and assists them as a moral compass when things get hazy (and considering their assorted pasts, that’s likely a good thing). He’s become a helpful addition, if only because fighting crime doesn’t leave a lot of time for the normal things in life, like grocery shopping and cleaning.
“Hey, time out! There will be absolutely no use of superpowers to settle domestic disagreements!”
–Barbara Gordon (Oracle)
Using the information from Detective Reese, the Birds of Prey (as they were named in the comic) continue their battles, both with the criminal masterminds of the day, and with their own pasts. Dinah comes by her powers as a result of her heritage, which is explored in detail later. Helena particularly has some rather vexing issues to address, as the psychoanalyst she’s been seeing for years hasn’t exactly been treating her correctly.
“This whole thing is gonna send me straight to my shrink.”
Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Mia Sara) not only has been treating Helena, but her reputation as a doctor in dealing with the most unusual cases has landed her as New Gotham’s resident “go-to” person when confronted by some of its more demented criminals. Unknown to most, however, she’s not exactly sane herself, thanks to her relationship with The Joker back in the day. As alter-ego Harley Quinn, she’s a mastermind as crazed as any she’s been charged to treat, she just hides it better from the world. And she has her own vendetta against those whom she sees as having wronged “her love, Mr. J”, and if she ever finds out about Helena’s alter ego or the people she’s teamed with, hell hath no fury….
“Never send a businessman to do a psychopath’s job.”
–Dr. Harleen Quinzel
Television has a style all its own, and yet it does its best to adapt various source materials (such as comics) to tell its stories. It’s almost like spoken and written English is made up of many other words taken from various sources and languages. It helps tremendously, however, when the language is extremely visual, as television is a very visual medium. Therefore, it only makes sense when the small screen looks to translate a property from the comic/graphic novel arena into its own.
But not all are successful adaptations (I’ve featured one of them previously). Birds of Prey was ultimately unsuccessful, even though it came on the heels of the popular Smallville series, which re-examined the Superman legend in detail as a prequel. But everyone pretty much already knew the story of Superman, or at the very least the general parameters. And that’s where Birds of Prey had difficulty.
Many had heard of Batgirl, and while those familiar with comics might be aware of some of the lesser characters (like Harley Quinn, or Black Canary, who guested in an episode), much of the mythos surrounding Birds of Prey was brand new to an extremely large percentage of viewers. (Just look how long it took to explain the premise of the series while writing this article!) In order for the people watching to get immersed in the tales being told, there was a large amount of back-story for them to know and understand before their empathy with the characters would be complete. And if viewers didn’t have that knowledge of the individuals’ pasts, then the stories being told on the show wouldn’t have the same emotional resonance. They’d be incomplete.
This is the battle many shows face. Some keep it very simple, and just tell a procedural where the plot is the important part and the characters are practically interchangeable with some on other shows. Situation comedies, with their shorter length, often hang a character’s back-story on a rather simple premise, and then just do variations on the theme (like Tim Taylor’s fascination with tools on Home Improvement, or Mama Barone’s way of using food as comfort on Everybody Loves Raymond). And if a show is on long enough, plenty of back-story can be “laid in” to various future episodes so a clearer picture emerges for the audience, and a more complex character can be developed. But this takes time… and sometimes, there’s a lot of information that has to be dumped into the audience’s lap before even the first story can be clear.
Apparently, the first story on Birds of Prey wasn’t really that clear to begin with. Portions of the pilot episode were reshot, and Dr. Quinzell was recast (it was originally Sherilyn Fenn of Twin Peaks fame). One would think it would have been necessary in order to better explain the complex history of the characters, but the opposite is actually true. The “alternate” pilot is included on the DVD set, and scenes give viewers even more information, mostly concerning some possible friction between the regulars. While this helps viewers understand the characters more, it is information which can be used later, instead of as part of the initial introduction of the characters. Perhaps a two-hour pilot would have allowed for both to exist, but that wasn’t part of the network’s plans.
“I felt the direction the show took didn’t come close to the potential it had. I had some great writers on staff – they have since gone on to write on Heroes, Fringe, Lost, Dexter. (…) I think my team could have made something exceptional, and I’m sorry that Birds of Prey didn’t live up to that for fans.”
–Laeta Kalogridis, Executive Producer and writer for the pilot and 2 other episodes.
Initial ratings were good, but simply didn’t continue. The WB was somewhat surprised, as they had hoped for another winner from the comic world, but it wasn’t going to be Birds of Prey. The initial 11 episodes were shown, but the series was cancelled. Amazingly, The WB did allow production of the final two hours, which were shown a few months later. This “finale” allowed producers to tie up various loose ends surrounding the continuing plotlines on the series, a luxury most short-lived television shows aren’t allowed.
But again, the necessity of those final two installments was because there was even more information to be given, in order for a proper finish to the series. The back-story that was laid in as early as the pilot was finally paid off, at least to a degree. It was a worthy journey, but ultimately a lengthy one, especially if measured in knowledge of the characters. And while I have nothing against deep, complex characterization — I love the process of discovery. So… just peel the layers back instead of making me eat the onion whole and I’ll enjoy it so much more.
ASHLEY SCOTT (Helena Kyle/Huntress) has been featured here before, on the series Jericho. Other television credits include Dark Angel, CSI, and NCIS. Movie roles include the remake of Walking Tall, 12 Rounds, and The Kingdom. She got her start as a child model before deciding to try acting.
DINA MEYER (Barbara Gordon/Oracle) has also been seen on this site previously, for her work on Point Pleasant. Also coming from a modeling background, she had parts in Castle, Miss Match, both versions of Beverly Hills 90210 (one of the few non-regulars with that claim), and a featured role in the Saw movie series.
RACHEL SKARSTEN (Dinah Lance) is a Canadian native, and spent much of her youth studying ballet and becoming a top hockey goalie (and that’s a rather unusual combination). She actually quit acting for a brief time after Birds of Prey to return home and finish her schooling, as she’d quit high school to play the part of Dinah. She’s since returned to performing, and been featured in Flashpoint and The Listener.
SHEMAR MOORE (Detective Jesse Reese) had, before his acting career took off, appeared as a contestant on The Weakest Link game show, but was voted off and did not win. After Birds of Prey, he later became a regular for a season on the soap The Young and the Restless, and has most recently been a member of the cast on the successful series Criminal Minds.
IAN ABERCROMBIE (Alfred Pennyworth) was acting for decades, both in his native Great Britain and in America. In Hollywood, he’s been seen in everything from Get Smart in the ’60′s to Moonlight a few years ago. He also was active in voice work, portraying Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. He unfortunately passed away just this last week, at the age of 77.
MIA SARA (Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn) is best known to most audiences as the girl who skips school with her boyfriend in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She starred with Tom Cruise in her first feature, Legend, and will be seen in the miniseries The Witches of Oz (playing, of course, a witch). Birds of Prey was one of the very few regular roles she’s ever played on television.
The DVD set for Birds of Prey has a couple of special bonus features, rather unique and especially appropriate for the topics in this article. As part of the cross-promotion of the show, The WB also created 30 animated webisodes using the characters and settings of Birds of Prey, and has included them on the DVD. There is also an alternate version of the original pilot, with less overt narration and more character scenes (some of which showed up in later episodes), but it doles out even more information than the televised version. Fans can find more information on the show at, appropriately, the Gotham Clock Tower, a fan site with tidbits about the series, its stars, and many pictures to peruse.
Barbara: “Sometimes I close my eyes and I can almost feel it… what it was like to race across rooftops under the moon…”
Helena: “Cold, wet, and hell on your nails.”
Complex characters and situations are something that television excels at, given its longer form and frequent installments. But expecting people to learn tons of information about their on-screen heroes before their visualized adventures really begin is difficult, and it can turn many viewers (and television screens) off when they have to work to that degree. This was especially true when Birds of Prey was advertised as a darker comic book. And while the angst and emotion certainly lived up to its billing, the vast majority of viewers (who thought of “comics” as something a bit lighter) were unimpressed. And regular comic aficionados (who prefer the term “graphic novel” for the stories, with good reason) felt the adaptation lost a bit in the translation from page to screen, which is entirely possible given the different needs of the respective mediums.
Ultimately, however, the flaws that hampered the success of Birds of Prey were more in presentation than in the material itself. A longer pilot, with more time to present the massive amounts of data necessary, would have gone a long way towards developing a series with lasting impact. Although the webisodes helped a bit, even just promising more back-story to come, instead of forcing people to digest it all immediately, may have been enough. . Birds of Prey may never have been allowed to soar, but I’m uncertain as to whether it was really their fault at all. It may have taken off… but it was never really allowed to land in the hearts and minds of us at home.
13 aired episodes — none unaired — available on DVD (including the unaired version of the pilot)
The WB Network
First aired episode: October 9, 2002
Final aired episode: February 19, 2003
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central? No. Wednesdays at 9/8 Central, and a victim of the reality craze when scheduled up against the newly popular The Bachelor and the debut of its sister series The Bachelorette. A complex series on the youth oriented WB network, the audience for Birds of Prey was elsewhere.
Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.