Author Archives: Tim Rose

“Maybe it was just as well (the show was cancelled) because, retrospectively, we had a halo…”
–Creator Leonard Stern

On Christmas Eve 1961, builders were in a hurry with their remodeling of a house.  Eager to leave and go enjoy the holiday with their families, the workers quickly ended their various projects for the day.  One of those projects was the finishing of a new fireplace, complete with built-in brick chimney.  But in their haste, the construction crew neglected to remove the eight-foot ladder they’d used to help build the fixture from the inside of the fireplace.  They just bricked up the hearth and left.

They’d likely forgotten all about the ladder.  A generous person would say that, perhaps, the crew wanted to make it easier for Santa to make it down from the roof.  Either way, television producer Leonard Stern got a gift.

I'm Dickens, He's Fenster

You see, it was Stern’s house, and after he got over his amazement at the discovery of the apparent builder ineptness, he immediately decided the misadventures of a pair of construction workers would make a terrific television comedy.  The result was seen the next fall on ABC, in the form of I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster.

Starring John Astin and Marty Ingels, the series followed the wild and wacky co-workers (and best friends), both on the job and at home.  Harry Dickens (Astin) was the more level-headed of the pair, but would sometimes get a bit distracted by his problems and concerns.  The freewheeling Arch Fenster (Ingels) was always dating a new young lady, but was just enough of a bumbler for his efforts (both at work and in his love life) to be unsuccessful.

Of course, since this is television, “unsuccessful” isn’t sad.  It’s funny.

The comedy was light, practically slapstick at times, with the setting of a home in the midst of reconstruction resulting in a gold mine of physical comedy.  And with the nervous Harry Dickens, playing the straight man to the oddities of his buddy Arch Fenster, pratfalls ensued.

Watching all this was Harry’s wife, Kate (Emmaline Henry).  Loving and supportive, she was usually the voice of reason for her husband and his best friend, encouraging the best in both of them.  Kate was wise enough to know their faults, and yet strong enough to weather whatever disaster might loom while “the guys” tried their best to make things work, especially around the Dickens’ home.  Between faucets gushing and cabinets with magnets strong enough to make pots fly across the kitchen, Kate’s patience was tested continually.  But if she wasn’t patient, we wouldn’t have had so much fun watching things go hilariously wrong.

“The married man would always like to live the life of the single man, and the single man was envious of the existence of the married.”
–Leonard Stern

The above quote makes it seem like I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster is more about the “grass is always greener” relationship shared by Harry and Arch, with the long-suffering Kate always there to help remind our characters of how good they really do have it in the lives they’ve already chosen to lead.  While that kind of character subtext is great, it wasn’t the focus of the show by any means.  I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster existed during a simpler time, back in the early 1960’s, when shows didn’t have to be socially relevant or feature important character storylines.  They just wanted to be funny.

Fun with a tray of food and a convenient door

Harkening back to the days of early movies, and the great comedy teams of Laurel and Hardy or Lewis and Martin, the team of Dickens and Fenster were one of the first to bring the true “buddy comedy” to the early days of television.  Pratfalls and physical humor were common in almost every episode.  Between Ingel’s facial contortions as an established funnyman, and Astin’s insecurity-riddled characterizations as the straight man who bore the brunt of Ingel’s “mistakes”, sight gags and stunts were both plentiful and worthy of guffaws.

While Lucy Ricardo back on I Love Lucy occasionally may have had her best friend Ethel as a reluctant cohort, Dickens and Fenster (and their construction work setting) made that type of comedy the central part of their show.  Not surprisingly, both I Love Lucy and the subsequent I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster were from Lucille Ball’s Desilu studios (which later became part of Paramount Pictures).  Utilizing the expertise of the previous show and its crew, Dickens and Fenster was better able to show off the early “3-camera” system of filming a situation comedy than many shows of the day, and better build the physical elements as well.

Laverne & Shirley: The female Dickens and Fenster?

Elements of the show later informed the throwback comedies of both Laverne and Shirley and Perfect Strangers, each of which used “buddy” elements and physical comedy to build their stories.  While traditionally one member of the duo supposedly was the “straight man” (or woman) of the team, having both individuals be adept at the physicality of comedy meant the stories could layer bits upon bits, with a “can you top this?” mentality developing in the stream of gags.  I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster was a tremendous example of this in numerous episodes.

Although not a part of the “buddy team”, Dickens’ wife Kate got to do some small part of the physical work as well, being the unfortunate recipient of some of the results of their remodeling.  The Dickens’ household was in a constant state of minor repair, as the home of a construction worker also means jobs that aren’t quite finished (since paying work takes a priority).  Emmaline Lilly had her own moments at the steady center of the wildly orbiting title duo, as she not only put up with their own foibles and adventures, but also made do as best she could with their “help” in her own home.  The woman had the patience of a saint… and sometimes, the wisdom of one, too.

Why didn’t I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster last?  Remember, it’s 1962.  There’s no such thing as demographics, or detailed research noting the particulars of whom exactly is watching what.  A 12-year old counts just as much as a 25-year old or a 60-year old as far as the Nielsen ratings are concerned, and just getting a larger head count is the goal.  And it was difficult to get that kind of significant number when the show was scheduled against some of the largest “hits” of the time.  Route 66 was on rival CBS, while the extremely popular Sing Along with Mitch topped the charts on NBC.  ABC was a young, upstart network trying to make a mark, and while they had high hopes for their new “buddy comedy”, it didn’t look good.

Shows also made more episodes for a season than they do now, and while ABC had lost faith in the series and officially cancelled it, they still had a number of episodes to run off.  They did so, and ratings started to climb.  The show was also noticed by the critics and, thanks to their promotion of the series, people continued to find its unique flavor.  By the time ABC realized they had something of a hit of their own, they’d already let the cast and crew go on to other projects.  Astin, in particular, had just signed to be the lead in a new situation comedy called The Addams Family, and his portrayal of Gomez Addams was a life-changing part for the actor.

But I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster was left in the past, forgotten.  There were only 32 half-hour episodes filmed, and therefore not enough for wide syndication where so many old shows became familiar to newer, younger fans.  Generations got to know Gomez Addams, simply through years of reruns on local stations.  But that fate didn’t await I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster.  It faded away, lost to memory of almost all… just like Santa’s ladder.  But like the best Christmas presents, there’s more than meets the eye.  It turns out that someone remembered… and still believed in both Santa and I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster….

JOHN ASTIN (Harry Dickens) is the only person (so far) to be featured THREE times on this site, but this is the first time he’s had the lead role in the series profiled.  He’s had supporting roles in both The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and Eerie, Indiana, and a lengthy career which includes memorable roles on The Addams Family and Night Court.  His one-man play Once Upon a Midnight tells the life story of author Edgar Allan Poe, and is a fantastic night of theatre.

MARTY INGELS (Arch Fenster) first came to creator Leonard Stern’s attention as a recurring character on The Dick Van Dyke Show, playing Dick’s old army buddy.  The rubber-faced comedian was seen on numerous variety shows of the early television era.  Later, he became a force behind the scenes, both as a voice actor (he spoke the words for the animated character of gaming hero Pac-Man) and as an agent for a number of Hollywood stars.  He’s been married to actress Shirley Jones (of The Partridge Family fame) since 1977.

EMMALINE HENRY (Kate Dickens) is likely best known to comedy audiences as Mrs. Bellows, a recurring (yet memorable) part on I Dream of Jeannie.  Her own original dream was to become known as a singer, and she had been cast as part of the chorus in a number of movie musicals.  Her talent as a comedienne won out over her singing career, and she was later cast as Mickey Rooney’s wife in the self-titled comedy Mickey.  She passed away of cancer in 1979.

Producer Leonard Stern had wondered about what might have happened to the comedy series he’d made almost half a century ago.  The original master tapes, originally thought lost, had been stored for all this time, and thanks to the hard work of a company called TV Time Machine, Santa had something else to offer this past holiday season.  The initial set of DVDs, released just recently, contains the first half of the episodes, and features interviews with creator Stern, stars Astin and Ingels, and original commercial spots featuring the duo in character that served as “bumpers” into more traditional ads.  The second set will be coming out later this year, and I urge any fan of early television to go order these immediately.

TV Time Machine has also established a terrific website for the show, featuring a number of stories and clips from various episodes.  It also delves a bit into the history of the series, and how it was one of the few beloved by classic comedy and movie actor Stan Laurel.  Also, just to be complete, it should also be noted that Stern was not only a TV producer (with shows like Get Smart and McMillan & Wife to his credit), he also created the perennial children’s game of Mad Libs.  Many a lengthy car ride has been saved by his inventive pastime.

“Some of the critics said it’s the kind of humor that makes you laugh out loud in the living room, and that’s an accomplishment.  How often do we really laugh out loud in the living room when we’re watching a television show?  We’re lucky if we smile.”
–John Astin

Physical pratfalls have been the basis of humor for many years.  The slapstick of the Keystone Cops and the escapades of Laurel and Hardy were mainstays of the early movies, and seltzer bottles were standard issue for many comics on the vaudeville circuit.  With the advent of television, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster helped move the concept into our homes.  Although the humor wasn’t the most cultured by any means, it was universal enough to be shared by both old and young, in a much more innocent time.

These days, the culture has turned a bit more direct, and the unfortunate offspring of such humor has become the much more crass Jackass and Wipeout shows.  But on I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, we still loved both Harry and Arch, just as Kate loved her boys, and although we laughed at their pratfalls, their successes still meant something.  They were good people, although they were occasionally far too easily distracted and didn’t watch exactly where they were going… until they’d fallen, humorously, and without injury (except maybe to a bit of their pride).

And distraction can be easily forgiven… because, after all, if it wasn’t for a few distracted workmen, Santa wouldn’t have had a ladder to get down a certain chimney.  And we wouldn’t have had I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster all these years later to enjoy.

Vital Stats

32 half-hour episodes — none unaired — half currently available on DVD, the rest to follow
ABC Network
First aired episode:  September 28, 1962
Final aired episode:  May 10, 1963
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  Oh, so close.  An hour later, at 9/8 Central on Friday nights.  Its lead-in was, of all things, The Flintstones, so a physical comedy wasn’t so far away from a cartoon after all….

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

A Happy Valentines Day to all.  You’d think some romantic comedy would be appropriate for this week’s article, but instead, I’m featuring a show dating back almost half a century.  It featured an immutable friendship, and was one of the first shows to have regular characters both engaging in the slapstick of vaudeville and the pratfalls of the old movies.  Thought lost to the ages, it’s recently become available once again.  Five quotes:

They just bricked up the hearth and left.

Of course, since this is television, “unsuccessful” isn’t sad.  It’s funny.

The woman had the patience of a saint… and sometimes, the wisdom of one, too.

By the time ABC realized they had something of a hit of their own, they’d already let the cast and crew go on to other projects.

“Some of the critics said it’s the kind of humor that makes you laugh out loud in the living room…”

It’s amazing what we owe to the past, and where it came from.  We might even owe this one to Santa Claus, in a roundabout way.  See what I mean, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

Some may have noticed there wasn’t a promo up this week.  That was deliberate.  The fact is, while I love doing these articles, they’ve taken a bit more time out of my life than I have to give, at least these days.  Journey with me, and let me tell you why….

“The most abiding lesson that I think I’ve taken is that you pay a moral price for each and every act and each and every choice you make in life.  You don’t know what that price is going to be, but you’re going to pay it.”
–Bobby Moresco, Producer/Creator of The Black Donnellys

Back when I launched this site, in very late March of 2000, I was at a crossroads.  Health issues threatened to change my life in significant ways, and things I had previously done were no longer an option for me.  Not only was my job at risk (and therefore my very livelihood), but also a number of my personal choices for “my time” were simply unavailable.

My previous occupation was, of all things, as a baker.  I’d spent many years, over two (very different) locations, plying the trade and spending significant amounts of my time on the overnight shift, being a “vampire” to the rest of the world.  It was the life I’d chosen, and I often told a great number of people that “the eight hours a day I spend there makes the other sixteen hours worthwhile.”  It paid the bills, I met a few great people (and some not so great ones, like in any vocation), and it allowed me the time to do what I wanted, and become the person I believed, at the time, I wanted to become.

I discovered performing, and pursued the craft of the stage.  I once spent nine months doing six different plays (and when you realize the average play takes roughly eight weeks or more to get “up and running”, you can do the math and see how active and busy I was).  I got paid for some of the shows, and did others as a labor of love, for I’d caught the bug of the spotlight, and I didn’t think there was any way I was ever going back.

“If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”
–Fabian, from Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene iv (and my article on Slings & Arrows)

That is, until reality hit, and I was no longer able to reliably perform in that type of environment.  A vehicle accident, and rehab, led to another doctor and another prognosis… and the end of my theatre “career”, as well as the end of the bakery one.  Much of my life had been upended, forcibly, and I truly fell into a rather deep depression.  Welcome to Act 2.

I was lost for a good time.  The friends I have now would tell you (and I would have to agree) that I shut myself off from the world for far too long.  I’m not proud of it, but I felt (rightly or wrongly) that I just wasn’t the person I thought I was anymore, and didn’t have any idea of what I could be.  Too much of my self-identity was wrapped up in both pride of work and the ego-boost I got from being a part of a show.  As a result, even if there were places to turn, and people to turn to, I didn’t know what they were.  I didn’t recognize them at all (and I likely made some of them go away as a result, and for that I’m truly sorry).  But ultimately, a couple of things happened to change my outlook.

I’d always been a television fan.  That’s obvious from all the articles I’ve written on this site, and I’ve probably forgotten more than most have ever known about the medium.  Working the “graveyard” shift allowed me to experience many of these shows firsthand, and the development of both the VCR and the DVR, and DVD sets (and their wonderful commentaries), gave me even more opportunities to develop my interest.  It’s just been a passion, long before anything every happened to change my circumstances.  While talking to a close relative, I threw out the idea of doing the blog as a creative outlet that was available now, when pure performing had been denied me.  Her enthusiastic response (along with an offer to be my “editor”, and use her significant skills as well) led me to tentatively try out this strange idea.  And, surprisingly, I enjoyed it tremendously.

One of my favorite shows... and EVERY EPISODE has a commentary!

Writing about all those shows of the past that so many of us grew up with was, at times, a window through my soul.  Rather than just talk about premises and stars gone by, I developed the idea of commenting upon some idea or happening that related to life, to history, to television, to me.  That’s what personally made Friday @ 8/7 Central more than just a website, and it has become a true haven for my thoughts and my memories.

It has also become a way for me to better examine my own ideas, and to make certain that what I’ve thought in the past is actually what I believe, and what I put into action.  Over the past (almost) two years, I’ve changed a lot, and this website has helped me to do so.  I’ve rediscovered some things I’d forgotten, both in television and personally, and been surprised how certain ideas became more important in my life when seen through the prism of both TV and history.

My work has, surprisingly, become a stellar part of my life, and no longer simply “the eight hours” anymore.  While I’m certainly not rich by any means, I make more money than I did at the most recent bakery job, and work with some simply superb people I likely never would have met otherwise.  I used to work all alone, six nights a week…. and now, later this week, I’m interacting with people halfway around the world, who want exposure to MY expertise in order to help do their jobs better.

There was a time when I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear from me anymore.  Now, most surprisingly, I can cover the globe, both in my work, and on this website.

I won’t say it’s ALL because of the blog, but I’ve become much more cognizant of all this BECAUSE of this website, and the things it has led me to.  Besides good friends, both at work and in the rest of my life, I’ve crystallized a couple of different ideas here that I use to help guide me in all areas.  And while you’ve likely read them here before, I’m going to list a few.

Making the Team:  Yes, it’s the title of the article I did on Misfits of Science, but it’s more than that.  It’s when I truly discovered that, even when I felt like someone who didn’t belong anymore, there was a place for me.  I wasn’t sure where or when or how, but if El or Johnny B or Glo could find their family, then I could find mine.  And, as luck would have it, I’ve found a few, thanks to various interests both old and new.  But Misfits of Science, all these years later, still had a lesson to teach me, and thanks to this site, I learned it.

Max Headroom: Looking at me, looking at you

Don’t trust blindly:  In the article Just Under Over-the-Top, I wrote about the troubles of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., and of how a badly designed “study” on television violence ended the run of a great, GREAT show.  And then, the Max Headroom article (titled 20 Minutes Into… Today?) made me realize just how pervasive some of the media can be.  Learning ANYTHING from just a single source is nothing more than giving up power over your own knowledge and opinions to that source, and their “facts” become yours, with no real examination in the process.  That is giving up a part of my “self”, and if I’ve learned anything over the past couple of years, that’s something I never want to do, circumstances be damned.  It’s MY life, and I’ll live it by MY rules, and not those “circumstances”.

Religion and faith:  Just go read about the highest rated show ever to get cancelled, Bridget Loves Bernie.  There are far too many parallels to what is going on today in society, and while I really do believe in the idea of “faith”, the essential blindness created by established “religion” can jump off a cliff, as far as I’m concerned.  I’ll get things right with me and my maker, thank you, and those tax-exempt excuses for fellowship aren’t necessary.  I, and others like me, can find it for ourselves… and really should.

My own hero, Harry Chapin. Do something!

There are lots of other examples I could list.  Good Intentions (from Point Pleasant) made me examine why people do what they do, and the consequences that aren’t always intended.  Make a Wish gave me a chance to tell others about my own personal hero, and his motto of “Do Something!” (which I have hopefully developed a bit more in my life).  Jericho helped me realize people should fight for what they believe in, even to the ends of the earth (or the show)… and then beyond.  Sunshine talked about dealing with death, Grapevine and Cupid showed how a second life could happen, and how love is eternal (no matter how we try to screw it up).  And The Job was resurrected out of the ashes to become Rescue Me… and my life has hopefully learned all these lessons, or developed them more into something I could use in my own existence.  Global Frequency showed me that there’s even life in something that doesn’t (officially) exist, and discovering both Connections and The Tommyverse led me to realize just how intertwined  we all are… and how connected we all need to be.

When done correctly, television connects us all.  It teaches life, love, death, beginnings, endings, and beyond.  It imagines past, future, and the immediacy of today, with a richness and vibrancy that no other medium can touch.  And various programs never have to be successful to join in on those blessings, and that’s one of the reasons I celebrate all of those “long forgotten short-lived shows”.  They have their own lessons, their own blessings, their own ideas to share, even if they weren’t massively popular at the time.  That’s what they brought to my life, and that’s what I hope I’ve done here so far.

Now for Act 3.

Some have said the real life time slot of Friday 8/7 Central is “the Friday Night Death Slot”.  There’s even a wikipedia page for it, and we can thank FOX and many others for the term.  It even gets a running gag on Family Guy about how many shows on the network were cancelled between the show’s “death” and subsequent resurrection as a hit.  I happen to think there might be more shows that died too soon, and which have something to offer.  I hope to continue featuring them here.

Writing the article on Good Heavens recently, I was struck with a bit of an epiphany.  My life had become so much more than it was when I stared this project.  The problem was, the project which had helped lead me to this place was now getting in the way, at times, with the rest of the blessings I was reaping.  Something was going to have to give, if my new life was going to be what I was hoping it would.

For that reason, I’m not going to stick to the previous schedule of this blog, and the standard “every Tuesday and Friday” publishing schedule.  I’m going to continue writing articles, and they’ll be prefaced by promos, but they may not go up each and every week as they have in the past.  I’ve got plenty of shows to cover, and ideas to examine… but doing it on a timetable as I’ve done in the past is making it more like “work”, and less of a labor of love.  And I never want to stop this being something I love.

“I refuse to give up.  I can’t.”
–Producer/Creator/Writer Joss Whedon

I’ve said on numerous occasions here that “passion breeds creativity”.  That’s still something I believe in VERY strongly, and the evidence is all around.  But I have multiple passions, and thanks to where I find myself in my life these days, doors are open to things I never before dreamed of.  But all that passion, creativity, and new opportunity takes time, and as a result, I may not be here as often as I was previously.  But don’t worry, because the passion is still thriving, and still going strong, and there will be more memories and new lessons learned from what I watch and what I live.

OK, so I stole this from a boardgame called "Roborally". But it still fits. It's me.

It’s been a tremendous journey, and it’s hardly over.  I’m just going to keep enjoying the ride, instead of sticking to the timetable.  I want to savor every bit of it along the way, and I hope you’ll join me.

Comments and suggestions are appreciated… and I mean it this time.  If there’s any show you wish me to cover, any ideas or arenas you think might make a good article, please share with me.  It’s all part of the inter-connectivity I spoke of earlier.  I’ll even take full-fledged articles, as long as you allow me a chance for some editing (since I personally am responsible for all that goes up here).  But I want to share my passions with others, and let them share with me.  So, don’t be shy…

…and come back soon for more on Friday @ 8/7 Central!!!!  And thanks.

–Tim R.

“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.

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.

Helena and Reese

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.

Helena and Barbara, contemplating their dual lives

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.”
–Helena Kyle

Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a.k.a Harley Quinn

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.

Vital Stats

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.

–Tim R.

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