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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Week of Review - Birds of Prey

Edited by Robert Beach

Yesterday, I talked about one of DC/WB’s more successful endeavors to preserve their television presence into the 21st century; today, I’m focusing on a less successful example. Before we discuss Birds of Prey and what I think of it, we’ve got to go back and talk about a little show from 1997 known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy the Vampire Slayer took the world by storm in 1997 with its winning combination of genre tropes and aesthetics and girl power. Buffy was the last of the popular genre trinity that had started with Star Trek: The Next Generation in ’89 and been cemented by The X-Files in ’93. 

There had been plenty of genre shows before like the original Star Trek in the ‘60s, 6 Million Dollar Man in the ‘70s, and V in the ‘80s, but these three shows demonstrated there was a chance for widespread, mainstream appeal within previously geek genre markets. When DC decided to re-enter the realm of TV after the conclusion of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in 1997, they decided to stick with the Buffy aesthetic, which is how we got Smallville. With Smallville’s success, WB wanted to create a sister show that was more female centric as they’d had a lot of success from that mold with Charmed. In 2002, they created The Birds of Prey, one of my all time favorite superhero shows. 

Batman Show Without Batman 

At the time of the show’s release, Birds of Prey was an ongoing comic starring Black Canary and Oracle created by Jordan B. Gorfinkle (the central force behind Batman: No Man’s Land) and written by Chuck Dixon, an incredibly prolific and very talented author. A year after the show’s cancelation, superstar author Gail Simone would take over the book and turn it into a comic powerhouse both for her and DC, though the idea of adding Huntress to the team was first spearheaded by the show. 

The show itself is an odd duck. The bizarre lovechild of attempts to modernize DC’s television impact while also performing brand management on the live-action Batman property. Even though it premiered a good 5 years after Batman & Robin, it’s pretty obvious that the tainted memories are still there, especially given all the hoops the show had to jump through to avoid having Barbara Gordon be Batgirl like in the film. 

Given all that, it’s not surprising the show’s central set-up is a patchwork hodgepodge of comic references pulled from a grab bag of mixed continuity. In this world of New Gotham (it’s never explained what happened to Old Gotham), Batman disappeared over a decade ago when the Joker killed Catwoman and crippled Barbara Gordon, Batgirl. If that sounds like a dick move on his part, it gets worse; in this continuity, Batman and Catwoman had a daughter together who grew up to be Huntress. Now Huntress and Barbara defend New Gotham: Huntress fighting crime on the streets while Barbara provides logistical and cyber support. 

Now, the quicker members of the audience may have picked up that this is the same basic set-up as Batman Beyond and don’t think that’s a coincidence given Batman Beyond had just concluded its fairly successful series run when Birds of Prey got started; however, they do shake up the status quo with Dinah Lance, a psychic teen runaway that the two women basically adopt. Together, they defend the streets of New Gotham from the growing master plan of the villainous master of manipulation Harley Quinn.

Character Remakes 

Like I said, the show’s an absolute hodgepodge with no consistent source material to speak of. They actually go one step further by changing the characters even more. Huntress has vaguely defined super powers, and Harley Quinn has mind-control abilities. The individual episodes are equally all over the place in their approach to the source material. For instance, Dinah’s mom, the Black Canary, shows up at one point, and she’s pretty much on point with the actual character, a steely crime fighter complete with canary cry and the added benefit of being a superhero mom. Additionally, Alfred is on the show, played by Ian Abercrombie from Army of Darkness and Seinfeld, and he’s honestly one of the best onscreen Alfreds we’ve ever had. 

However, other characters like Lady Shiva or Clayface are there reimagined in a serious and near-unrecognizable way.  We even see the Joker at one point during the opening reconstruction of Barbara being shot. It’s a brief, near cameo appearance in which he’s played by stuntman Roger Stoneburner, but he is dubbed over by Mark Hamill from the Batman animated series. Speaking of which, there’s a bit of a mystery around the actor who played Batman on the show as he does appear during the flashback sequences without any lines and only briefly. Much like Catwoman, it’s the Burton style of Batman only the actor who filled the cowl has never been identified. 

It’s also kind of strange that the show made reference to classic Batman characters who never appeared like Dick Grayson or Tim Drake. All the Robins got name dropped at one point, but it was never explained where they were in the show’s universe; another mystery I suppose. The format of the show was pretty basic. As I mentioned earlier, it drew heavy inspiration from the Buffy the Vampire aesthetic of having the genre conflict aspects of the story either parallel or directly influence a more standard series drama situation that was also befalling the leads.  As simplistic as that sounds it’s actually key to why I like the show as much as I do.  Truth be told I was never a big Buffy fan, mainly because I’m not really big on its particular brand of very stripped down and sanitized urban fantasy.  I am however a massive fan of superheroes but what I’m a fan of even more than that are the girly sitcom antics and female centric relationship issues that inform Birds of Prey. 

Genre Artifices Meets Comic Books 

This is something I’ve talked about before in my reviews of the Jem and the Holograms comic and iZombie, which now plays like a modernized version of Birds of Prey all things considered, but I’ll say it again here.  I really love surface-level genre artifice that’s informed strictly from the female point of view, stuff about boys and relationships and girls night and such when it’s integrated into a traditional nerd genre universe. A good example of this in Birds of Prey would be an episode where Dinah ends up using her psychic powers to read the mind of a boy she liked, so she could attract his attention. 

I love these kind of plots for a lot of reasons. A big part of this is just how different they are from so much else in genre fiction. Simply put, there are only so many times you can see gruff, manly men grumble their way through the non-action portions of a plot before it gets extremely tedious. Switching things up with a female point of view is a very fun way of having an adventure outside my own boundaries. Plus, simply on a technical level, these kind of additional scenes go a long way towards making a show’s universe and characters feel well realized. 

I touched on this a lot in my look at iZombie, but the sitcom conforms to the rigid structure and artifice of a standard genre like horror or fantasy while simultaneously being based off of something more representative of a real life experience.  As a result, it’s very easy to integrate sitcom genre elements into a genre show to give it the feeling of grounded-ness and a broader world, especially if the characters are well written and enjoyable. 

A big part of this perfectness comes from the overlap between sitcom and superhero comic, mainly in that in both cases the heroes aren’t expected to really change. We don’t read a Batman story to see Batman grow and progress as a character anymore than we watch an episode of Seinfeld to see Jerry become a more well-rounded human being, we consume this media as a way to spend time with characters we like.  

Now, to be absolutely clear, I’m not trying to convince anyone that Birds of Prey was some ahead-of-its-time classic that the public just didn’t appreciate, or  it’s a gem waiting to be rediscovered.  There’s plenty about the show that doesn’t work; most centrally the incredibly dodgy CGI that peppered the show and the overall lackluster choreography; however, I thoroughly recommend it especially if you’re a geek more open to newer experiences beyond the normal. If you like shows like Flash or iZombie and are willing to embrace a superhero aesthetic beyond the standard range of crime fighting, Birds of Prey is definitely worth your time. 

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