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A Rave For WB's BIRDS OF PREY!! New Details!!

I am – Hercules!!

And I am excited.

Seven years after the disappearance of a horrified and demoralized Batman, the daughter of Catwoman (a mutant with infrared vision and Buffy-esque speed and strength) and her mentor (a paraplegic former Batgirl) team with a blonde teen mutant superpsychic named Dinah to dispatch a growing army of superpowered villains.

Despite the enormous changes made to the characters of Huntress and Black Canary (if Dinah really is Black Canary), longtime spy “Trip Fontaine” – a fellow who really knows his way around the DC Universe – says “the series takes the Batman mythology completely seriously.”

The WB will air “Birds of Prey” 9 p.m. Wednesdays (opposite “West Wing,” “Amazing Race” and “The Bachelor”) this autumn.

Here’s “Trip”:

The upshot: Despite some liberties that get taken with the characters (mostly Dinah and Helena), BIRDS OF PREY is a lot more serious and intense than I expected it to be--it's very dark, but there's a lot of wit, too. Tone-wise, it's probably closer to ANGEL than to any other show on the WB (or any other network) at the moment. It's also a lot more connected to the DC Universe than I expected it to be, and the flashback sequences constitute (no shit) the best-yet live-action treatment of the Batman mythos. If they can keep the writing up to the standard set here, the combination of well-done comicbook mythology, hot chicks and ample action would seem likely to make it a success with both DC fans and general audiences. A lengthy summary (I'm sure I got some of the details wrong; if so, please forgive me) and some comments follow...


Summary Time:

The pilot begins with a static shot of a map of "New Gotham", which morphs into a CGI 3D cityscape that the camera flies over and through, before tracking down and cutting to a street scene. Selena Kyle lies dying in the street, having been stabbed in the gut by a trenchcoat- wearing assailant who we see making his successful escape. Helena Kyle (age 13-14), crying and spastic, tries in vain to revive her mother as cops and EMTs arrive...and the parallels to Thomas and Martha Wayne's Crime Alley death couldn't be more obvious.

We cut to Barbara Gordon's apartment, where she's watching a TV news report describing a recently-concluded fight between Batman, Batgirl and the Joker (who is mentioned by name, contrary to what I'd heard before). It's clear from what the reporter says that Batman is an urban legend in the eyes of the media; ditto the Joker. The organized crime ring that the Joker runs, however, undeniably exists, and it seems that Batman was trying to shut down his operation for once and for all.

The account of the fight ends with a breaking news interruption about the death of Selena Kyle, who we're told was "rumored" to be the notorious jewel theif Catwoman and has been "romantically linked in the past to reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne". Barbara freaks, shouting out Helena's name, and the doorbell rings...and it's our friend the Clown Prince of Crime himsef. The face is out of focus, but the green hair and white skin couldn't belong to anyone else. Barbara gets shot at point blank range, and collapses to the floor as a pool of blood expands around her.

And we cut to a young girl (age 10 or so) in her bedroom who wakes up screaming. Her mom comes in, and the girl describes Barbara's shooting. "Dinah," says the mom, "It was just a bad dream". But Dinah isn't so sure...


Barbara is on the street in an electric wheelchair, with a guy she's been dating for six months who gets pissed when she turns down his dinner invitation for that evening. Exasperated, he walks away and makes it clear the relationship is over as far as he's concerned. Cut to the office of Dr. Harleen Quinzel, where Helena Kyle is having her weekly therapy session and we learn that it's the anniversary of Selena's death and Barbara's shooting. Without spilling the beans on anyone's ID, Helena reveals to Dr. Quinzel that she never learned who her father was until after her mother's death – nor did her father even learn of Helena's existence until Selena died – and that she wants nothing to do with him.

Subsequent scenes establish the status quo in short order. Barbara became Helena's legal guardian after her mother's death, and the two have been in business as Oracle and the Huntress for at least a year now. They have a lot of cases behind them – many, it seems, involving supervillains (none mentioned by name) – and their latest case involves a mysterious epidemic of suicides among the board members of a big Gotham- based corporation. Working the case from the other end are two Gotham PD detectives – studly young black cop Jake Reese (Shemar Moore) and his older, fatter, white partner (whose name I missed, but it was *not* Harvey Bullock). Jake is sure that weird stuff goes on in New Gotham after sunset, but his partner attributes it all to rumor and urban legend.

Now 16 or 17, Dinah runs away from home and comes to New Gotham, where she witnesses one of the mysterious suicides (a dude walks in front of a car as she exits the bus station). Her apparent psychic powers make it clear that it was a murder – the guy was scared of rats, and he apparently had a hallucination of hundreds of them streaming out of the subway, and he ran into traffic to escape them. But Dinah has no clue what to do with the info...

That changes when, hours later, she's wandering the streets in search of a place to stay for the evening and is approached by a would-be rapist – and saved by Huntress. (Huntress doesn't wear a mask, though Barbara wants her to. Her "costume" is an ultra-low-cut dress that she wears tights and boots under. Barbara bitches about it too, but Helena defends it as an outfit that she can wear to nightclubs after a night of crimefighting, eliminating the need to go home and change first.)

The costume discussion takes place at Oracle and Huntress' clocktower base, where Dinah soon shows up. Babs is pissed that Helena was sloppy enough to let Dinah track her back there, but Dinah says she didn't follow Helena – instead, her psychic powers led her there.

Babs performs a CAT scan on Dinah and detects a high level of brainwave activity that makes it clear that Dinah is a metahuman. It seems that metahumans are starting to show up all over the place thanks to "genetic mutation and other factors", and it would seem like a pretty safe bet that the metahuman explosion will be the source of lots of villains-of- the-week. A surprising revelation insues – Helena, too, is metahuman. Her powers (and their origin) are never specifically revealed, but over the course of the episode, she displays modest super-strength, speed and jumping ability (well beyond that of a 'peak human' like Captain America or Batman but well below the Spider-Man level) as well as an infrared vision power that lets her see in the dark.

Dinah guilts Babs into letting her stay at the clocktower for awhile, and before long she's working the suicide case too, traipsing around in the field wearing camera goggles that scan everything she sees and broadcast it back to Oracle in the form of a 3D hologram. When Dinah is doing this, Barbara recognizes the place the evidence has led her to – it's the Joker's old HQ.

A flashback to Babs in costume as Batgirl fighting the Joker's gang follows, and we learn about the fight with the Joker that Barbara was watching the TV report about at the beginning of the episode. It seems that Batman and Batgirl chased the Joker to his headquarters, and during the fight, Batman (who's shown from behind) wound up in a situation during the showdown where he only had two choices: Kill the Joker or let him escape. Bats went with option B, of course, and within hours of the escape, the Joker sent a goon to kill Selena and went to go shoot Babs himself. Plauged by guilt, Batman went underground and vanished from the scene "a few months later.”

Helena's investigation of the suicides brings her to the home of a board member who was coincidentally an acquantance of Selena's, and he recognizes her (proving that Babs' suggestion of a mask is the right idea), and gives her a cup of tea that turns out to be dosed with a mind-control drug. Yep, he masterminded the deaths of the other board members to take control of the corporation himself. As she falls unconsious Babs (in her moto-wheelchair) and Dinah arrive on the scene. Dinah KOs the guy, but not before he can reveal that he used a post- hypnotic suggestion to transfer part of his personality inside Helena as a sort of psychic computer virus. Dinah then uses her powers to enter the catatonic Helena's mind, and we see her reliving her mother's death. Via a patch-in of sorts, Babs, too, enters Helena's mind and appears to her in the Batgirl suit. After removing the mask, the virtual Babs and Helena fight the dude inside Helena's head and beat him. Helena comes to, and the comatose bad guy is handed over to Detective Reese.

Reese then takes the comatose baddie to Arkham Aslyum, where the attending shrink on duty is none other than Dr. Quinzel. Quinzel thanks the doctor, then sits down with the baddie in an interrogation room. There, she reverts to her Harley Quinn personality, and it becomes clear that she's exploiting her role as a doctor at Arkham to turn the patients into her slaves, using them as her footsoldiers in an attempt to resurrect the Joker's gang and take control of organized crime in New Gotham – and that the corrupt board member was a pawn of hers all along, as acquiring the corporation as a front for money laundering was the next stage of her plan. Though not stated outright, it's strongly implied that she's using Jonathan Crane's fear serum to control the patients, and that the fear serum was also used to drive the board members to suicide.

The pilot ends with Babs and Helena at the clock tower and Helena thanking Babs for saving her ass and promising to turn down the attitude and get with the program a little more. The camera pulls back from them and pans across the New Gotham skyline. As it passes the full moon, a bat flys by.

Further comments:

I can well imagine that Helena's powers and Dinah's psychic abilities will make a lot of fans howl and gnash their teeth (Dinah is never referred to as "Black Canary" in the pilot, nor even given the surname "Lance". Maybe that'll come, maybe it won't), but IMHO they're not a big deal. What's important is that Dina Meyer *is* the Barbara/Oracle we know from the comics, and the series takes the Batman mythology completely seriously. Early reports said the show took place in the future, but there's nothing here to suggest that apart from the goggles that broadcast the holograms back to Babs. It may be awhile before they spell the timeline out, but it seem very likely that the show takes place in the present day, in a universe where Batman began his career in the mid-'70s and retired in the mid-'90s. There's no mention whatsoever of Robin, and Barbara refers to herself several times as having been "Batman's partner". As I said, there are several flashbacks to Dina in costume as Batgirl, and she looks *great* in it. The fight scenes with the Joker's thugs (generic street crooks) are all you could ask for, and the brief glimpses of the Joker (whose voice is provided by Mark Hamill but seems to be played by a taller, thinner actor who we never see clearly) present him as a pure sadist without a trace of Romero camp or Nicholson vamping. At the beginning of the big fight in which Batman lets the Joker get away, there's a great shot of Meyer-as-Batgirl jumping on the Joker and starting to wail on him before he knocks her down with an enormous electric shock from a "joy buzzer" strapped to his palm. While she's half-unconscious and pinned behind a burning beam, Batman shows up and starts fighting the Joker. The cape largely obscures his costume and we never see the face, but the intensity and presence of Batman are conveyed in a way the Burton movies (to say nothing of the Schumachers) never delivered.

There's also a wonderful appearance by our old friend Alfred Pennyworth, who appears to have helped Barbara raise Helena after her mothers' death and seems to have lent Babs a whole bunch of Batcave equipment for use in the clocktower to help establish herself as Oracle after Batman's disappearance. Since there were no credits on the tape, I have no idea who played Alfred, but he's fantastic – a kindly man in his seventies but one who has a real backbone, which he uses to encourage Babs to train Dinah. I don't know if he's a series regular, but I hope we'll see a lot more of him. It's a tall claim, but I have to say he's the best non-comics incarnation of the old guy yet. The only regular beyond the three gals appears to be Shemar Moore, who's really handsome and has a lot of presence. If ethnic diversity was a mandate, they could have done a lot worse than to find someone like him and create the character of a tough, driven young detective for him to play. There's a scene in which he finds Helena at the scene of one of the faux-suicides (and briefly assumes that she killed the guy), and there proves to be some genuine chemistry between him and Ashley Scott (who, as Helena/Huntress, is way too stiff for my tastes – but she still has her moments, and she certainly looks great).

Most of the show was filmed on sets and soundstages, with the Gotham skyline being entirely CG. I know that'll piss some people off, but it's really well done CG that does a fabulous job of recreating the Gotham City of the Dini/Timm cartoons.

I expected BIRDS OF PREY to be a total cheesefest, so perhaps my enthusiasm is just the result of low expectations. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by the way the pilot drew on DC universe concepts, especially the ever-controversial "Batman = Urban Legend" paradigm, which makes a lot more sense in the cop-show-feelin' world of the show than it does in the DCU on a week-in, week-out basis. The production values *rock*, which also helps – they obviously put a lot of money into this, and while subsequent episodes probably won't look so good, spending a lot of money to hook people on the pilot is never a bad idea, especially when the script is this good.

There's very little that's comic-booky about BIRDS OF PREY – it clearly uses BUFFY, XENA and CHARLIE'S ANGELS as touchstones, and that's what'll sell it to mainstream viewers. But as I said, the show it reminds me of more than anything is ANGEL, in terms of the way it juggles an elaborate mythology and a dark tone with dry, character based humor. (My favorite joke in the pilot: Helena bitches about being forced to follow in her parents' footsteps, Barb snaps "It's not like this is the mob" and Helena replies "At least they're allowed to kill people!"). There's just one obstacle, and it's a big one – the Wednesday 9pm timeslot. The show should have no trouble beating UPN's TWILIGHT ZONE revival, but CBS' AMAZING RACE 3 and ABC's THE BACHELOR could both draw away a lot of female viewers who might like the show. Fox offers up the buddy cop show FAST LANE starring Bill Bellamy and Peter Facinelli, which sounds like kind of a loser and an easy show for BoP to beat. But of course there's a 600lb gorilla in the timeslot – THE WEST WING, one of my three favorite shows (along with THE SOPRANOS and THE SHIELD). As a TWW fan since day one, keeping up with the Bartlets will be priority one for me – but I'm definitely going to be making arrangements to tape BoP on my bedroom VCR when TWW is on in the fall, something I only occasionally mustered the energy to do for SMALLVILLE (as much as I like it) when it was up against 24 this season. On the heels of S-VILLE and SPIDER-MAN, the very impressive BoP pilot further proves that we're living through a golden age of comic book adaptations, and it's about goddamn time.

Trip Fontaine

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