The Big Bad

Before writer-producer Laeta Kalogridis struck out with Bionic Woman, she’d already struck out with another much-hyped but short-lived show about posterior-kicking babes: Birds of Prey, a mish-mash of DC comics mythology about a trio of hot lady crimefighters protecting “New Gotham” after Batman bugs out: Helena (Ashley Scott), the daughter of Batman and Catwoman; Dinah (Rachel Skarsten), a waif with some kind of power to see stuff and create big whooshing “vision” special effects; and Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer), aka Batgirl, aka “Oracle,” who became a wheelchair-bound crimefighter after the Joker shot her (this comes from the comics). Warner Brothers is releasing a DVD of the complete 13-episode series this week, in honour of you-know-what, and the DVD set gave me a chance to get re-acquainted with an ancient time in TV history: 2002.

See, I could have sworn, before I checked, that this show was much older than it is, because I remembered it as being on a long time ago. It wasn’t that long, but it feels like a long time, because the first few years of this decade somehow seem like a different time, culturally. Comparing the culture of 2008 to the pop culture of 2002 is not as jarring as comparing 1962 to 1968, but it’s a similar thing: it just feels like a slightly different world. Especially so with a show like Birds of Prey because it’s a show on and of the WB network, a network with a very distinct style and culture, which no longer exists. The fashions, music (some of it), the obsessive emphasis on reaching young viewers at the expense of just about anyone else, the treatment of computers as such magical things that we’re expected to be mesmerised by watching Barbara search through Internet databases — it’s all a relic of the ancient time of 2002, when Blue Crush was playing at a theatre near you and Toby Keith was threatening to put a boot up somebody’s ass.

The show itself failed, and pretty much deserved to, since it’s a mess, but it’s a mess with some interesting things in it. It’s a great idea, for starters: a Batman show without Batman. Not that there’s anything wrong with Batman, but he’d been done like a zillion times. By having other characters carry out Batman’s mission, you can have all the great Batman/Gotham mythology with something fresh, and by putting women at the heart of the Bat-verse, you get a ball-busting babe show for the girls combined with comic-book references for the guys. I think the show’s cult following is due to the strength of that idea; fans can forgive the many problems with writing and production because it was so great to see all these different elements of comic-book mythology mashed together. Plus, Dina Meyer is exceptionally hot. She may have inadvertently helped unbalance the show because she’s much more interesting and appealing than either of the teenagers, even though as WB heroines they’re expected to carry more of the storylines.

But, as I said, the show is a mess. Like Bionic Woman, it never really decided if it wanted to be dark or campy, so the whole thing seems like the literal missing link between Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan. It tries simultaneously to ape Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which the WB network had recently lost) and the WB’s hit Smallville (from some of the same producers), but it doesn’t have Buffy‘s humour or Smalville‘s effective, straight-ahead plotting and themes; the plots don’t make sense, the characters’ relationships don’t make sense, and it only fitfully remembers that a successful teen superhero show needs to be a metaphor for real-life problems of growing up. The guy characters are unbelievably wussy even by the standards of these gynocentric shows; you get the feeling that Alfred could kick the butts of all the other male characters. Plus the budgetary problems are all too obvious: whereas Buffy could get along without a lot of money, and Smallville wisely set itself in a locale that isn’t too expensive to create, a Batman show needs to take place in a stylized world with lots of sets, and because they don’t have enough dough to create the Gotham universe, they resort to setting a lot of the episodes on standing sets. Plus every episode begins with over a minute of narration plus another 40 seconds for the main title: some of these shows must have only a little more than 30 minutes of actual content.

Is there a moral to this, other than: don’t hire Laeta Kalogridis to write these TV emasculation-fests? None, I guess, except that a teen superhero show needs to keep it at least somewhat simple. Buffy succeeded because it had fairly simple, easy-to-follow plots and themes; it layered character complexity on top of that foundation of simplicity, but it didn’t get so wrapped up in its own mythology that the whole thing became hard to follow, and you always knew that every fantasy story had some kind of real-life emotional resonance. Also, even in a show about powerful women, it really helps to have some strong male characters. Birds of Prey is like Veronica Mars if Veronica was working with her mother instead of her father, while dating a eunuch. “Strong women” does not and should not mean “no strong men,” because that just comes off making the show seem, well, sexist.

One other thing I was reminded of in revisiting the ancient world of 2002 is how Buffy had corrupted the world of fantasy action-adventure TV: it popularized the concept of “The Big Bad,” the main villain who is introduced early in the season but doesn’t actually confront the hero until the season finale. When Buffy came up with the idea of having The Master be Buffy’s main nemesis but never actually meet her until the last episode of the first season, it was doing something smart and different; as Joss Whedon said, he didn’t want to have the supervillain confronting Buffy and failing every week, so he kept him on the margins, sending lesser villains against her, and then finally coming to the surface to give Buffy the Greatest Challenge She’s Ever Faced. This idea got less and less effective on Buffy every time they used it, until the fiasco of the final season where they were hyping The Final Battle in every freakin’ episode. But it was even less effective when other shows used the same idea. On Birds of Prey, the Big Bad was the Joker’s henchgirl Harley Quinn (played by Sherilyn Fenn in the unaired pilot, replaced by Mia Sara for the series), a character who was created for the best TV version of Batman, Batman: the Animated Series. Quinn is a psychiatrist who fell in love with her patient the Joker, and became his loyal sidekick; so in Birds of Prey she’s Helena’s psychiatrist, pumping her for information, and only in the season/series finale do the heroines find out that she’s the Big Bad and that some of the other villains were sent by her as part of her Master Plan. But it’s just stunningly ineffective: the heroines come off as morons because they can’t figure out who the main bad guy is, and Harley’s schtick is mostly played-out by the time she actually does confront the good guys face-to-face.

Warner Brothers hasn’t done much with this property. The unaired pilot is in anamorphic widescreen but the series itself is not (it’s 4:3 letterbox instead); music has been replaced, including the theme song; and the only extra is the Flash animation webisode series Gotham Girls, a fun companion piece to the series: starring the female characters from the Batman animated series, with the original voices (including Arleen Sorkin as the one and only real Harley Quinn), the scripts were mostly written by Paul Dini and it’s quite entertaining despite the poor animation.

Summary: worth checking out if you like DC comics mythos, Dina Meyer, and/or WB network nostalgia. Otherwise, go for a DVD set of Batman, the Animated Series with the original Harley Quinn.