Alright, Let’s Talk About the Birds of Prey TV Show: Was It That Bad?
Spoiler alert: It’s about 60-40.
In The Year of Our Lady 2002, after the success of the show Smallville, the smart people at The WB (now The CW) decided that the next best way to profit off of their superhero success would be to make a Batman-related product to go with their Superman product. However, rather than make the 2000s version of Gotham, they made the “bold” choice to base the series not around the Caped Crusader, but his Earth-2 daughter, Helena Kyle-Wayne.
She became one of the three leads in the 2002-2003 Birds of Prey television show, based on the popular comic series that first appeared in 1996. It was very 2000s, as the below opening theme highlights. (This is the original opening. It was changed due to copyright issues.)
Developed by Laeta Elizabeth Kalogridis (Alita: Battle Angel), the show starred Ashley Scott as Helena Kyle a.k.a. Huntress, Dina Meyer as Barbara Gordon a.k.a. Batgirl/Oracle, Rachel Skarsten as Dinah Redmond (Lance), and most importantly, Mia Sara as Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn, the actual first live-action appearance of the character.
The story took place in “New Gotham”—same place new name—which was abandoned by Bruce Wayne for “reasons,” though he is still very much alive (I guess he would agree with the ending of the Nolan trilogy). Helena has taken after her estranged father professionally, becoming a crimefighter, but because, in this universe, her mother, Selena Kyle, was a metahuman, she is also a metahuman with cat-like reflexes. Dinah, rather than having the Canary Cry, has precognitive and telekinetic abilities. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn has taken up the crime world that Mistah J left behind, while also posing as Helena’s psychiatrist. Shemar Moore plays a hot cop.
Despite the series debut garnering ratings of 7.6 million viewers—which, at the time, was the network’s largest premiere in the 18–34 demographic—it was canceled after ratings fell sharply in subsequent weeks. So what went wrong, and as someone who has rewatched the series and proudly owns it on DVD, could it have been saved if the series had been allowed to continue into a season two?
First, let’s talk about the strengths of the show as a unit. I think the cast, overall, is pretty damn good. Anyone who has seen the show will praise Dina Meyer’s performance as Barbara; not only does she feel plucked right from the comic pages, but the series combines the right balance between leader and human being with her character.
Mia Sara’s portrayal of Harley Quinn may not be the bubbly version many are used to, but it’s a version of the character that makes a lot of sense considering she’s trying to use her own mind tricks against her enemies. It gives Harley the chance to be a bad guy in her own way, not inherently linked to the Joker’s “manic” energy. While I’m not a fan of the writing when it comes to Helena or Dinah in this incarnation, Ashley Scott and Rachel Skarsten do bring a lot to the roles themselves.
While clunky at first, the women truly come together to feel like a team and have a lot of love and respect for each other. It helps that it starts with Dinah as an active player, trying to find these two women because of the visions she had as a child. There’s a serious sense of sisterhood and solidarity between the three of them that feels genuine, and that’s something I wish we saw more of in general.
There is no cattiness or competition, just playful banter and a lot of leather. Rewatching the episodes, it struck me how we have a show with three women that have trauma (emotional and physical), but the narrative also allows them to be mature, grow. Helena actually goes to therapy about her issues.
Imagine that—having an anti-hero actually deal with their issues rather than deflecting for seven seasons.
Still, there are problems.
A lot of the problems with the series actually remind me a lot of Arrow—committed to the idea of its protagonists being the biggest, coolest heroes, sometimes at the expense of canon characters, especially if it’s the women themselves.
Let’s start with Barbara.
Initially, the show (mostly) commits to her being Oracle, without any self-hating angst about having a wheelchair. She has a love interest, a life outside of the cowl, and seems very happily adjusted. Plus, it seems like New Gotham, for all its crimes, is ADA compliant, while still allowing her to take up space. The show makes a point that despite how people look at Barbara, she is fine and doesn’t have any regrets.
However, by episode eight, “Lady Shiva,” we see that Barbara is working to find hew technology that will allow her to walk again, which she uses to fight Lady Shiva. Then, we have Lady Shiva, who is one of the greatest fighters of all time, one of the great female baddies in comics, getting her ass handed to her by Barbara with no issue.
Plus, it sucks that they use the Killing Joke origin story for Barbara, when we could have seen her get injured in the line of duty, which could have given her the same injury, but have it based on her own line of work. I know for some people, Barbara returning to Batgirl is a good thing, and in many ways it is, but I think it was also really important to show that a superhero in a wheelchair is still a superhero.
I do not say this because I think Barbara shouldn’t find ways to reclaim her ability to walk, or that there is anything wrong with it, but to quote Lizzy Garcia on her piece about Barbara Gordon, “Erasing Barbara’s disability whether it is for the sake of a good story or not is still disheartening. There is so little disabled representation in comics and to see Barbara being treated so poorly and endued with such an ableist mindset is disappointing.” I wish the writers of the show, when the committed to having Barbara be Oracle, could have also committed to allowing her to continue to adapt to being this new kind of hero without feeling the need to have her walk. But that is only my opinion.
Additionally, the series seems to have a total lack of understanding about the canonical badassery of some characters, which reminded me so much of Arrow’s version of Huntress, who was turned into a “crazy ex-girlfriend” of Oliver and vilified without any attempt to better understand what makes the character interesting. Huntress was an anti-heroine, and Arrow reduced her to a cliche hot-girl psycho. Lady Shiva gets transformed into some basic thief.
Then there’s my girl Dinah (may the Birds of Prey movie give us justice at long last), who is absolutely nothing like her comic book counterpart, other than being a metahuman and being a legacy character. Dinah feels like a character who would be queer in a few years. Her backstory is very similar to Bo from Lost Girl, left with a foster family, taught her powers were evil and left home to find other people “like her.” She grows from a Dawn-like character to become more fleshed out as her powers develop.
Dinah is now an … oracle, who has no real combat knowledge and almost gets assaulted by Jesse from Breaking Bad. Overall, I don’t mind there being a new version of Dinah with different powers, since, after all, Dinah is a legacy character. Plus we do get to see the sonic scream version of the Canary with Dinah’s birth mother, Carolyn, played by Aunt Becky herself, Lori Loughlin. The visual they use for the Canary Cry is trash, and I think that they sort of fail to understand how the character works, even though I think the performance was good. She just dies in a situation that is very unclear and is pretty much forgotten by the next episode, despite all the issues the character brings up.
Plus, the whole story begins with the fridging of Catwoman/Selena Kyle. Apparently, in the future, Batman defeats The Joker in a good old tête-à-tête, and in response to this, Joker decides to take revenge by stabbing Selena Kyle in the street while walking with Helena (sporting her side-ponytail braid of innocence) and also committing the Killing Joke attack on Barbara Gordon. All this is shared through the narration of Alfred, because naturally, in a show about women, we want the male narration to open it up with one of the most sexist moments in comics. At least Mark Hamill voices Joker in these flashbacks.
They make Selena a metahuman who would have cat-like powers, but she can’t detect a person coming up with a knife? Catwoman? Come on, y’all.
Despite all of this, I have weird nostalgia for the series. I watched the whole thing live as it aired, and I think, subconsciously, I wanted to get a tongue ring because Ashley Scott had one on this show. Helena’s costume is terrible, but god do I love it. It’s just like full-body Barb Wire ridiculous, but if my parental makeup was Catwoman and Batman, I’d wear it.
The cliché, bad girl/good guy, girl power stuff really worked for me. I loved the sometimes shallow badassery of it all, and as I rewatched it, I could see all the things that the show wanted to be—especially when it comes to the bond between Helena and Selena, something we never see, but hearing about it from Helena’s point of view perfectly expresses the grief she feels. Plus, I genuinely feel like if it had a better handle of the canon it was working with, it could have been much more. Sometimes these shows want to be about something different than Batman, but get sucked into the Batverse so hard that no one else gets to breathe.
There are also some wonderfully done episodes like “Three Birds and a Baby,” which has Helena rescue an abandoned baby boy who they name “Guy” and find out that Guy is programmed to live his entire life in three days and to kill the first person he attaches to. It turns into a really emotionally episode that makes us realize how cruel Harley is in her own right, for being behind the genetic testing. “Feat of Clay” also does a really good job with the Clayface villain, and the series finale (despite the ableist shit with Barbara) is fun, and they fight to the song “All the Things She Said” by t.A.T.u. in the original version. It was tragically changed later, but my young gay soul knows the truth.
Plus, I really liked the relationship between Reese (Shemar Moore) and Helena. An interracial relationship where the Black partner gets to be an active player and knows the secret identity of their super-powered person within the first season? Groundbreaking, honestly. Also, Reese was never intimidated about having a badass lady in his corner.
A Birds of Prey television show, if it had done well, would have been a big deal. It would have shown that we didn’t need Arrow and The Flash, and then need to put Supergirl on a different network to test it out. It was ahead of the game about handling metahumans, and it managed to have a series with not one, but three superhero women. It had potential. Hell, it brought up the other Robins!
Sadly, it also had really bad CGI, poor stunt choreography, a soundtrack that has aged about as well as low-rise jeans, and couldn’t figure out a balance between campy and serious storytelling—all things that could have been fixed, but meant a lot more in those days when there were already shows like Charmed and Gilmore Girls carrying their female-led show clout.
The series is free to stream on The CW’s free digital-only network, CW Seed, and is also available on DC Universe. I’d highly recommend checking it out if you have the time. Also, after sixteen years, Rachel Skarsten was cast as Big Bad Red Alice in Batwoman. Time is indeed a flat circle.
For those who did once look upon this early ’00s superhero series, what did you think?
[Editor’s Note: I cleaned up the typos and thanks to one commenter I clarified my feelings on Barbara. Thank you for the feedback.]
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