Birds of Prey: Pilot (2002) TV Review

The following review refers to the workprint version, which is not the final print, meaning there is a very good chance the final print — that is, the print that appears on TV — will be (in varying degrees) different from the version reviewed below.

The new upcoming WB TV show “Birds of Prey,” a superhero series about 3 “hot chicks who fights bad guys and saves the world” on a weekly basis, brought up a point at the very beginning that continued to bug me all the way to the very end. It is this: Why is the city that the show takes place in called New Gotham City? Gotham City, as many comic book fans know, is the city where the Cape Crusader (aka Batman) defends the weak from the poor, the innocent from the guilty, etc etc. So, I must ask again — why keep the “Gotham City” part but add a “New” to it? It just doesn’t make sense, especially in light of the show’s liberal use of the comic book universe by referencing all things Batman-related. So why alter the name of the city?

This 1-hour pilot episode (clocking in at 50 minutes sans commercials) tells the tale of the Huntress, aka Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott, last seen in a blink-and-you’ll-miss role in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.”), who joins up with wheelchair bound Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl, played by Dina Meyer (“Starship Troopers”)), to fight crime in New Gotham City. The duo has been at this for a while, and is soon join by psychic Dinah (Rachel Skarsten), a small-town girl who flees to New Gotham City because she had a vision about Barbara and Helena when she was a child. (Hey, makes sense to me. Right?)

“Birds of Prey” the TV series is based on a comic book by DC Comics, the comic book publisher that’s been hugely successful making serialized TV versions of their properties. (The other big DC property is “Smallville,” about Superman’s early, teen days, which is also on the WB Network.) Unlike “Smallville,” “Birds of Prey” is just…awkward. It wants to be so many things, and it comes up short on all of them. Which is a shame, because the series has quite an amazing pedigree.

Consider this selling point: Helena Kyle, aka Huntress, is not only the daughter of Catwoman, but also the illegitimate child of Batman! This means Helena has inherited the fortunes of Batman’s civilian alter ego, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, since Batman (and Bruce) has deserted New Gotham City in favor of greener pastures. The episode never makes mention of where he disappeared to, and Batman only shows up for a brief second or so in flashback (and we only see his back at that). In an effort to further tie Batman with “Birds of Prey,” Alfred, Batman’s faithful manservant, shows up in a cameo.

Because much of “Birds of Prey” was so astonishingly uninteresting to me, I kept wondering why the city has a “New” in front of it, and why everyone keeps pronouncing Helena’s name as “Heh-la-na” rather than “Ha-lee-na.” Mind you, my obsession with the “New”ness of Gotham City and the pronunciation of Helena’s name may seem trivial, but they were the only things that kept me mildly interested! Without these provocative questions, I might have turned this episode off after a reporter character showed up onscreen in the episode’s first minute to give us a convenient rundown of all that’s come before as if she was working for the Batman Channel. (Same Batman Channel, same Batman time!)

All of the above notwithstanding, Dina Meyer gives a very mature and rounded (and not to mention stable) performance as Barbara Gordon, the masked crimefighter turned wheelchair-bound detective. Having been shot by the Joker and paralyzed, Barbara is no longer Batgirl, and has to live vicariously through the too-cool-for-school Helena. Meyer is very good as the detective who is forced to use her mind to fight crime instead of her fists, even though she misses that part of her life dearly. The episode’s most endearing moments concern Barbara trying to come to terms with her own past and failed career as a masked crimefighter. The rest of the episode (and probably the series) becomes excuses to show Ashley Scott’s cleavage.

Which brings us to Ashley Scott and the Helena character. What can I say, except that Helena could not have been anymore tiresome if she tried. Her rebel-without-a-clue act wore out its welcome before the end of the first commercial break. Quite an amazing feat, especially since she’s supposed to be our lead character. (Take a look at the poster and tell me who is the star here.) Worst, Scott has a bad habit of making expressions with her face that leaves very little room for sympathy. (It also makes her quite unattractive, but that’s another point entirely.) Helena is supposed to be macho and tough on the outside but vulnerable on the inside (she saw her mother murdered 7 years ago and has never known her father), but Ashley Scott simply makes Helena not complex or vulnerable, but just, well, painfully unlikable.

The episode’s other problem involves some of the most atrocious one-liners I’ve heard this side of a Roger Corman film. There are some genuinely cringe-inducing lines, leaving me to wonder if the writer got all her lines from comic books or did she actually think these up herself. And then there’s the extremely uninvolving and snooze-inspiring plotting of the episode (something about people committing suicide, or something).

Also, there are exactly two scenes of Helena in action. One involves her beating up (get this) an unarmed kid trying to date rape poor small-town girl (and as all lazy writers are want to make them, also naïve small-town girl) Dinah. After beating up the would-be rapist in (where else but) a dark alley, the Huntress, complete with tiger growling soundtrack, shows up again in the end and…sits down in an armchair while the episode’s villain explains his master plans to her. How James Bondish. Wait, James Bond was never this boring, nevermind.

The only names of note attached to this lazy turkey are Meyer and Sherilyn Fenn (TV’s “Twin Peaks”), who shows up as a (not-very-convincing) psychiatrist that Helena is sentenced to see by the cops because (get this) she got caught while in the progress of (ready?) crimefighting! How did she get caught? Well, being the rebel that she is, Helena refuses to wear a mask while on her crimefighting spree. Or gloves, for that matter, thus leaving prints everywhere, I suppose. Where did this girl go to crimefighting school anyway? (Of course, the real reason she won’t wear a mask has something to do with her hating daddy and mommy, both of who wore masks. But who cares, really?)

Meyer is great as the crippled Batgirl, but as a TV series, “Prey” will mostly work with adolescent boys who might get excited seeing the Huntress running around showing major cleavage and the occasional glimpses of Batgirl in costume (in flashbacks and psychic visions only, of course). There is an attempt by the producers and writer Laeta Kalogridis to make the show appeal to teen girls with the Dinah character, but like Kalogridis’ attempt to write a superhero show, the character is just bland and lazy.

The only thing that would make this series work is if the producers decided to turn the whole thing into a superhero spoof ala Pamela Anderson’s “V.I.P.” Otherwise, “Birds of Prey” will be just another embarrassing show trying to capitalize on the whole superhero trend, as well as the Chicks That Kicks Ass fad currently sweeping the networks at the moment.


Below is not a review of the pilot episode, only comments regarding the differences (if there are any) between the televised version shown today and the workprint version I reviewed 3 months earlier – Updated on 10/09/02.

There were some changes, but not enough to make this show any more palatable. Sherilyn Fenn has been replaced by an actress whose name I don’t know, and the opening sequence features voiceover narration by Alfred instead of the very fake “reporter on the street” used in the workprint.

With the replacement of Fenn, the sequences between Helena and Quinn have been reshot. I believe additional dialogue have also been added in an attempt to make Helena more sympathetic. Or perhaps someone just told Scott that she shouldn’t be such an unlikable jerk the first time we see her.

The alley scene where Helena saves Dinah from a would-be rapist has not been retouched, and Helena still moves around with her own personal animal soundtrack, such as tigers growling and other such nonsense. The dialogue that made me cringe in the workprint is still present, and the show continues to try way too hard to be “hip” and “cool” and “irreverent.” It doesn’t work even once. Every time Helena talks about “the forces of evil” and “bad guys” I felt my finger slipping closer and closer toward the remote. I am a tremendous fan of superhero movies and comic books, but “Birds of Prey”‘s “hipness” is not endearing it to me. I suspect it won’t be endearing to anyone else.

The pilot clocks in at an awkward 70 minutes, and besides the reshoots involving the new Quinn and Alfred’s voiceover, the episode remains relatively unchanged. Ashley Scott (as Helena) continues to be abrasive and an irritant as her head bobs from side to side as she does her best “I’m too cool for school” routine (over and over again, natch). Meyer continues to be the best thing about the show and Rachel Skarsten, as Dinah, remains bland. There is no action to make one stand up and notice unless you consider Scott’s cleavage gawking for the audience as action. The best scenes in the episode are ones where the Helena character is missing, which should speak volumes.

All in all, “Birds of Prey” remains a terrible bore and the casting of Scott, as the series lead, remains a major reason not to watch. Why does Scott think smirking at everything is “acting”?

(All the above being said, I’m still puzzled why the daughter of Batman and Catwoman has superpowers such as augmented strength and vision. Batman and Catwoman were normal humans who, though they had exceptional athletic ability, were not superpowered (or metas, as the show calls them). While parental genes may transfer over to the child, how in the world did the child grow up to become imbued with superpowers? The pilot never bothers to address this question, and perhaps it’s for the best since any explanation would just make this series seem more preposterous than it already is.

CAST: Ian Abercrombie …. Alfred
Ashley Scott …. Helena Kyle
Dina Meyer …. Barbara Gordon
Rachel Skarsten …. Dinah Laurel
Shemar Moore …. Jake Reese
Sherilyn Fenn …. Doctor Harley Quinn
Mark Hamill …. Joker
Bruce Thomas …. Batman

Buy Birds of Prey on DVD