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No muscles, no bodices, no formulas

TV finally does a comic book tale justice with Birds of Prey, which reworks an obscure part of the Batman legend.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 9, 2002


I always knew this day would come.

The idea first surfaced during my time as a young comic book fan. Poking through mind-bending, action-packed stories told on a galactic scale, I wondered: Why don't we see more of this on TV?

CBS's 1978 series The Incredible Hulk? Formulaic and simplistic, little more than a showcase for Bill Bixby's good-guy routines and Lou Ferrigno's muscles. ABC and CBS's 1976 series Wonder Woman? Just an excuse for Lynda Carter to show off her curves in a tight bodice and funky headband.

Back then, comic book characters were still lightweight cartoons. It would be years before visionaries such as Alan Moore (The Watchmen), Frank Miller (Daredevil, The Dark Knight) and Todd McFarlane (Spawn) pushed comics into a darker, more realistic place.

Then came films such as Tim Burton's Batman, The Matrix and Wesley Snipes' Blade, and two box-office busting comic book forays: X-Men and Spider-Man.

Suddenly, comic books (now called by the cool name "graphic novels") weren't just for kids. And the WB proved last year with its hit Superboy reinvention, Smallville, that what works on the big screen can work on the small one, too.

Which brings us to the WB's Birds of Prey, TV's most unabashedly comic book-y series in a long while.

The backstory is complex: Beautiful newcomer Ashley Scott plays Helena Kyle, a streetwise hero whose mother is super-criminal Catwoman and whose father is Batman. She is orphaned when Batman's longtime foe the Joker kills her mother. (Batman, who didn't know he had a daughter, skips town shortly after corralling Joker for the murder.)

Before his capture, Joker also shot Barbara Gordon (Starship Troopers' Dina Meyer), who fought alongside Batman as Batgirl, paralyzing her from the waist down. Turns out that Kyle is a "metahuman" gifted with catlike strength and agility, and she works with Gordon (a wheelchair-using technology expert called Oracle) to fight crime as a hero dubbed the Huntress.

Confused yet? The WB was; it released a tangled initial pilot to critics featuring guest star Sherilyn Fenn, whose subsequent departure forced reshoots.

Tonight's reworked debut unfolds more slowly, introducing a psychically gifted girl, Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten), who is drawn to the Huntress and Oracle after seeing the Joker's attacks on them in a vision. (Fun fact: Star Wars alum Mark Hamill voices the Joker's maniacal lines.)

As the three unravel a series of mysterious deaths in gloomy New Gotham City -- maneuvering around a suspicious cop played by former Young and the Restless heartthrob Shemar Moore -- they bond into a dysfunctional superhero family ready for loads of future fun.

Like a good comic book, Birds of Prey borrows liberally from predecessors. Fans of UPN's Buffy the Vampire Slayer will recognize the self-aware, cynical jokes that ease the inherent silliness of people jumping around dark hallways and rooftops in their underwear. ("This place is supposed to be secret," Oracle shouts when Lance stumbles on her clock tower hideaway. "That's the whole point of a secret lair.")

Eventually, metahumans will emerge as a second-class, hidden citizenry of sorts, like the mutants in X-Men. The Huntress' flowing, black leather coat echoes The Matrix's knack for superhero costumes way cooler than the traditional spandex and cape.

Showing brief glimpses of an in-costume Batman, Batgirl and Catwoman, it counters Smallville's aversion to the trappings of traditional superhero stuff. Still, Birds of Prey treads lightly, riding a fine line between gritty action and sci-fi fantasy last seen on Fox's canceled Dark Angel.

It adds up to an intriguing mix of Buffy-style, female-centered action that handily reinvents a little-known corner of the Batman legend. It's heaven on earth for us comic book fans who always knew TV was up to this task.

TV REVIEW

Birds of Prey debuts tonight at 9 on WTTA-Ch. 38. Grade: B. Rating: TV-14.

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