ICYMI: Birds of Prey Was The WB’s Sexy, Girl-Powered Counterpart to Smallville

That Was Its Blessing and Curse

TV Features Birds of Prey
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ICYMI: <i>Birds of Prey</i> Was The WB&#8217;s Sexy, Girl-Powered Counterpart to <i>Smallville</i>

In the fall of 2001, The WB had a hit on its hands with the debut of its superhero origin series, Smallville. Telling the story of a young Clark Kent (Tom Welling)—who started off as best friends with a pre-heel-turn Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum)—Smallvillepremiered to 8.4 million viewers, setting the record for the network’s highest-rated series debut ever. Today, this would be grounds for a connected spin-off.

Instead, Smallville executive producers Mike Tollin, Brian Robbins, and Joe Davola followed up Smallville with Birds of Prey. Instead of involving Smallville showrunners Al Gough, Miles Millar or anyone who wrote for Smallville at all, it was developed by Laeta Kalogridis (now known for Shutter Island, Alita: Battle Angel and Altered Carbon). She was fired from the show after the original pilot was shot but remained credited as an executive producer. Of her experience on Birds of Prey—the first project she’s credited for on IMDB, having worked on unproduced feature film assignment work prior—Kalogridis told The Hollywood Reporter:

Birds of Prey was a project that I loved from a comic book perspective, but I also found that I did not understand or appreciate the difference in sheer volume between network television and movies. Say you’ve got about nine months to make about 22 hours of filmed entertainment, versus about maybe two years to make two hours of filmed entertainment. Like a great many other feature writers, I did not have a real understanding of the way that the beast had to be fed in order for that process to work optimally creatively. So I learned a huge amount on that show.”

Birds of Prey was also a far darker approach to the loose adaptation of DC Comics source material than Smallville. It was also more interested in actually being a comic-book show, in its own canon-breaking way. Set in the understandably darker New Gotham City—a revamped version of the typical Batman playground of Gotham City, due to an earthquake that destroyed all of Old Gotham and sent it underground—two of its lead characters were already accomplished superheroes who were comfortable with that role and the third character was the fish out of water who wanted to join in on that superhero lifestyle. While Smallville refered to metahumans as “freaks” until about its fifth season, Brids of Prey referred to them as “metas” from the very beginning. The series’ heroic line-up consisted of Oracle/Barbara Gordon fka Batgirl (Dina Meyer), Huntress/Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott), and Dinah Redmond/Lance (Rachel Skarsten, who was actually 16 years old when she was cast). In the comics, Dinah Lance was Black Canary, but—in addition to the change of making Helena a meta and also going the comic Earth-2 route of her being the daughter of Selina Kyle (Catwoman) and Bruce Wayne (Batman)— The WB’s Birds of Prey made Dinah a telepathic, telekinetic meta, later revealing that her mother Carolyn (Lori Loughlin, who only now as a convicted felon has the street cred to pull off the leather jacket she wore in the series) was the real Black Canary. As the voiceover by Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ian Abercrombie) before every episode explained:

“Legend tells of a caped crusader, Batman, guardian of New Gotham, and his one true love, Catwoman, the queen of the criminal underworld. Their passion left behind something extraordinary: a daughter, Huntress. Half metahuman, she has taken up her father’s mantle and fights to protect the innocent and helpless. Joining her in this struggle: Oracle, once Batman’s protégé, Batgirl, she was caught in the crossfire of the war between Batman and Joker. Now she fights crime a different way, a master of the cyber-realms and trainer to heroes. Together, they have taken in Dinah, a metahuman herself, with powers that she is only beginning to explore. These three are the protectors of New Gotham: the Birds of Prey. My name is Alfred Pennyworth and this is their story.”

Watching the pilot with 2019 eyes,it’s a disappointing beginning for what would become a solid series about women. After the post-introduction fridging of Selina Kyle and the “Batman: The Killing Joke” origin of Barbara’s paralysis, there’s an attempted sexual assault on Dinah (by a character notably played by Aaron Paul) and Helena being drugged (with her mind then invaded) by an older man she trusts. In a 2019, #MeToo context and a strong desire to get away from the type of “empowerment” that would be seen in a movie like Suckerpunch, it didn’t make for a fun rewatch, other than the moment that Huntress told Detective Reese (Shemar Moore), “I am the weapon.”

Actually, the other highlights of that particular viewing were the very 2002 music cues (Oasis’ “Stop Crying Your Heart Out,” Michelle Branch’s “All You Wanted”) and the fact that, visually, the episode was at its best when it was doing something that actually was ahead of its time: the black and white, noir world in which the villain of the week navigated victims’ subconscious, which was very Sin City before the movie adaptation of the graphic novel came out in 2005.

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However, rewatching the rest of the series left a better taste in my mouth, even though Birds of Prey, admittedly, went to the early aughts, Charmed and Charlie’s Angels school of feminism and girl power, specially when it came to the characters’ wardrobes—specifically Helena/Huntress and Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn (Mia Sara). This was very clear in the case of Helena/Huntress, as the only difference between her everyday wardrobe and her superhero wardrobe was that the latter was all black. (Dinah dressed very much like a normal teen, and that only changed once she officially became a sidekick and got her own leather for out in the field.) In the episode “Split,” it opened with Huntress wearing what can only be considered sexy Angel (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) cosplay… only for Kristoffer Polaha, of all WB and one-season show staples, to show up in the same Angel cosplay, right down to the leather pants.

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(Birds of Prey would have been better served finding inspiration for its fight scenes from Buffy and other pioneers like Alias instead of hewing to the era-appropriate wire-fu.)

Also very of-the-time were all of Helena/Huntress’ quips both in and out of the field, which were often the bare minimum of girl power and “women can do things too;” but Ashley Scott pulled them off as best as anyone could, an integral part of the role working in the first place. Scott came off of a series-regular role on Dark Angel to lead this series, and to this day, it’s baffling how she didn’t become the big deal that she was clearly set out to be—or at least get to play another kickass character. At the same time, the series’ more grounded approach to sisterhood—not even in the generic, broad sense, but specifically between the Birds of Prey—worked completely and was easily the strongest aspect of the series. Most of the episodes ended with clocktower balcony talks between either two or all three of the Birds, which became such a familiar part of the series that episodes that didn’t end with the balcony talks (or at least the girls together) just felt wrong. And while Helena and Dinah naturally had the big-sister/little-sister rivalry vibe, Dina Meyer had a difficult task in pulling off the de facto matriarch as the eldest “sibling”—on top of all of her issues transitioning from working out in the field as Batgirl to working from the clocktower as Oracle. Meyer plays Barbara with level-headedness and poise that honestly just scream learned superhero, to the point that, much like Scott, it’s absurd this didn’t become a go-to type of role for her. And as Barbara struggled to regain the ability to walk, it was a credit to the writing that they didn’t play her resentment about being in a wheelchair.

Because of how it failed after Smallville’s success and the way the superhero genre has evolved in both television and film, Birds of Prey is regularly looked back on as a complete dud. But low ratings or early cancellation has never been an actual indicator of quality. And reinterpreting the comic source material can be justified if there’s a compelling story created as a result. Birds of Prey was a competent episodic television show, with enough serialized moments to keep an ongoing thread: the cat and mouse of the Birds of Prey looking for the new female crime boss and Harley looking for the mysterious female vigilante thwarting her plans; Huntress and Reese’s relationship; Barbara perfecting her machine to walk again; the No Man’s Land—a hat tip to the comics—locale. In my ICYMI about DC&#8217s Legends of Tomorrow, I noted how Legends has succeeded in presenting itself as a modern take on the syndicated episodic television series. Birds of Prey actually had that same syndicated episode presentation, which was actually its real issue, even more than its deviation from the source material.

To elaborate, while the music and style all screamed 2002, the story structure and its approach in that sense instead screamed mid-to-late ‘90s, if not earlier. Because of the Batman inspiration of it all, Birds of Prey went with the mystery approach to its stories, which, while structurally sound, rarely led to any real surprises for the audience. You could see pretty much every villain-of-the-week twist coming a mile away—whether it’s the old best friend who just returned to town or the invisible nerd who everyone picked on in high school or the “too good to be true” vigilante who’s inextricably linked to the villain—even though the episodes themselves are still entertaining. It was still cheesy on top of its general darkness, but considering its comic-book origin—and even having Mark Hamill voice the Joker—that wasn’t exactly a negative. But despite not getting past 13 episodes, Birds of Prey still managed to tell a pretty complete story.

That structure made Birds of Prey more generic than its look would suggest. While Birds of Prey was definitely an early-aughts look at what was considered sexy, that also at least made it different from pretty much every other superhero property: It actually wanted to be sexy. Smallville couldn’t be sexy, because especially in its first two seasons, it was predominantly a family show. (And “sexy” episodes like “Nicodemus” and “Heat” are still laughable.) This doesn’t necessarily mean that Birds of Prey f**ked, but in its 13 episodes, it was definitely able to round third. For example, as frustrating as Huntress and Reese’s will-they-won’t-they flirtation could be in terms of moving the story along, by the time she finally revealed her true self to him in “Reunion,” it was almost impossible not to be all in on the pairing and its sweetness… Almost, because there was also the sexual tension between Harley and Helena throughout the show as well. No, not Harley and Huntress: From their very first therapy session, long before Harley even knows Helena’s secret, the tension is there.

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While it would be easy to assume that the chemistry between Mia Sara—who made a meal out of every Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn scene in the series, while also bringing something new to the Harley Quinn character—and Ashley Scott is one of those things that just kind of happened, not something that was on the page, by the end of the series, Harley is licking Helena, so no, it was intentional. Because while Huntress and Reese was the chaste will-they-won’t-they story of the series, Helena and Harley was clearly the more charged cat-and-mouse story. Given the era in which it aired, chances are incredibly slim that the show would’ve gone in the direction of a Harley/Helena relationship—due to The WB’s shoddy representation when it came to LGBTQ+ characters, on top of the story point that Harley still only really had eyes for “Mr. J” (the Joker)—but it served as an interesting parallel to the Catwoman/Batman relationship of the series’ origin story. The big fight scene in the series finale brought this all—the Harley/Helena relationship, the distillation of Birds of Prey’s era-specific approach to girl power and fight choreography—together, all while even more appropriately being set to t.A.T.u.’s “All The Things She Said” (which is unfortunately replaced in home video releases and streaming):

In hindsight, the most impressive part about Birds of Prey is 16/17-year-old Rachel Skarsten. Skarsten has since made a habit of stealing the show in every series she’s in, whether it’s Lost Girl, Reign, Imposters, or now, the Arrowverse’s Batwoman. In Birds of Prey, she arguably had the hardest role, as the fish-out-of-water teen in a WB series that was simply not a teen show. Surprisingly, the series rarely focused on Dinah’s stories through the context of “teen drama,” with the only episode (“Lady Shiva”) that focused on her high school life—and considering the fact that Barbara was also a teacher at the high school, very little attention really was paid to the setting—doing so as a way to show how she could abuse her powers if she didn’t think things through. The Dinah storylines were more concerned with her sisterhood and eventual partnership with Helena, development of her quickly-growing powers, processing how her legendary superhero mother could abandon her, and handling her rage in order to harness her power than any other teen drama that would’ve been front and center on a show more like Smallville. As the Robin to Helena’s Batman, Birds of Prey could’ve easily made the character either too precocious or too annoying (very Dawn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and that never happened, instead choosing not to insult the character’s intelligence and, as a result, not insult its young audience’s intelligence either.

Considering The WB at the time though, the lack of teen drama storylines for the Dinah character arguably did more harm to the show than good—in terms of viewership, not quality. However, unlike Smallville, Birds of Prey was a more adult show from the jump, even with Dinah being the audience surrogate—taking the bus into New Gotham—to start things off. But there was no relationship drama for her, as the will-they-won’t-they relationship of the series was Huntress and Reese, and the other (far less interesting) relationship—that led to a rare case of male fridging—was between Barbara and Wade (Shawn Christian), a fellow teacher at New Gotham High School. While Dinah was the newbie to this world, Helena/Huntress was quite easily the lead and central figure of the show. And in terms of the dichotomy between both Helena and Huntress, Birds of Prey also touched on the unusual fact that, unlike her parents and unlike Clark Kent once he’d finally become Superman, Huntress’ lack of mask meant that she didn’t have a secret identity. (This was an addressed issue from the very beginning, as she was doing reconnaissance as Huntress when she was spotted by someone who knew her as Helena. It was also the reason why she avoided telling Reese anything but her codename.) This provided several issues of identity crisis for the character—on top of her struggles with being half-human and half-meta, as well as not learning until after he’d long disappeared and her mother had died that Bruce Wayne/Batman was her father—as she had to figure out where Helena ended and Huntress began, and vice versa.

Of course, Birds of Prey only lasted one season—13 episodes, to be exact. The series premiered as a hit, with 7.6 million viewers… and then it just kept plummeting. After premiering in October of 2002, it was canceled in November, a week after “Sins of the Mother” (the Lori Loughlin episode) aired. The rest of the episode were, however, allowed to air. At the same time, Smallville’s second season ratings were only growing, so it seemingly proved to The WB that they were doing something right on at least one loose comic-book adaptation. Even though, Birds of Prey was doing things right too, just differently, within the confines of the era’s idea of what it meant to be a strong woman (though not the worst approach to it), and without the ratings to back it up.

Birds of Prey was very much a product of its time, and there’s no telling where it would have landed had it gotten a lengthy run like Smallville or Charmed or even had it gotten just one more season to work the episodic kinks out or draw more comic-book inspiration. (For all the complaints about its divergence from the comic, it did an episode with a live-action Clayface, the nerdiest thing a show could’ve done in 2002.) It got further than The WB’s second attempt at capitalizing on Smallville’s success, Aquaman (fka Mercy Reef). With Aquaman in 2006, The WB actually went with a closer approach to a true spin-off (but still not quite there), after the success of the Season 5 Smallville episode “Aqua” (the highest-rated episode of that season). This time around, Aquaman was even developed by Smallville’s Gough and Millar and directed by long-time Smallville director Greg Beeman. But despite looking like an easy win, the merger of The WB and UPN into The CW led to it not being picked up; it subsequently ended up on iTunes for purchase, becoming the #1 most downloaded show on iTunes for a time. Justin Hartley—who played Arthur Curry/Aquaman in the pilot, replaced Alan Ritchson (who now plays Hawk on DC Universe’s Titans) from the Smallville episode—would go on to play Oliver Queen/Green Arrow on Smallville (while Ritchson then remained Aquaman) from Season 6 all the way to the end. Yes, despite the pilot only existing because of the success of the episode, The WB still wanted to ignore what made it successful in the first place and make sure not to make it a true Smallville spin-off. The multiverse truly is a vast and mysterious thing; only unlike in 2002, now it’s allowed to be acknowledged as such.

Which brings us to 2019, with The CW’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” Arrowverse crossover events. The five-episode, six-show crossover—with Black Lightning Season 3’s ninth episode, sandwiched in between “Part 2” (Batwoman) and “Part 3” (The Flash), actually being far more integral to the crossover than anyone could’ve imagined—started on Sunday, December 8 (“Part 1,” Supergirl). It returns on January 14, with Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow as “Part 4” and “Part 5,” respectively. The crossover, based on the DC Comics story of the same name, follows the Arrowverse as it handles the destruction of the multiverse at the hands of the Anti-Monitor. A crossover of this magnitude not only would’ve been unheard of back in the day of Birds of Prey, it would’ve become a joke at had it been even attempted during Smallville’s much more successful 10-season run.

But back in September of 2019, it was reported that Ashley Scott would be reprising her role as Huntress in the crossover, in one of the biggest casting surprises. From The WB not officially spinning off its hit comic book series for fear of being too comic book-y to Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim including characters and actors from DC Comics television and film properties outside of their own network-dominating Arrowverse for the crossover on The CW, 17 years later. Scott reprised the role of Huntress in the opening of “Part 3,” hopping from rooftop to rooftop (her specialty) while on the comms with Oracle (Dina Meyer also reprising her role, through voice alone) once again, in the final moments before their Earth (Earth-203) was destroyed. After fully rewatching Birds of Prey and watching this moment unfold, it was even more heartbreaking than it even intended to be; but it also fit right with the heart of Birds of Prey, which all started with Huntress and Oracle and now all ends with Huntress and Oracle. As brief as it was, Birds of Prey was given one last moment to be remembered, hopefully in a more positive light.


Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.

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