With the DC film on the way it seems like a perfect time to look at the CWs second attempt at a DC Comics TV series adaptation after Smallville!
The series takes place in an established superhero city of New Gotham. In a final battle with the Joker, Batman vanishes. Now former Batgirl, Barbra Gordon, Batman and Catwoman’s daughter Helena Kyle, and psychic Dinah Lance work together to solve the mysteries of New Gotham.
Since this is an 18 year old show I am just going to detail each episode. It is only 13 episodes long and is not as taxing as if I were to do that with a modern CWverse series.
With all that said:
Episode one gives us the setup. Dinah comes to Gotham, Helena and Barbra try to solve a string of suicides. Dinah joins them by using her psychic powers. We get the dynamic. Helena being brooding about the death of her mother and loss of her father, Dinah looking for a place, Reese a detective from New Gotham PD tries to discover what is going on at night, and head doctor at Arkham Asylum Harleen Quinzel is trying to uncover something, and using villains to do it.
Episode two shows our heroes going up against a thief who can turn into water. Meanwhile Dinah gets ready for school but she has a mysterious background, Helena finished therapy, Barbara gets ready for a date with a teacher at her school, and Harleen Quinzel explains that she wants revenge for them locking her puddin’, Joker up.
Episode three finds the team tracking a meta-human serial killer. Reece finds out metas exist. Dinah skips school. Barbara meets the teacher’s (Wade) parents, and meta humans are used as an allegory for something. I say something because the show can’t decide if it’s civil rights or gay rights.
Episode four finds the birds taking care of a baby after Helena rescues him from an attack. Meanwhile Harleen hires mercenaries to retrieve the baby, who was genetically manipulated to age quickly.
Episode five Dinah’s mom, the legendary Black Canary, comes to town in search of her runaway. News of the Canary’s return reaches the criminal underworld and they send men to seek revenge for her meddling. During this Helena and Reece become a closer couple, and a secret from Reece’s past is revealed. This isn’t the spot to nitpick, but I’ll do it again by saying that the closed captions call the Black Canary “Caroline” even though her name is Carolyn or Carolin. If Caroline is a possible spelling, it is confusing cause that’s not how the English language works.
Episode six shows Helena and Reese working together to take down a group of bank robbers from the inside, but Helena might be enjoying it too much. Barbara gets serious with her Wade. Dinah gets back to training, but her emotions are getting the better of her following the conclusion of the last episode.
Episode seven has Reese and Helena butting heads over their ideas of justice, just in time for a dreamy new vigilante to come onto the scene. While they fight crime a human goliath begins abducting and killing women. To help with the case, assistant district attorney Lynne, Reese’s old flame comes into the picture.
Episode eight, eight years ago Barbara accidentally blew up an apartment complex and killed Lady Shiva. In the present, Helena meets an old high school friend just in time for a killer who used Lasy Shiva’s weapon to hit the streets. Meanwhile Dinah gets a lesson in using her powers.
Episode nine Mitch Pileggi shows up as part of the mob family from episode five just in time to get Valentines Day Massacred. Only he somehow managed to get away. Now New Gotham’s biggest criminal is on the run, and needs protection. Reese meets up with his father, and Dinah wants revenge.
Episode ten has someone abducting meta humans to fight in gladiatorial combat. Dinah is getting frustrated that she’s not being taken seriously. We find out New Gotham was built atop the ruins of Gotham City after it was wrecked by an earthquake.
Episode eleven has Helena’s high school reunion come, and someone is killing off her former classmates. Barbara meets Wade’s parents, and they say how Wade and her won’t work. The Birds tell Helena to reveal her not-secret identity to Reese.
Episode twelve picks up with Helena and Harleen’s therapy meetings. Helena says she’s much happier now. At a warehouse, a guy drinks chemicals and get clay powers and becomes Clayface, only this is not the first one. Helena talks to the original and secrets are revealed. Stress comes between the team and Barbara as she has to call of a trip to the Bahamas with Wade and Alfred has to make a decision.
Episode thirteen feels like a finale. We see Dr Quinzel use her discovery in the previous episode to put a plan in motion. Dr Quinzel hypnotizes Helena to give her information which Harleen uses take control of Helena and ruin the life she’s built to start her plans. The series ends a surprise death, the villain takes the layer, a big showdown, and a fully completed character arc.
The show looks like Tim Burton tried to make Batman for 13 weeks in a row with $1.25 and spent 75 cents of it on licensing the incidental music each episode. It uses some Reboot level CG for a lot of the city, and scene transitions while having very cheap physical sets. The heroic props are all look like the toy version of a Power Rangers weapon, and covered in glow sticks. This is shown well in the Gladiator episode where the ring is clearly set up in a very cramped warehouse, with some cool lights and small bleachers. There is no coverage and shots are cramp. The only standout is the watchtower they set up shop it feels the closest to being from the comic and well represented on a TV budget. The incidental music meanwhile somehow gets acts like Maroon 5, Oasis (the Wonderwall people), Meredith Brooks, Michelle Branch, and Avril Lavigne. Those names are dated now, but where huge stars who shaped music in the 2000s. They match the atmosphere of being a female driven goth/punk aesthetic.
The writing also feels like it was done for another dollar. The dialogue is riddled full of cliches so predictable I could predict whole conversation near verbatim. The love interest and romantic relationships are so trite that I wished they were just removed. The plotting is also not real engaging. It’s mostly episodic with some over arcing plot worked in to drive the episode. It is not bad, but doesn’t even match first season Buffy the Vampire Slayer in terms of spicing up the formula.
On the acting front I am not sure if it is a chicken and the egg situation, or just not good. With the writing not being stellar it limits the actor ability and put them all on the same level. Ashely Scott as Helena gets the most to do as the brooding loner, but the development she received throughout the series didn’t impact the performance she was giving. This goes similar for Dina Meyer’s Barbara, and Rachel Skarsten’s Dinah. They both get some development but all feel so wooden.
We even get an Alfred in this show. He’s played by Ian Abercrombie and is really solid. He doesn’t get a lot to do even by Alfred standards, but he’s dry, witty, and insightful. All the things an Alfred needs.
The biggest surprise is Shemar Moore showing up a couple years early to play Jesse Reese, the police detective. Shemar Moore explodes with Criminal Minds a few years after. He is fine here, but is clear he’s got that potential to be great.
Mia Sara’s Dr. Harleen Quinzel is the standout. She absolutely loves playing a poorly written Hannibal Lecter from Hannibal. She chews every scene, has so much going on behind the eyes, and has this smile that can transition from pleasant to psychotic in an instant. She really puts in the work to try and pull off that psychological manipulation against all sides. I appreciate the effort and fun she is having. It makes her scenes wonderful even if they don’t save the show.
I appreciate just how comic book this starts out as. We get a Batman, Catwoman, Joker, a whole Bat-Family, the No Man’s Land Saga, and allusions to a rouges gallery all in the setup to episode one. Even the big DC CW show don’t have that kind of feeling. It is a shame the series wastes all that setup to do very little actual comic book material. We get a Batgirl costume and it is really solid and straight off the page only for Oracle not to use it. That makes narrative sense, but feels like a waste. Similarly, seeing a Black Canary, Clayface, and Lady Shiva shows that the series had potential. The final two episodes have a real comic book feel to them, but the rest of the show didn’t. It has all that setup to say all of the information we learned is so far underground and not known that a New Gotham detective hasn’t even heard of Batman, and spends its time making new characters that are unmemorable. I guess I like that more than adapting more characters and making them boring. It just feels lame to have a whole universe to play with and then just make your own thing.
Now, none of this is good per se, but it doesn’t bore me like it should. I think the secret is just the earnest of the production. The show really does try to push our heroes, have an engaging narrative, look like a gothic series, and feel like a comic book. It wants to be all of that, but doesn’t succeed.
I think the series could have grown into a better series if it had gotten a chance to continue. My main evidence is that Melissa Rosenberg worked on the series. That name might sound familiar. She was show runner of Jessica Jones (2/3 of that show was really, really), the good half of Dexter, and wrote The Twilight films (no one is perfect. Everyone needs to pay the mortgage). She grew into a great writer and if this show was on it is possible to see that growth in real time. I also could totally be speaking out of the half of my body that shouldn’t talk. We will never know what this show could be. I just know that series is cheap, shallow, and splashing about in that plastic yard pool like it was the water park.
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