Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Monday, October 14, 2002

Okay, so it's been more than a few days since I've written anything. Chalk it up to working nine days in a row. When I finally got time off, I just didn't feel like writing anything. (Some days it flows better than others, you know?) I had actually started an aborted rant about Ain't It Cool News last week, but it felt like too much griping that would only result in my paying too much attention to a bunch of geeks. So it never went anywhere. Tonight, though, I'm in the mood to talk about TV and stuff (which tangentially touches on some of what I was going to say about Ain't It Cool News, but in a less intense way). And there's some brief political stuff at the end, but you can skip that if you like.

First, Birds of Prey. Now, this isn't going to be a review of this new show on the WB, because I haven't actually seen it yet. It premiered last Wednesday night, and I work Wednesday nights, and it's on in the same time slot as White House drama The West Wing. Now, I've been watching The West Wing since the very first episode, and love it. I even own the first season on DVD. No way was I going to miss one of the best shows on TV.

But Birds of Prey... First, some background: I don't remember where I first encountered Batman. It would have either been reruns of the 60's Batman TV series starring Adam West or in episodes of the cartoon Superfriends. Either way, he must have made a strong impression on me, because while I occasionally drift away from the character and all his assorted, related comics, I always find myself coming back. And without getting into the realm of too much information, Batgirl, as played by Yvonne Craig made quite an impression on my young mind. A few years later, so did Black Canary, the superpowered girlfriend of ace comic book superhero archer Green Arrow. (I'm sure it was the fishnet stockings; Zatanna had similar appeal.) In the comics, Barbara "Batgirl" Gordon was ultimately shot by the Joker and lost the use of her legs, but this didn't end her superhero career. Trapped in a wheelchair, she became the superhero networking agent/information clearinghouse known as Oracle. At some point in the mid-nineties, writer Chuck Dixon brought Oracle and Black Canary together as a team, starring in their own comic book, Birds of Prey. The comic quickly became one of my favorites, between Dixon's skill at balancing characterization and action, and his decision to have the series read more like a non-powered action-adventure book instead of a superheroes-vs-supervillains comic. It was the sort of comic that seemed like it could be turned into a TV series without much trouble. And now it has.

So, my dilemma: The West Wing or Birds of Prey? It seemed like a fairly easy choice. I had been watching The West Wing for the past three years, and it had won my loyalty. Birds of Prey sounded intriguing, and I loved the characters, but it wasn't an exact adaptation of the comic (set in the future, the Black Canary character is now a teenager named Dinah--the Canary's real name--the comic book character Huntress is a series regular, but she's the daughter of Batman and Catwoman like in her original origin, not her current, revised one, blah blah blah), it was getting mixed reviews, and I can only watch so much TV. As the premiere date grew closer, however, I felt like I was deliberately snubbing an old friend, so I asked a friend at work to tape it for me. She did, but I haven't had a chance to watch it yet. I did, however, get home that evening, in time to see the last 20 or so minutes of the show. And I've decided that I'd rather watch it than The West Wing.

When I turned on the TV, the first thing I saw was the image of Batgirl. And I knew then that I'd rather be watching this show. It's got nothing to do with the relative quality of the shows; from what I can tell, The West Wing is still a better-made television program. But what I saw of Birds of Prey wasn't particularly bad. Yes, the dialogue is a bit melodramatic, and the sets and characters and direction are very stylized in the same hyper-surreal vein as the Batman movies. Which, of course, is a problem, because if there's one thing I look for in a TV show set in the future of a world where a man dresses up as a flying rodent to fight a clown, it's realism... But the thing is, I don't care about its shortcomings. I don't care that, on an objective level, The West Wing is almost certainly a better show. What I care about is this: I love the Batman comics. I have a great deal of emotional attachment to them, and I enjoy the feelings that I experience when reading them. Seeing Batgirl, Batman, the Huntress, Harley Quinn, and this world that I know so well come to life on my TV screen prompted the same reaction. And as much as I enjoy The West Wing on an intellectual level, it doesn't reach me in quite the same way. So, my inclination--and remember, I haven't seen a whole episode of Birds of Prey yet--is to watch Birds instead of The West Wing. Crazy as that sounds.

So here's what I'm thinking about: we have these critically-reviled but popular shows like, say, JAG (another personal favorite, but one I can't watch because it's on at the same time as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls, and I refuse to get a second VCR so I can watch that much more TV). Is it the case that the critics are right, that the huge masses of people who watch and enjoy these shows are dull-witted sheep who don't have the sense to realize that what they're watching isn't very good? Or, is it possible, just maybe, that those audiences are looking for something else in those shows, something the critics don't get? I'm not saying that television shouldn't be good. But I didn't see anything in those few minutes of Birds of Prey to drive me away, either. More importantly, it connected with me on a level quite separate from acting, writing, direction, whatever, in a way that The West Wing doesn't quite equal. And that's something I wouldn't have known if I hadn't seen it. It's something no review would ever have been able to tell me.

Okay, here's the brief political bit: I'm pretty sickened by Congress's capitulation on this whole letting the criminal Bush have his way with Iraq thing. I swear, real-world politics shouldn't feel this much like watching Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. (If that makes no sense, the movie comes out on video next month; rent it, watch it, think about it, then ask me to explain if you still don't get it. I'm tired.) Well, apparently I'm not the only one turning away from The West Wing, and I suspect the reason for the show's declining ratings is this: compare Martin Sheen's President Bartlett to what we've got in the real world. Personally, if I'm going to watch a show that's a complete and utter work of fantasy, I'd rather it be about a hot chick fighting crime in a bustier.