Batwoman” (Sundays, CW) is the 17th current show produced by Greg Berlanti – that’s not a joke for the sake of exaggeration, he really does produce 17 shows that are currently on the air – and it’s as straight down the middle as all the others. Bruce Wayne’s cousin, Kate Kane/Batwoman (Ruby Rose), arrives as a slickly packaged superhero, perfectly filling out her suit – tailored by Luke Fox (son of Lucius, I imagine) – and ready to kick butt alongside The CW’s other DC superheroes (This is series No. 6).
As much as “Batwoman” steps into an established universe, this is the actually the first Gotham-set show in the CW lineup. I like the way it looks more like a real – if gray — city than the stylized version in Fox’s “Gotham.” Three years after Batman has departed, Kate returns from overseas training that’s sort of like what Bruce goes through in “Batman Begins.” A wise mentor times her as she escapes from cuffs under the ice, then he tells her to do it faster the next day.
That’s the extent of what we see of her shaping into a superhero, although we know she was briefly in the military before being kicked out for being a homosexual. On her first outing as Batwoman, she has no problem yanking Alice’s (Rachel Skarsten) henchmen out of the frame with bat-ropes and rescuing her ex-girlfriend, Sophie (Meagan Tandy). Kate struts around with confidence; the mission isn’t scary to her, even though she’s never done this before. Quite different from Batman’s first outing in “Year One.”
I don’t sense that Batman bailing is a big problem for Gotham City. In “Birds of Prey” (2002-03, WB, now on CW Seed), Batman likewise takes off, and the city is much worse off for his absence. Not the case here. Sophie is an agent with the Crows, the top-shelf security firm that has ably filled in Batman’s void. But Sophie doesn’t recognize the suited-up Kate, because of the secret identity trope of superhero comics.
The tension in “Batwoman” – the first episode of which is written by “Smallville” veteran Caroline Dries, who is also the showrunner — isn’t primarily over the fate of Gotham. Rather, it comes from the issues between Kate and her father, Crows leader Jacob Kane (Dougray Scott) – not to be confused with the “Veronica Mars” character of the same name.
Alice, who it seems has no motivation other than being nuts, irks Kate by bringing up this rough relationship, wherein Kate feels her dad resents her for being the lone survivor of a car accident where her sister and mother died. There’s also a brief suggestion that Kate’s sexual orientation causes a rift, but “Batwoman” doesn’t go all in on this — and it’s for the best, since this is 2019, not 1989.
Going into this episode, Alice was the closest thing to a hook for me, because I’m amazed Skarsten kept acting after “Birds of Prey,” where she was underused as the youngest of the three Birds. She wasn’t good on that show, but the whole series was so bad that Skarsten can’t be blamed.
She has developed into a respectable actress, although Alice’s antics aren’t particularly compelling by Gotham rogues gallery standards. She’s randomly nutso like the Joker, and at one point drops a rhyme like the Mad Hatter.
This is all slick but skin-deep storytelling — no more and no less than you’d expect from Berlanti’s assembly line.
That said, the pilot episode almost plants hooks in its final minutes, and it makes me understand the hype about Alice: Her true identity is Beth, Kate’s presumed-dead sister. In flashbacks peppered throughout the episode, we see a young Kate, Beth and Mrs. Kane trapped in a car teetering on the edge of a bridge’s collapsed railing. (We later learn the Joker did it and that Batman tried to save them but his Bat-grapples broke for some reason.)
At the very end – in arguably a case of cheating by the writers – we learn that Beth’s body was never found, and Kate has always found this to be odd. And it’s even odder when Luke (Camrus Johnson) tells her that Batman searched long and hard for Beth’s body back in the day. Then Kate puts it together: Beth has become Alice. In retrospect, this explains a lot of Alice’s behavior in the episode.
Tune in next week to find out why Beth chose to become evil after her near-death experience, rather than reuniting with her loving family. If this were the WB “Birds of Prey” era with only a few superhero shows, I might care enough to tune in for more episodes. It is certainly better than “Birds of Prey.” Today, it’s just another superhero show. But for those who can’t get enough of the CW’s DC Universe, well, “Batwoman” is another series to watch.