Grumpy Old Fan | TV superheroes, David E. Kelley, and the new "Wonder Woman"

I’ve read Wonder Woman regularly since the George Pérez days, and I watched the first few years of “Ally McBeal,” so naturally I feel somewhat qualified* to talk about David E. Kelley heading up a Wonder Woman TV series. The history of live-action small-screen superhero adaptations is a spotty one, characterized for the most part by budgetary issues and a general failure to embrace the source material fully. Also, at its worst “Ally McBeal” could be rather grating, so I’m a little ... let’s say uncertain about Mr. Kelley’s handle on the Amazing Amazon.

That last probably isn’t entirely fair to Mr. Kelley, who (from what I have heard) has a range beyond quirky, flighty professionals with odd romantic histories. I have friends who really enjoyed “The Practice” (including sequels and spinoffs), “Picket Fences,” and Kelley’s time on “L.A. Law.” Still, given the apparent need to make Wonder Woman interesting -- beyond being a diplomat, warrior, and princess sent by the gods of a lost civilization to teach peace to Patriarch’s World, that is -- my first thought is that of course Mr. Kelley’s Diana will be quirky, flighty, and unlucky in love.

Again, it’s hard for live-action superheroes to translate successfully to TV. The old “Batman” show was a visual treat, thanks in no small part to a nice-looking Batcave and an instant-classic version of the Batmobile; and “M.A.N.T.I.S.” likewise had a convincing super-suit and headquarters. By contrast, the tricked-out Central City of the “Flash” series tried too hard to remind viewers of Tim Burton’s Gotham, and the Metropolis of “Lois & Clark” never really felt like much more than a back lot.

“Wonder Woman’s” budget might not be an issue, though, given the (initial) success of recent genre shows like “Smallville,” “Heroes” and “V.” You can see where those shows spent their money, but for the most part it’s not a distraction. Viewers will expect this century’s “Wonder Woman” to outdo its mid-‘70s predecessor, and almost by default it will have to; but the character demands more than just a nominal attempt to be epic. We don’t have to see Themyscira every week, but maybe the producers could splurge on Mount Olympus or a Kobra base every so often. If he hasn’t already, Mr. Kelley should screen that “Hulk” TV movie which guest-starred Thor, so he can see how not to handle a mythologically-based superhero.

Actually, the “Incredible Hulk” show is a good example of an unconventional superhero adaptation which worked. Although it ditched the city-smashing monster-movie elements which were a staple of the comics, “Hulk” kept the basic Banner/creature tension and the attendant “man on the run” vibe, becoming a show about a guy trying to channel (and sometimes atone for) his own demons. I still hoped Hulk would fight the Abomination or at least a few Army tanks, but on the whole I didn’t mind their absence.

A minimalist approach won’t work for “Wonder Woman.” Its predecessors, mainly “Smallville,” “Lois & Clark,” and “The Flash,” have established a certain level of fidelity to the comics, and that includes a nominal amount of super-folk for the main character(s) to encounter. I would expect at least semi-regular appearances from a handful of gods, and a decent attempt at villains like the Cheetah, Circe, and Doctor Psycho. That’s about what “Smallville” has done, at any rate.

Of course, the original conception of “Smallville” didn’t make much room for familiar Superman villains or supporting cast. I don’t think Kelley’s “Wonder Woman” will start with Diana at a comparably early point in her development, but again -- given TV’s relative predictability -- odds are good that she could be new to the ways of Patriarch’s World. Besides, “Smallville” seems intent on cramming as many DC characters as possible into its final season, so “Wonder Woman” may go easy on the guest stars at first. The Birds of Prey seem like a good fit, though; and the supporting cast could include anyone from old hands like Etta Candy and Steve Trevor to publicist Myndi Mayer and secret agent Tom Tresser.

(Before I forget: all this talk of mythology on a budget reminds me of how the “Shazam!” show had Billy Batson communicating with his patron gods via enchanted dashboard-mounted Pop-O-Matic. I am 95 percent sure “Wonder Woman” won’t have Diana tooling around in a Winnebago while learning from Athena’s magic Garmin, but you never know....)

Speaking of the Birds, Mr. Kelley could learn from the mistakes made by that short-lived TV adaptation. “Birds of Prey” (adapted by Laeta Kalogridis)** never struck me as especially devoted to any of its core concepts. For the most part the involvement of Oracle, Alfred, and Helena “Huntress” Wayne made it come across as a “backdoor” Batman show. However, it also used “Smallville’s” freak-of-the-week and hero-in-training formulae; and (had it continued) it might not have been averse to the occasional DC guest-star. A lot of the time, though, it just didn’t make much sense, especially when it cast the Birds as urban legends pursued by a Gotham detective. For “Wonder Woman” to succeed, it must be committed to fairly simple core concepts.

Fortunately, those concepts can be translated from the comics without much trouble: the Greek gods are real, they’re becoming more active in the world, and one faction has sent its ambassador to Patriarch’s World to try and stop the other. To get away from the whole “your strange ways confuse and intrigue me” cliché, I’d give Diana some experience and borrow heavily from Greg Rucka’s “West Wing” approach: excuse me, Senator, but there’s a hydra circling the Washington Monument.... Establish Wonder Woman credibly as equal parts peacemaker and butt-kicker, and I think a lot of the details -- including the costume --take care of themselves.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more David E. Kelley might be able to bring to “Wonder Woman.” Many of his shows were set in Boston, which was Diana’s first American home in the 1987 revamp. (Kelley’s shows crossed over frequently.) Furthermore, Kelley’s shows have always been socially-conscious -- perhaps not in the same way that Wonder Woman has been, but still. It’s ironic that the creator of “post-feminist” Ally McBeal is now working on one of the most recognizable symbols of the women’s movement.

And although I’m trying to stay positive for at least this portion of the post, I keep coming back to “Ally.” While there was a lot to like about that show, in the end it just got to be too much. I didn’t watch “Ally McBeal” for thoughtful meditations on American jurisprudence (just like I didn’t watch “Lois & Clark” for the journalism), but it couldn’t maintain a good balance between its cartoonish and serious elements. Let’s face it: Wonder Woman is hard enough for many superhero fans to take seriously (see, e.g., the current status quo), so it’s got to be that much more tempting to make her over-the-top for a general audience.

Now, as with the Winnebago thing, I think the odds of that are fairly low ... but they’re still there. It’s tough to make Wonder Woman credible, especially when you have to put a real person (my pick would be Morena Baccarin -- rrowr!) in that star-spangled swimsuit. I hope Mr. Kelley sees that as a challenge, and doesn’t try to get around it. We fans aren’t shy about standing up for fidelity to the source material, but in Wonder Woman’s case, there are depths in the comics which a TV show could explore effectively. Seems to me it might just take commitment and a decent-sized budget.

As long as there are no dancing babies....


* [I am a little embarrassed to admit that I totally forgot David E. Kelley created “Boston Legal,” which hasn’t been off the air that long. I know many people, including my own parents, who watched that show faithfully. However, after souring so completely on “Ally McBeal,” I just could not get into another DEK show -- and more importantly, I would rather remember William Shatner as the young, pretty James T. Kirk.]

** [According to Wikipedia, Ms. Kalogridis apparently rewrote one of the Wonder Woman movie scripts.]

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