Gotham City, a nervous surveillance state, hasn't heard from Batman in years. Municipal leaders are ready to shut off the city's bat-signal klieg lights and rely instead on the crime-fighting services of a private security force called the Crows. There's a big news conference and party to celebrate the city's batless confidence, which, if you know anything about Gotham City, is just the right opportunity for a new villain to announce herself: the psychotic Alice (Rachel Skarsten) and her Wonderland henchmen in rabbit masks. Who will save Gotham now?
Batwoman. Don't you know? She's a lesbian, but that's not all she is - they say she's Jewish, too. Without getting nerdy about it, Batwoman is not Batgirl, that feisty, redheaded ancillary to the Batmans and Robins of yore.
The drab "Batwoman," premiering Sunday on CW, is a thousand percent less groovy than Batgirl. Ruby Rose ("Orange Is the New Black") stars as Kate Kane, the cousin of Bruce Wayne. Kicked out of the police academy for a same-sex romance with another cadet named Sophie (Meagan Tandy), Kate ran off to some remote tundra, for one of those personal training boot camps with a mystical jujitsu instructor. She's returned to Gotham just in time to witness Alice's crime spree and try to rescue Sophie from captivity.
Kate also discovers the caverns behind cousin Bruce's dusty bookshelves, a techno-fortress wimpily guarded by Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson), the son of Lucius Fox, who was Wayne's business manager. Kate is no fan of Batman; she blames him for failing to rescue her twin sister and mother when their car plummeted off a bridge years ago. Only Kate survived. Rather than just give viewers this origin material in an efficient, don't-change-the-channel style, "Batwoman" metes it out with deliberate vagueness, more frustrating than foreshadowing.
Whatever grudge Kate holds against Batman doesn't prevent her from raiding his closet and utilizing his toys. Gotham is left to wonder who this newer, shapelier Dark Knight is. "I was running toward everything that didn't want me," Kate confesses in a lame voice-over. "A military academy, a private army, my own father. I spent 15 years searching for a place I didn't fit. And I think I finally found it. ... I see the freedom to be myself, to play by my own rules."
While I'd love to offer "Batwoman" as the ideal antidote to the macho psychosis of Hollywood's new "Joker" movie, I'm sorry to report that, despite her big talk, Batwoman is pretty much a nobody on the TV screen, a dud as both a vigilante crime-fighter and a ticked-off relative with unresolved grief issues. Mostly she's just another paint-by-numbers CW superhero, joining a collection of other, steadfastly rote shows ("Supergirl," "The Flash," the soon-departing "Arrow") from executive producer Greg Berlanti (and, in "Batwoman's" case, writer Caroline Dries).
We all know there's a deficit of female superheroes. "Supergirl," launched with such satisfying vim four years ago on CBS, migrated to CW, where it has fluttered and flattened out to almost nothing. "Batwoman" is a missed opportunity to take a character who is unfamiliar to pop-culture passersby (she's only been around in comic-book form since 2006, a relative newborn to the genre) and push her past whatever comic-book gender boundaries remain. Yet, when it comes to both expectation and example, this Batwoman feels disappointingly curtailed, as if she's holding something back.
"If I were going to save you in a dramatic fashion," Kate tells Sophie, "I would have dressed as Wonder Woman."
If that's what it would take to get things going, I'm all for it.
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Nancy Drew, meanwhile, has a far longer history and accumulated cachet than Batwoman. The fictional teenage sleuth with the titian blonde hair is coming up on her 90th birthday, and, like Barbie, she's endured a lot of makeovers and modernizing, launching a cottage industry in academia, which takes a particular interest in how she's portrayed and what she's meant to generations of young girls. (As a boy who preferred reading Nancy Drew mystery books over those dopey Hardy Boys, I guess I don't count.)
Adapting Nancy to television and movies is a spotty business, strewn with attempts. Hardly a pilot season goes by, it seems, without someone pitching a revamped Nancy Drew series. And who recalls that the ABC series in the 1970s, supposedly alternating each week with a Hardy Boys mystery, was overcome by Shaun Cassidy fever? (If you do, wave your cane.)
"Nancy Drew" (premiering Oct. 9, also on CW) wipes the entire slate shockingly clean, primarily by making Nancy more impulsive and depressing. Producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (of "Gossip Girl" and the "Dynasty" reboot) and writer Noga Landau have given us a Nancy (Kennedy McMann) who lives in a seaside burg called Horseshoe Bay (whither River Heights?) and pretty much hates life.
After the death of her mother, Nancy let her grades slide and blew off her college applications. Now she's taking a defiant gap year, working as a diner waitress and sneaking off to have quickie sex with Ned Nickerson (Tunji Kasim) at the auto garage where he works as a mechanic.
Everyone you remember has been recast in a grittier guise: George Fan (Leah Lewis) is Nancy's boss and resents her for being a popular kid. Bess Marvin (Maddison Jaizani) is secretly living in a trailer. Nancy's attorney father, Carson (Scott Wolf), is hot-tempered and hiding something. Instead of seeming empowered and cool, the show is dreadful, putting far too much effort in giving Nancy and her world a darker edge. It's the "Riverdale" effect - once the Archies went to seed, everyone must follow.
Even Nancy's amateur sleuthing skills are demeaned here and made difficult rather than delightful. Her intelligence and curiosity are seen by her father, friends and local law enforcement as an irritant; her courage has morphed into an overstated petulance. On top of that, the big mystery - stretched over two episodes, probably more - fails to register as a matter of ongoing interest: A bad guy's girlfriend is murdered while the town obsesses over the legendary ghost of a dead beauty queen.
Nancy's been around long enough to withstand this shoddy attempt to remold her. Maybe she can console Batwoman with the sisterly idea that franchise is forever, and malleability equals durability. If the story doesn't click this time, maybe the next version will.
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"Batwoman" (one hour) premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on CW.
"Nancy Drew" (one hour) premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on CW.