When I first saw the trailers for Gotham, I was cautiously optimistic. Most of my reservations were in the line of “another addition to the Batman franchise, in the wake of the Dark Knight Trilogy, may not be the smartest move. I mean, you can only tell the beginning of the story in so many ways before people stop paying attention.” As it turns out, my fears were totally unfounded.
Everything right or wrong with Gotham has not a thing to do with it being a Batman prequel. No, wait, check that, there are some things they don’t get right which reflect badly on the Batman franchise.
Gotham is the new kid on the block, but it sells itself as something we’ve become somewhat familiar with: the early days of well-known heroes. It’s a formula used by Smallville, Arrow, The Flash, and others. However, this one has a bit of a twist, in that it apparently intends to pay virtually no attention whatsoever to its source material.
Yes, we meet Bruce Wayne within the first moments of the show, witnessing the cold, brutal murder of his parents. We also have names and nods to various characters of the Batman mythos, such as Riddler, Penguin, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and more. We especially have the names of various GCPD figures, primarily James Gordon, but also Harvey Bullock, Sarah Essen, Renee Montoya, and Crispus Allen. Not to mention mob bosses Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni.
But a number of these characters are nothing little like the characters we love. Take Harvey Bullock, for instance. My memories of him are of a cop who may be a bit bull-headed, and perhaps has a few mistakes in his past, but always takes a hard line against criminals and believes in the good he’s doing. This Bullock is nothing like that. He’s a lazy, cynical, corrupt cop.
Same thing for Sarah Essen. Overlooking other inconsistencies, it’s apparently a thing for the cops to conform to the corruption, even shedding blood for the mob, and Essen, head of their department, is apparently irritated whenever Gordon seems to not be conforming. “I thought he was with the program, now!” she says.
Oh, and Montoya has a love triangle going with Gordon’s lady, Barbara. Did they pull that idea out of a soap opera?
But perhaps I’m being a purist about this. Let’s ignore all that and give this show and these characters a clean slate to dirty up as they will. Let’s just stick to the quality of the show itself (plot, characters, acting, etc.), ignoring all the material it was supposedly inspired by. How does the show stand then?
Still very shaky.
Plot-wise, there are certainly some interweaving and overarching threads, particularly surrounding the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. In every previous iteration of the story, it’s a mugging gone wrong of some variety, but for Gotham, they apparently decided to complicate it. A single mugging and double-murder somehow sparks a crime wave that turns the Gotham city of Batman’s time into a cesspool of crime, and this story addresses why and how that would happen.
At first it seems simple, losing such pillars of the community as the Waynes has a detrimental effect on the whole of the city, but there’s more to it than that. There are complicated politics at work (though they can be summed up as various factions wrestling for power) and there is corruption with Wayne Enterprises itself, giving criminals a stake in what the company does, and therefore, perhaps, a reason to take out the Waynes. At the very least, the company loses its leadership, making it easier to influence. As such, the resulting conflict threatens to ignite a full-blown war in the streets. While we’ve yet to see where that leads us, I can give the creators props for the plot.
The characters, on the other hand, are not so developed.
Comparison: Smallville is the king of campy shows, but it was a campy that somehow worked. We enjoyed it, at least for half a dozen seasons, and it delivered some savory bits even unto the end.
Gotham is campy in a different way. Smallville‘s camp factor made it more endearing, where even the creators could make fun themselves. Gotham‘s camp factor is somehow more annoying than endearing. It’s a different flavor of camp, and the characters are that flavor.
They have almost no subtlety to them. For instance, when the Penguin rats out that the man brought to justice for the Wayne murders was a patsy, framed by his boss, the cops as why he would tell them. He puts on a mock-sympathetic face and says something like, “Seeing that boy on television really got to me.” And the officer, apparently taking him seriously, responds with an instant, “No, you want us to take down your boss so you can take their place.” Seriously?! That’s how you think a clever cop answers a rat?
A lengthier example: Fish Mooney, a female mob boss created especially for Gotham, tries to come off as cold and uncaring, but when Falcone has her boy-toy roughed up as a warning that she should not even consider trying to take his seat at the head of the table, she managed to keep her cool for just a few moments before ordering everyone out of her bar. So she lets her emotions get the better of her and affect her business. That is a not a mob boss, that is a rookie. Oh, and then she casually orders one of her men to remove her boy toy from the equation, permanently. So she got emotional over something she apparently cares nothing for anyway. Did this actually make sense to the writers?
There are countless more examples, such as when Gorden meets Selina Kyle. During a very tense moment, he saves her life from getting shot, quickly asks her name, and she answers, “What’s it to you?” I probably would have had a snarky comeback like, “Nice to meet you Miss Whats-it-to-you, can you take me to the rest of the kidnapped kids?” Gordon just stands there, uncertain. And, bonus, this is the man she wanted to talk to earlier in the show, so she was just snide to a man she’s been trying to talk to right after he saves her life.
Ah, and then there’s a corrupt cop in the third episode, who gets sent into the sky attached to a weather balloon. In the scant moment before his horrible, prolonged death, he says, “Oh no!” Not even “Oh crap!” Or trying to save himself, he just says, “Oh no!” Really?! That’s the best they got?
Long story shortened, the characters are flat, obvious, and often idiotic. The people making this show clearly do not comprehend the competency of cops and criminals. Or people in general.
Yet, again, I must try to be fair.
The characters are annoying, but with each successive episode, they seem to be ironing that out (or at least I hope they are).
A good example of this is, unsurprisingly, how Alfred and Bruce interact with each other. Alfred is clearly trying to protect young Bruce, and so he opposes him in many things. When Bruce starts going through Wayne Enterprises’ files, to gain an understanding of how the city works, Alfred at first objects, warning against a potential obsession. Then, when he silently sits down with Bruce and begins to help him go through the many files, Bruce simply smiles. That one scene is brilliant and tender.
Props are due for that.
Overall, I find the show, or at least the plot, growing on me, slowly intriguing me more and more. When I watched the first episode, I was intrigued just enough, or not annoyed just enough, to watch the next episode. Now, I am willing to keep watching.
That is worlds apart from the geeking out excitement for each new episode that I get from Arrow and The Flash, but as it keeps me coming back instead of dropping it entirely, Gotham is achieving the bare minimum of its purpose: to have an audience.
I even have some hope of improvement as the season progresses, but that is something we just have to wait and see.
For the moment, I’m giving Gotham a middle grade, three stars out of five.