‘Gotham’ is ‘Serpico’ meets ‘Batman: The Animated’ series
Gotham is not a show about Batman. It’s not meant to be a show about Batman, and people who keep lamenting the Dark Knight’s absence are missing a really fun television show.
I know, we’ve seen this sort of concept before with varying degrees of success. The most successful show perhaps was CW’s Smallville, which managed to stretch the origin of Superman into ten seasons. Although, there was the short-lived Birds of Prey, which meant to serve up adventures featuring a trio of heroes, following the mysterious disappearance of the Caped Crusader. Unfortunately Birds of Prey was never able to rise beyond the brilliant promise of its opening teaser. The difference between Gotham and these shows, is that they both featured superheroes as the main characters. Gotham is choosing to explore different territory and give a look at Gotham city’s police and proto-freak underworld through the eyes of Jim Gordon. Gordon is a no nonsense war-hero and officer who is shocked at the level of corruption in his city, and even more shocked at the odd villainy taking place there. Ben Mackenzie does an excellent job of portraying a square-jawed Elliott Ness in a world he can’t quite fathom. Gordon is an example of the world as it should be, and through him we are allowed to be appalled by the corrupt cops, suave mob leaders and weird villains.
Some viewers may find it difficult to reconcile the gritty verisimilitude of Nolan’s Batman universe with the off-kilter world of Gotham. Nolan made the comic book world feel gritty and dark, taking us far away from the multi-colored strobe show of the Schumacher films. However, what some forget is that, good or bad, each version of Batman’s universe is just as valid as any other. New explorations of these places and characters are happening all the time, and Gotham itself seems to be pulling from two different sources to achieve its themes and aesthetic. Gordon and Bullock call back to 1970s cop dramas like Serpico and The French Connection, while the villains in the series are quirky and strange like those from “Batman: The Animated Series”. This mashup of styles works brilliantly, giving the show a patina of weird. For all of the parts of Gotham City that seem like “our world”, there are dark corners where ordinary crime turns…strange. It’s one thing to be murdered by a mob boss, it’s quite another to be chopped up by a goon in executioner costume. Gotham seems to be at its best when pairing the no-nonsense Jim Gordon against an entire city that is eating itself alive.
The villains in Gotham live on a sliding scale from normal to freakish, giving us a glimpse at where the city is headed and what Gordon will have to deal with down the road. Oswald Cobblepot is perhaps the best example of the extremity of the spectrum. Highly intelligent and seemingly meek, Cobblepot turns homicidal at the mere mention of penguins, or at the possibility of moving up the criminal food chain. His demeanor and personality are so delightfully bizarre that it is difficult not to enjoy his well-mannered interactions as well as his murderous temper. His flair for the dramatic and anachronistic form of dress also suits the two villains in the second episode, “Selina Kyle”. These two soldiers for The Dollmaker (Lilly Taylor, Frank Whaley), look like Cub Scout leaders from the 1950s, while kidnapping children for grotesque experiments. “Balloonman” features a quirky vigilante who dispatches his victims using murder by weather balloon. This death sentence is sufficiently terrifying, but also plays like a Joker plot. Odd crime of the week is old hat by now. Shows like CSI have made entire franchises of such material, but for Gotham it’s a perfect fit. Freak of the week episodes are giving the writers a chance to expand the weird universe of Gotham, while also weaving in character moments between Gordon and Bullock. It is also worth mentioning that this show is gathering some of the best character actors and faces in the industry. While Arrow and The Flash both look as if they’re populated by models or retired models, Gotham isn’t afraid to the cast the odd and interesting to fill out their stories.
I should also mention that this show isn’t perfect. It’s not uncommon for a pilot to bite off more than it can chew and Gotham definitely has its hands full of story lines. Unfortunately, some of these plot threads bloat the show, taking the focus away from important stories and character moments. The most glaring example of this is young Bruce Wayne. While the pilot hinges upon the Wayne murders, we have no choice but to follow the young child and his developing relationship with Gordon. I will say that while I did enjoy the Bruce/Alfred scenes in the “Balloonman” episode, we can’t treat every episode like a prolonged Batman origin. If we keep cutting to scenes of Bruce that don’t effect the main story of each episode, then we waste valuable time we could be using elsewhere. The same could be said for the Barbara/Montoya relationship. While I’m thrilled that Gotham is one of few shows on network television depicting a lesbian character, these scenes so far have felt flat and serve no purpose other than to cast needless doubt on Gordon’s character.
A Batman show without Batman is quite simply, the wrong way to look at Gotham. This show is taking some interesting risks that are already starting to pay off, distinguishing it from other comic book shows on television. It is certainly an improvement beyond last year’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. If it starts to sand some of its rough spots, Gotham could be the comic book crime show we deserve, giving us a grim avenger, carrying a badge instead of a mask.
Things I love:
Jada Pinkett-Smith is playing the homicidal Fish Mooney with more than a touch of Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman and it’s wonderful.
The fact that The Cobblepots are patrician immigrants is perfect. Also, Carol Kane as Oswald’s mother is great casting. Her character is like something out of Grey Gardens.
The hard-nosed Alfred Pennyworth. Seriously, they need to give him more to do.
I really like the look and personality of Nygma, but please keep the goofy riddle stuff to a minimum. We get it. His introduction and exit in episode two however, was priceless. Also, what was the deal with his “Zodiac Killer” diary? What’s in there, anyway?
Things I don’t
The Montoya scenes with Barabara are repetitive and flat. If you’re not going to do anything with them, they’re a waste of valuable show time.
I don’t need to see young Bruce brooding over his parents case. Make him a part of these stories, or leave him out of the episodes.