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Reviewing Gotham

With Gotham concluding in the UK, it’s fair to say it’s a series that has divided many. Some sites, which praise many other superhero and comic book shows, have treated it with derision. Their argument tends to centre around the fact it’s a Batman show without Batman, and that it doesn’t work for that reason. While that may be true, it could be argued that Gotham has reached out to people who wouldn’t normally watch a genre show, probably because it would be full of people in capes and masks. Gotham works differently. Yes, it has younger iterations of key characters, but it doesn’t over egg the pudding. Without knowing what they turn into, you can enjoy the show perfectly well without knowing the elongated backstory of each one.

That though, has turned into a source of criticism for the show. Read some reviews like these and you’d be forgiven for thinking Gotham is a show that should have been cancelled after the first few seconds of the first episode. It’s either not faithful enough to the comics, or it’s shoehorning in references that aren’t needed. Well, you can’t have it both ways. Gotham is different than The Flash, Arrow, Daredevil or Agents of SHIELD. It’s also very different from the upcoming Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. Gotham isn’t about superheroes, in fact, it isn’t about heroes at all – it’s about the villains, and the only man, at this stage, capable of stopping them.

Yet the show does have its weak points – arguably, some of the leaps in logic you have to make to accept some of the scenarios (for instance a mob hitman like Victor Zzasz wandering into the GCPD with his henchmen and nobody lifting a finger) are a little too far. Similarly, the pace of some of the episodes is grindingly slow, particularly in the run up to the mid season break, and while it has created a compelling original character in Fish Mooney, it has also treated some with short shrift, and made others completely unbearable.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the successes and failures from Gotham’s first season.

Success

Image via Fox TV/Warner Brothers Television/DC Comics

Image via Fox TV/Warner Brothers Television/DC Comics

The Gordon/Bullock relationship
When the show was pitched, it was supposed to be the story of Jim Gordon’s rise through the GCPD, but it’s turned into far more than that. Donal Logue’s take on perennial Bat-hating detective and man of questionable ethics, Harvey Bullock, has given the straight laced Gordon a welcome lighter side. Bullock, both in the comics and in Batman: The Animated Series, is more of a gumshoe, noirish, world weary veteran. He rarely cracks a joke, and is a loner, and thus on the occasions where he reveals his human side, they become all the more special. Gotham painted it’s version of Bullock early on as a man who was willing to cut corners, and at one point looked like he may have been just as corrupt as his fellow officers. That’s not turned out to be the case, but Logue still imbues Bullock with enough machismo that when vulnerabilities do emerge – you care about him. His relationship with Gordon now is far more than just good cop/bad cop; Bullock has become one of the few people Jim Gordon can trust, and that speaks volumes in a series where you’re never sure who’s waiting to stab you in the back.

The look
Gotham looks grimy – and that’s the way it should be. Borrowing heavily from the design of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (including the shot of the what most people think is The Robert Kane Memorial Bridge from The Dark Knight Rises in establishing shots of Gotham), the show makes the city look rife with corruption and crime. Steel grays, rusty browns and deep blacks – even whites are opaque and dusty, giving it a lived-in feel. It makes it more of a detective show than a superhero one. But there’s a bigger question surrounding Gotham – where is all the technology? Go back and watch the series, and notice the lack of smartphones, laptops, flat screen monitors, advanced forensic techniques and modern weapons. Every mobile phone in Gotham is an early 2000’s style fliptop phone. The GCPD has no computers – their filing system is hard copy only (administered by the lovely Miss Kringle), TV’s are 90’s style chunky curved screens, and Maroni and Falcone’s men are running around with 1940’s Thompson submachine guns. Why? Seems that secret is going to be kept for a while yet.

Image via Fox TV/Warner Brothers Television/DC Comics

Image via Fox TV/Warner Brothers Television/DC Comics

Fish Mooney
Some of Gotham’s criticism has come from adapting iconic characters from the comics and introducing them at an early age, negating their evil by making them far too young to be a threat. But not enough praise is given to Jada Pinkett Smith taking a new, original character and turning her into one of the strongest personalities in the first season. Fish Mooney was the perfect antithesis to the male dominated mob underworld of Gotham, and her threat arguably weakened when she was incarcerated in The Dollmaker’s prison for much of the second half of Season One. Her desire to be the top dog in the city drove her to severe backstabbing lengths, but her role was never to be that person. Fish Mooney’s lust for control made her the ideal target to enhance Oswald Cobblepot’s role. Fish’s role, really, was to show Cobblepot’s own rage and desire to be the man on the throne, by giving him a nemesis and someone to tackle before he muscled in on Falcone’s and Maroni’s turf.

The Penguin’s rise to power
Undoubtedly the breakout character from Season One was Robin Lord Taylor’s unique and brutal take on Oswald Cobblepot. In a very evil rags-to-riches story, Cobblepot’s change from wannabe underling, to bootlicking servant, to two faced spy, to aspiring mob boss, is a story probably more compelling than anything else the show has achieved. This version of The Penguin is very different to anything that’s appeared in the comics or movies, and to see this punk influenced, preppy Penguin mature into the bloated, avaricious monster of his later years is hard to believe. Yet, he’s still imbued with the same animalistic tendencies that his counterparts on the printed page have, proof that Taylor has put his own spin on the character, while at the same time retaining the essence of him.

Falcone and Maroni’s rivalry
There’s nothing like a good mob war to make life interesting, and that is exactly what this part of Gotham’s story has proved. The season finale notwithstanding, Maroni’s attempts to bring down Falcone and teach Cobblepot a lesson have been great viewing – probably not of The Sopranos standard, but definitely some scene stealing moments. John Doman excels at making Falcone a world weary, long standing mobster, who still believes in things like honour and values, but also in violent retribution. The gradual humanising of him via Fish’s planting of Liza into his confidence looks as if it’ll be a typical blindside move against an old man distracted by love, but Falcone is too grizzled and smart for that, and his murder of her reminds both Mooney and the viewer that he is far from finished. He respects Maroni, but doesn’t like him, and that contrast comes from his counterpart all too freely. Maroni desires Falcone’s power, and would do anything to attain it, and it is he who becomes blinded in the end, not by love, but by his greed, believing Falcone to be the one who ordered his assassination, when all the while, it was the little bird down the road. The scenes between David Zayas, who plays him, and Doman’s Falcone are laced with venom while at the same time keeping up the illusion of cordiality.

Failure

Image via Fox TV/Warner Brothers Television/DC Comics

Image via Fox TV/Warner Brothers Television/DC Comics

Barbara Gordon
Where do we start? Barbara started off as a vital cog in the machine – Jim Gordon’s rock, his confidant, and lover. She then passed into annoyance, before hitting irrelevance at 100mph. The cracks first started to show when she started to question Jim about his supposed execution of Cobblepot – and then the questions kept on coming, to the point where any appearance of Barbara led to the inevitable Mastermind round where people quickly lost patience with her. It’s not actress Erin Richards’ fault, she’s been burdened with a role that means she HAD to keep asking her fiancé what was going on. It’s just she did it so often. Then she kept getting more screen time when there were far more interesting things going on, and people really wanted to see more Penguin, more Fish and more Gordon. Her attempts at being “damaged” just didn’t wash, and then her role in the Ogre episodes, just made her even more bland. The revelation that she killed her parents didn’t come across as a tragedy, it came across as the actions of a spoiled brat. Barbara’s role isn’t clearly defined for next season, but given how she’s panned out so far, the series would benefit from it being a smaller one.

The villains of the week
While the long term bad guys were compelling, the short term ones were about as interesting as a guy who threatens you with a helium balloon. Add to that episodes featuring “Bane-lite” (Viper), supernatural mind controlling killers that don’t really fit into your continuity (Spirit of the Goat), a 50 Shades of Grey imitator (Beasts of Prey) and poor interpretations of The Electrocutioner (Rogues Gallery), Scarecrow (The Fearsome Dr. Crane), The Joker (The Blind Fortune Teller) and The Red Hood Gang (Red Hood). Gotham would do well to pick a few established villains to make them long term threats, and make the weekly cannon fodder something more ordinary. It’s all very well setting up a threat for later season, but it’s not always good to pick so many, otherwise they’ll get lost.

Hit and miss easter eggs
Any comic book show these days has to tip its hat to its source material, mainly out of respect for its fans and the ideas that birthed it in the first place. That’s why Jay Garrick’s helmet popped up in the season finale of The Flash, and references to Hal Jordan’s home Coast City and Ferris Air from the Green Lantern stories turn up in The Flash and Arrow. There were plenty of easter eggs in the early episodes, from Queen Consolidated (Green Arrow Oliver Queen’s company), to Ed Nygma’s question mark mug. But in later episodes, it eschewed references to the Batman comics and continuities that had preceded it. On one hand, this is good – it means that it doesn’t become a series that only devoted Batman fans can get, but the lopsided way in which it was done meant that plenty of people got excited – only to get their hopes dashed. It’s not a major criticism, but still a valid one.

Unresolved or bizarre plot points
While Gotham did a good job of holding together some of the more outlandish parts of its story, there were other bits where the label “could do better” could easily be applied. In the final episode alone, why would Selina throw in with a woman she’s barely met and doesn’t have enough muscle to overthrow Gotham herself, when considering how smart she’s been for the rest of the season, she’d suddenly revert to being spectacularly dumb in the final episode? How did Fish get back to Gotham, and how did she recover from her gunshot wound, how did she manage to accrue a big enough crew in a fortnight, in the middle of a gang war no less, to take on Gotham’s two major mob bosses? Why did Leslie agree to give “damaged” Barbara counselling sessions in her own home, when it’s obvious she hates her? Going further back, why did nobody notice Nygma lugging two large cases full of body parts through the GCPD? Why didn’t Miss Kringle notice said body parts in the lab when she visited Ed? Going back even further, what happened to The Dollmaker after Fish escaped from the island, and why didn’t he send anyone after her? How did Jim get busted down from Detective to security guard at Arkham? There are plenty more, and while they didn’t hamstring the overall story, they did stop it being truly great.

Image via Fox TV/Warner Brothers Television/DC Comics

Image via Fox TV/Warner Brothers Television/DC Comics

Bruce Wayne
The great conundrum of Gotham. It’s essentially an origin story for most of the characters involved, but has it got right the origin story of the man who will be Batman? In short – not yet. Most of the more interesting plot points have centered around the characters we’ve discussed above, and at times Bruce Wayne has seemed like an afterthought. Fair enough, the premise of the series was to chart Jim Gordon’s rise from uniform to the Commissioner’s chair, and Bruce’s story still has a long, long way to go, but perhaps there should have been more focus on him? If anything, this series has established his drive, but not indicated the guile or combat skills he’ll need to become The Dark Knight. It’s also leaned far too heavily on his relationship with Selina Kyle, who, while an excellent character, ends up being a deus ex machina for anytime Bruce gets in a scrape. It’d be far better if he learned how to get in and out of these situations himself, rather than being led by her hand.

Gotham has already been confirmed for a second season, with roles for The Joker and Mr. Freeze planned to widen the scope of villains Jim Gordon has to take on. At this stage, it’s too early to say if it’ll be a success, because Gotham isn’t like anything else superhero TV has to offer. For that reason, it’ll never win over everyone, and it’ll have more critics than friends – but as long as it continues to be unique, there’ll still be those who fight its corner.

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