Please allow me to collect myself. As those who know me know, and those who care to could easily glean, I am a bit of a passionate Batman fan. Or at least an active one. Additionally, I was all-in from the get go of this series (in terms of giving it a shot/benefit of the doubt) because Ben McKenzie has been one of my favorite actors since… well… he got out of the car from Chino? Just glance at my bio, McKenzie has my respect. And on top of that, Donal Logue was brought on as Harvey Bullock- a notable character for Bat-fans – but a stellar piece of casting regardless of one’s affinity for Dark Knight lore. Logue has long been a favorite since the underrated Grounded for Life (also my introduction to the always-entertaining Kevin Corrigan), and will knock your socks off if you have never seen Terriers. Terriers deserved a much better fate, and may have been ahead of its’ time. That is neither here nor there (and worthy of a separate rant), just know that Donal Logue carries a charming, damaged gravitas to his role I was wholeheartedly intrigued to investigate myself. This was the stage I set for myself before even seeing a clip.
Now, after a few episodes, I am ready to start talking.
Upon watching the premiere of Gotham, I was floored. Is the show perfect? Hardly. Is it worth devoting some time and brainspace to? Without question. For no other reason than the ‘visual’. There are many (believe me I read everything) detractors of the show. Anyone who likes television, especially anyone who (as I do) love crime/mystery/noir-ish shows (again, I refer you to Terriers) will have much to ponder. The creators have a vision for the city that simply stuns. The FX team deserves some credit, though I also know the show made a conscious effort to base their version of Gotham on real cities, as Gotham is both dark and brooding (a la the Nolan Trilogy at its finest), as well as future-retro-funky dirty like the best parts of Tim Burton’s imagined landscape. To be blunt: Gotham in Gotham looks AMAZING. I saw this as a huge first step before anything else. Taking on such a place, one must have their own stamp to put on it (as Burton and Nolan did. And that’s why I shoehorned Jock in – any comic fan knows he has some of the most striking Batman artwork of the past decades in the comic pages). I even kind of love the anachronistic flair the show seems keen on. Flip phones and old cars. Never quite steampunk, never fully modern. I’m hoping my notion of ‘ future-modern-funky’ becomes preferred nomenclature. This city has a style, both weirdly bizarre and noir-ishly plain. Gotham, as I have read/heard said by those behind the show, is a ‘place out of time.’ This is a wonderful play on words, as it both is meant to be on that razor’s edge, while also, clearly, being the type of city easily molded to connect with any era (HELLO – Batman celebrated his 75th anniversary this year!! That’s a whole bunch of takes on a crumbling city!).
The aesthetic of the city/landscape serves as an essential piece of any superhero/comic show. Arrow gelled and nailed this, so much so we now have a Flash TV show. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., while in a trickier position due to a sprawling cinematic universe, came into its own as the storyline ramped up and show found a groove. Call me naive, but the characterization of the setting, both in the strictly visual sense as well as the more abstract, nuanced idea seems to at the very least give a show a base to stand on.
For the premise of Gotham sets it apart from the current superheroic television. In fact, the show aligns with something like Smallville, in that it is trying to take beloved characters and mythology and work in the same stratosphere, while having fun with the fandom, imagery and characters. Somehow, every review and critique I have read seems to look at this relationship in the wrong way, through the wrong scope. How many ‘a Batman show without Batman’ -s have you seen? This strikes me as lazy.
Gotham has some flaws, but they are of a show gathering itself. This is not a ‘Batman show without Batman,’ not really, this is a ‘James Gordon show in an imagined reality.’ The show lays some things on pretty darn heavy, alluding to future characters, winking at fans but saying “Wink Wink” a bit too loudly. The pilot clearly wanted to remind many that Gotham city was the hatching ground for villains like Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and Poison Ivy (the most poorly integrated rogue). But this is a flaw of many pilots, eager to show off. Someone such as I, willing to devote what is likely unhealthy mental energy thinking about this show, sees the bigger picture as I hope the creators do. Gotham will never last 5 seasons – it is not meant to. The show, depending on how they pace it, will be a multiple-season exploration of a broken city shattering. The journey is not of Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, but how a good man and a good cop can ultimately accept he needs a Dark sidekick. This show is a journey of James Gordon, the detective who eventually detects he is a man out of his league, and in need of some crazy of his own.
This was my only regret from Nolan’s trilogy. The final interaction between Batman and Gordon leaves me thinking Jim is a buffoon. “Bruce Wayne?!?” He asks, incredulous. He is police commissioner. A hero. A great detective, they say. How is this so shocking to him!! For all its flaws, Gotham seems to have an eye for this. McKenzie’s portrayal of Gordon suggests such a dumbfounded reaction will NEVER be in the cards for this man. Coupled with Logue’s version of Bullock – a good man distorted by life in this city – the creative team seems to be setting up not a patsy, but rather a clever Gordon who knows his victories will all be small and incremental without his watchful guardian.
Because Gotham has a lingering weirdness hanging over every villain, every arc, every resolution: if the good guys win, why do we eventually need Batman?
This is where I am putting faith in Gotham and the team behind it. McKenzie fits the role, despite his disturbing lack of mustache, and his chemistry with Donal Logue crackles with every scene they share. They are, to lay on a Batman reference heavy, two sides of the same coin. Both ultimately want justice. Gordon still sees right and wrong in starkly black and white. Bullock lives in the more realistic grey Gordon will one day have to manage, too.
This is where that aesthetic/base serves as my well of hope. Does the show need to find a ‘weight,’ so to speak, a balance between goofy and dark? Yes indeed. Can we do better than Ivy Pepper being tossed in as Poison Ivy? Duh. But while there are a number of things to nitpick, the team behind Gotham does so much well. The two lead detectives sparkle. They are instantly a great cop duo. While there is much to be explored, I am fascinated by this version of ‘Alfred’ and impressed, despite myself, by the performance of David Mazouz. Playing a young Bruce Wayne is a thankless task, but I am keen to see the young man who brings such a quiet intensity evolve.
So… we have the ‘good guys.’ One could then worry, justifiably, about the baddies. They cannot get too big, too bad, too soon, or the show defeats its own purpose. The villains are a strong 85%, let’s say. The mobsters, now that we’ve had a few episodes to flesh out the mafia landscape, are delightfully smooth and icky. John Doman was a smart choice for Carmine Falcone, as any The Wire devotees can attest he conveys sleazy power magnificently. Robin Lord Taylor’s young Oswald Cobblepot is indeed a strong point of the show. He plays suppressed mania to a T and holds a dignified, clever air befitting of a future kingpin. As for now, he’s a scheming low-level hand. While I love Logue and McKenzie, they are know, Taylor seems to be a breakout of the show, regardless of its overall run. The wild card so far? Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney. An imagined character in the DC mythos, she camps it up to a delightful, engaging effect. She cackles, looking fabulous, part diva, part Kathy Bates in Misery. She represents the bridge between the horrible crime families ravaging the city and the larger-than-life baddies we know are on the horizon. Between her and the mafiosos we’ve met so far, there seems to be ample fodder for the GCPD to crack down on, while the true craziness grows in the shadows.
I am intrigued by the alternate-reality vision of Gotham. If for no other reason, I am fascinated to see how they balance keeping fans such as I gripped (done and done), in-betweeners curious (likely, if they keep up), and newbies tuning in (time shall tell). The characters are well cast and the city has a distinct flavor. There seems to be a gameplan worth keeping tabs on. Give this show a chance. Danny Cannon, Bruno Heller and crew seem to understand the cards they are playing with. I’ll let them deal.
Now if only Gordon would grow a mustache. Pray for season 2.