This is the first in a series that happens “whenever it works out”, where I’ll look back at a complete season of a TV show and wax poetic on whether it was worth the time, lived up to the potential it demonstrated, and if I’m coming back to it. I’m still working out format, so bear with me.
Gotham; Christ, where do I begin? I guess with a call back to a previous Cultural Junkdrawer I wrote at the beginning of the season which you can read HERE. As a bonus it does have a picture of adult performers Tanya Tate and Ella Darling hugging and a link to Batman – City of Scars Both are awesome! And, because this is serious stuff, I’m not gonna put the pic in this column. The video is twenty minutes long. You can spend as much time as you like looking at Tanya and Ella. So, go on, I’ll be here when you get back. You can skip the paragraph below also.
If you somehow passed up the porn star ogling and/or opting to watch Batman pull a Gitmo on a ventriloquist dummy I’ll encapsulate: “Gotham has the potential to be a lot of fun as long as it doesn’t get too hung up on being about Batman when it can’t be about Batman the way people expect it to be about Batman.” Make sense? How ‘bout this, from the end of the previous column: “Pretend that Gotham has nothing to do with Batman or more precisely pretend you don’t know that Batman will spring from Gotham. If you do that you suddenly have a beautiful looking, well-acted, (mostly) well written police drama completely populated by weirdoes and nut jobs.”
For those of you I haven’t lost yet by making this column about Gotham so Gotham heavy (with homework, no less), I have to assume one of three things; you like Gotham and you have to read everything about it OR you hate Gotham and want to validate those feelings of frustration OR you’re in a full body cast and your helper monkey started having sex with the snuggie Aunt Alice got you for Christmas, so you can’t click away. If you’re one of the last category; I hope it’s not happening in your field of vision. If you’re one of the first two I got a “yes” with a “but” and a “No” with a “maybe”.
THE BATMAN SHAPED HOLE
Straight out – Gotham didn’t zig the way I expected it to. My feeling early in the season was that the writing team’s confidence in the foundation of the show would build. Meaning that the stories would focus on the present setting of “Gotham”; a big corrupt city dense with crime and corruption and a flare for the dramatic. Sure there was Bruce Wayne’s and the Penguin’s story aside from Gordon’s rise but all that would play out in a way that builds off the knowledge of who these people will become.
What seemed to happen instead was a heavy reliance on that expectation of Batman and the mythos. A short cut of sorts to creating dramatic tension. What was strange was that it often happened only in the areas where you could do non-Batman material. For example; having Harvey Dent as a young criminal prosecutor. The story arc doesn’t hinge on that character being Harvey Dent. It’s a civic minded lawyer with a hard-on for a corrupt developer who’s willing to gamble on the lives of some innocent kids to nail the guy. The prosecutor could’ve been an original character and been free of the expectations that come with “Harvey Dent” the man who will be Two-Face.
Here’s why it smacks of an exploitation move; age. Dent has to be, at least, twice as old as the man who will be Batman making the eventual confrontation between The Bat and ‘Face a case where a guy in his prime is beating up a middle aged dude (The same goes for The Penguin and The Riddler, I’m ok with that, they shouldn’t all be part of the same age group. But c’mon).
Also take into account that Harvey will never become Two-Face in the show so the weight of expectation that can never be fulfilled is now doubled. Hell, Harvey Dent could’ve been an intern working for the character and it would’ve functioned as a cool Easter egg/story arc for Dent. The show could’ve added another origin story, developed a friendship between Bruce and Harvey in a similar fashion as the Bruce/Selena relationship, or, even better, as a contrast to it. Certainly the foreknowledge of what is to become of their relationship gives the friendship a tragic dimension. That is how I figured the creators would use the Batman shaped hole that exists in this show if they were going to use it at all.
Sometimes this tactic worked; as disappointing as the origin of the Joker (now being denied as the origin of the Joker) was, the idea of meeting the Greysons before Robin is even a twinkle in mama’s eye was nice. The fact that Gordon actually brought them together was extra serendipitous. The use of the pre-Venom type material (developed by Wayne Industries, no less) used the mythos to decent effect. My personal favorite was the story of The Red Hood; as a meme or a franchise idea for criminals to use. The story (one of the absolute strongest of the season in my opinion) acknowledges the familiarity with the material but puts an original spin on it subverting our expectations. The Red Hood story was what I hoped the writers to do with the problem of Batman more often.
At best dealing with the specter of Batman yielded mixed results. I had expected the writers to find a better more consistent way. Maybe, knowing they have a full twenty two episodes for season two they will relax on hitting that Batman rogues gallery so much.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Barbara Kean – If there was a point that Gotham needs to break from cannon it’s with Barbara Kean. I got nothing against Erin Richards, odds are she did what she could with the material, but the writers had no clue what to do with her. Every other episode she was threatening to leave Gordon, till she did, and things moved a lot smoother from there on in. The only other purpose she served was to be the focus of a love triangle with Renee Montoya. That’s what Barbara was; a plot node. Unfocused, no real character motivations, and a means to an end. Hopefully “The Ogre” storyline wrote her out. Batgirl will need a different mom.
Fish Mooney – She had a strong start – cunning, savage, dressed like she was way ahead of the Gotham supervillain curve. But when Penguin foiled her machinations, and the series got the back nine, there was nowhere to go with her. A shame, really, having no obligation to cannon Mooney could’ve been a hell of a wild card. Instead they stuck her on an island so removed from everything else she literally needed a helicopter to even get back to Gotham. No doubt Jada injected the show with campy energy but she was on her own there. Possibly she researched the 60’s era Batman and thought that’s what was expected of her. Fish Mooney’s “Gotham” seems a lot more fun and Gotham looks weak because of that.
Batman’s rogues gallery of the week – I know I said in the previous column that this show could, hopefully pull off something like Scarface in season three. Not with the execution I saw this season. It felt like there was too much reliance on “Ohhh, we got a Scarecrow story arc now! Look how many Batman villains were touching on!” Overuse deluded the effect. Gotham needs to be established as an entity sans-bat if, for nothing else, to make classic villains appearances more effective.
Montoya and Allen – Wasted and pointless and the writers realized that. Man, those guys sure pulled a quick disappearing act.
WHAT DID WORK
Harvey Bullock – Donal Logue exuded oily charm and tarnished charisma. A wonderful foil to Gordon who is all frowny and serious. The dynamic between him and Gordon shifted from adversarial to trust and reliance. I see more success in Gordon’s crusade to clean up the city through Harvey than any direct effort. This may be a bit of a stretch but think of Bullock as the soul of Gotham city. By tiny increments that soul is being redeemed. Gordon is bringing the best out of Bullock, in turn making Gordon a better character.
The Penguin – The Penguin’s rise, though it strained credibility to the breaking point many times, worked because it was built Batman free. Robin Lord Taylor deserves a huge amount of credit for his nervy weirdo performance, of course, but we all know where the Penguin will end up in the mythos. The only reminders we get are atmospheric; the walk, the tuxedo suits, umbrellas as a design element. Batman doesn’t define this Penguin. It stands on its own. If you don’t believe me there was a scene, late in the season, where you see the penguin doing evil shit and Bruce walks by in the background. That’s the closest these two characters get the whole season
but what a jolt! That one shot packs a kind of tension that Gotham lacks in most other places.
Bruce Wayne’s Arc – Another effective surprise was Bruce’s arc; the relationship with Alfred, Bruce investigating the dark corners of Wayne enterprises, learning the detective side of Batman long before the physical side develops. This is a very vulnerable, humanized Bruce Wayne; knowing that he’ll become Gotham’s greatest bad-ass from this scared but smart and determined kid is intriguing. Some may say incredulous but David Mazouz sells it.
Alfred Pennyworth – The foundation for Bruce Wayne being such a bad-ass is set. Filling the role of confidant, trainer, father, companion – Alfred is such a pivotal role, especially considering these are Batman’s formative years, the whole arc could live or die on the shoulders of (provided the writers understood the relationship) whomever played him. Sean Pertwee nails all the shading Alfred needs: he seems vulnerable when admitting he has no idea how to raise a child but he is also a total bad-ass. Any scene with Sean Pertwee is usually the best scene in the episode.
I’ll be giving season two it’s day in court, but, the creative staff better have a much more clear idea of what they want Gotham to be. Stakes better rise, characters better make more sense on a regular basis, and Gotham better feel like it exists beyond the background for Batman if this show is to survive long term. Oh yeah – no Barbara Kean!
I know I bagged on people getting bent over the twists to the bat-mythology in the previous column but I’m not wound up about reverence to cannon. My criticisms is that the shows greatest resource, the Batman mythos, is being used frivolously. An over-reliance on shortcut familiarity; winking and nudging about Batman instead of creating a textured deep world that will produce such a great hero.
I just want Gotham to be the city Batman deserves.
Ok, here is that pic of Tanya and Ella…