The Trouble with Gotham

Robin Lord Taylor on Gotham

          The idea of a”Batman-less Batman show” doesn’t seem so strange when you consider that the Caped Crusader’s Rogues Gallery is just as rich as Batman himself.  Besides, Smallville spun ten seasons out of Superman’s origins, so a series featuring an embryonic Dark Knight and his cast of characters is kind of a no brainer.  Alas, it’s all in the execution, and Fox’s Gotham, which wrapped its first season with a somewhat lackluster finale Monday night, is often lacking in that department.  Back in September a number of Geeks Out bloggers did a roundtable on their first impressions of the show.  All were mixed, with general agreement that Gotham had potential but was off to a shaky start.  Twenty two episodes later, is that still the case?  Before I go further, let me say that in this post-Netflix, streaming world of television this particular show might have been better suited by a smaller season: ten or twelve episodes versus a mammoth twenty two.  A shorter length would have allowed the program to have a stronger through line and a lot less filler, with a clearly defined arc and a sharper focus on fewer characters.  As it is, Gotham too often felt like a “killer or criminal of the week” procedural with too many oddballs we didn’t really care about.  It even went so far as to spend three of its final episodes on a random serial killer rather than any of the dozens of fascinating baddies in the Bat cannon.  That being said, let’s take a look at what was good, bad, and kind of ugly in this inaugural season.

Ben McKenzie

What Worked:

The Characters and Acting—Obviously the whole point of Gotham is exploiting cool characters, and the show eagerly—some would say too eagerly—included heroes like Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), and Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) and villains like the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), the Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), and Carmine Falcone (John Doman).  It also introduced Fish Mooney, an eccentric crime boss played with scenery chewing abandon by Jada Pinkett Smith.  For the most part it was a blast to see these characters’ origins, even if they were sometimes told in corny or obvious ways.  Their developing relationships could be wonderfully engaging: Jim and Harvey’s shift from diametrically opposed partners to guys who embraced their differences and had each other’s backs no matter what; Bruce’s touching bond with Alfred, who went from butler to adoptive father; and Jim’s sizzling chemistry with Dr. Leslie Thompkins (the lovely Morena Baccarin).  The acting was always solid and in many instances quite great.  McKenzie is not only gorgeous but has a very real and touching heroic quality that served him well on The OC and is a perfect fit here.  Robin Lord Taylor is a revelation as the by turns scheming, ingratiating, and murderous Penguin.  Mazouz does a wonderful job balancing Bruce’s torture with his vulnerability and innocence.   Pinkett Smith could be campy and over the top, but she inhabited Fish so thoroughly and made her such a vivid presence that her absence will surely be felt next season.  (Though the finale left Fish’s fate ambiguous, the actress won’t be returning as a regular.)

Jada Pinkett Smith

What Didn’t Work:

A Few of the Characters and Actors—Besides the fact that Gotham could have done with a lot less characters, some of them just didn’t work.  Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) is supposed to be the love of Jim’s life, but the character was all over the place and McKenzie had much better chemistry with Cox than he ever did with Richards.  There were hints of something interesting: a dark, drug addicted past; a prior relationship with Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena), another key character in the Bat mythos.  But they didn’t pay off and in the last episode the show actually cast her as a knife wielding psycho, which felt cheap and inappropriate, not to mention the fact it will be hard to sympathize with her after she broke down a door Michael Myers style.  Where the hell are they going with her?  It doesn’t seem like the producers know any better than us.  Meanwhile, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) was a key character throughout the season, but something about the actress’ portrayal just rubbed me the wrong way.  Plus, her painfully obvious insistence that people call her “Cat” just plain pissed me off. 

            Conversely, a few characters I would have liked to spend more time with seemed to get the short end of the stick.  Montoya vanished halfway through the season.  The much anticipated debut of the Joker was cool, but he dropped out of sight after his first and only episode.  Ditto the young Scarecrow.

The Storylines—It’s not that I didn’t like any of the storylines in Gotham.  If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have watched all season long.  But the one that took up so much time this year-- the battle for control of Gotham’s underground—I just didn’t care about that much, and I doubt I was the only one. Penguin vs. Fish.  Fish vs. Falcone.  Maroni vs. Falcone.  There were twists, there were turns, but it just went on forever, especially since we all knew Penguin would wind up on top.  Side note: Penguin standing on a ledge bellowing “I’m the king of Gotham!” like some DC Comics version of Titanic?  Laaame.  The plotlines I did find compelling-- Bruce’s search for the truth behind his parents’ murders, the affair between Barbara and Montoya, the evolution of the Riddler—either got short shrift or went down the tubes.  The Wayne killing was set up as a season long mystery, so shouldn’t it have paid off somehow by the last episode?  (Remember that promise Jim made to Bruce to bring the murderer to justice?  I don’t think the writers do.) 

            Gotham’s final beat this year, the revelation of a secret stairway to the cave beneath Wayne manor, was genuinely cool and has me looking forward to season two.  But I sincerely hope the hiatus gives show runner Bruno Heller and his team some time to sit back and reflect on what did and didn’t work and help strengthen Gotham so that it can truly come into its own.  These characters deserve powerful and compelling storytelling—not just a mishmash of half-cocked storylines and gimmicks.

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