Again and again, I struggle to describe Gotham to people who haven’t seen it. In theory, nothing could be easier. It’s Gotham City before Batman arrives on the scene. It’s the rise of (not yet) Commissioner Jim Gordon. It’s the origin of Bruce Wayne’s most archetypal villains. All of these things are true, and yet Gotham is still a different beast entirely. It’s a disjointed, tonally dissonant piece of television, like Sam Raimi making a police procedural while testing hallucinogenic drugs for the CIA.
But I have a problem. I can’t stop watching it.
We’re not in ‘so bad it’s good territory’ here. Half the trouble is that when Gotham’s good, it’s fantastic.
Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin is easily the best take I’ve ever seen on what has traditionally been a muddled character (Burgess Meredith excepted, naturally). And the show knows it. That’s why he has his own Danny Elfman-esque musical theme (the one stand-out in an otherwise forgettable musical score). Donal Logue’s Bullock – while not the Bullock we know from the comics – is loads of fun, as are Cory Michael Smith’s Edward Nygma and Drew Powell’s Butch Gilzean. Great actors giving wonderful performances, all of them deserving of a much better show.
Plankman and Bobbins
Unfortunately, none of the above are our lead characters. That dubious honour falls to Ben McKenzie’s exquisite portrayal of a growling block of wood named Jim Gordon. I don’t know, maybe it’s deliberate. Maybe we’re supposed to root for his opposition. I certainly do. I get that they’re calling back to classic Westerns – the one good man in a bad town – but dammit Jim, crack a smile, tell a joke. I don’t know… maybe emote a little? Certainly the script does McKenzie no favours, which requires Gordon to be exactly as clever (or dumb) as necessary to move the plot along.
Not that any of that stops beautiful women falling for Gordon, naturally. Erin Richards’ Barbara Kean is a lot more fun once the showrunners make a lurching handbrake turn with her character to disguise poor early characterisation. And Morena ‘girlfriend in need of rescue’ Baccarin is in here too – guess what she plays? Granted, none of the romance subplots (as we’ll generously call them) grate as badly as when they’re mishandled in Arrow, but I guess what Gotham women really want in a man is the makings of a good coffee table.
A Parcel of Rogues
The rest of the performances run the usual gamut of okay to good, with one or two standouts (John Doman’s Carmine Falcone, for example). Even the teenage cast – David Masouz’s Bruce Wayne and Camren Bicondova’s Selena Kyle – rise to the occasion more often than not. By Season Two I almost found myself liking them, despite their machine-stamped acts of formulaic teenage rebellion.
I want to like Sean Pertwee’s Alfred, but the show is determined that I shouldn’t. Alfred’s character and motivation changes wildly depending on what the young Bruce Wayne’s goal is that particular episode and… You know that thing that happened to Worf all the time on Star Trek? You know, where he was set up as a formidable badass and got taken down week after week? Same thing happens here. Alfred isn’t permitted to win fights, merely establish that the World’s Most Wooden Detective is about to have a difficult boss battle. Oh, and Alfred’s quirky Londoner affectations seem to cover about a hundred years of competing slang. He’s one Chim Chimeney short of a Dick van Dyke.
C’mon, Gotham, do it. You’ve done worse.
Oh, and Fish Mooney. There are no words, but I’ll try. She’s all ‘tell’, no ‘show’. Not since Jabba the Hutt have I seen a crime boss whose fearful reputation is more baffling. But she ends every other sentence with ‘bitch’, so I guess she must be tough.
Gotham doesn’t do awfully well by its women, in case that’s not coming across.
Dark or Light? Roll a Dice
Another thing Gotham doesn’t do well? Tone. It wants to be dark and gritty, but then plunges into near-slapstick. For every bleak and horrible development, there’s a kooky one. It could be argued that this is deliberate, that the contrast is part of the show’s raison d’etre, but the transitions come so quickly, so jarringly, that it’s hard to give it that much credit.
This isn’t helped by a train of characters that go nowhere, and plot threads that vanish into the ether. Gordon’s pursued relentlessly by Internal Affairs… until he isn’t. I guess Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen became the Question and the Spectre off-screen, and suddenly had better things to do.
Lucius Fox, as far as I can tell, is some kind of shared hallucination, or perhaps an extra dimensional being like Bat-Mite or an alien like the Great Gazoo from the Flintstones, because he always shows up precisely when he’s needed. Given that Morgan Freeman, deliverer of timely exposition, was Fox’s last representative, perhaps Gotham’s gone meta and upgraded Fox from Exposition Fairy to Resolution Fairy? At the start of Season Two, Harvey Bullock’s engaged. In another show, that’d mean the lucky woman’d be dead or a traitor before the season midpoint – but we never see or hear of her again. I can only assume Bullock accidentally killed her in a drunken row.
Can’t… Look… Away…
So why am I still watching? Maybe it’s because Gotham, despite its pretensions of grittiness, gives the impression of a child rummaging through his or her dressing up box, conjuring one outlandish and disjointed character after the next? Maybe I like the fact that some small corner of the DC Universe is allowed to be goofy on screen? Or am I watching to see what ridiculous weapon Butch just ‘happens’ to have to hand next – seriously, come the end of Season Four he’ll be in a Aliens-type powerloader.
No, I think that I’m still in Gotham for the bits that work. For those times that the Penguin gets bloody payback on the people who’ve betrayed him (with the Danny Elfman ghost train rattling along in the background). For those occasions when the oddball story choices actually come through. For the hope that on one, glorious day, Detective James Gordon will come to know the beauty of emotion and take his place amongst human society.
I’m certainly not here to watch Bruce Wayne’s evolution into the Batman. Honestly, despite the premise, Gotham long ago gave up any pretence of being an origin to the tales we already know. But I’m fine with that. In fact, best thing the show could do right now is kill off Bruce, and Jim, and literally let the inmates take over the asylum. In one stroke, Gotham would become a glorious, live action Looney Tunes. Who wouldn’t watch that?
I would. Maybe that’s why I’m still here. Hoping.