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Fox’s Batman prequel is still waiting to spread its wings and fly.
The Batman-less prequel show Gotham returned this week from its winter hiatus. Those who are currently unsatisfied with the show had hoped the break would rejuvenate Gotham but the newest episode, “Rogue’s Gallery,” didn’t instill much confidence. It just proved that Gotham—with only 11 episodes to date—is still struggling to find its footing and is rapidly going downhill. Gotham was supposed to be a fresh new beginning for heroic, rookie cop James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his quest to rid Gotham City of corruption but instead feels tired and exhausted.
Therein lies the problem with Gotham. For a show that is so new, it should feel vibrant and full of life—but instead feels like it is running on creative fumes. It is sticking too close to established Batman lore when it should be kicking the comic-book to the curb and shaking things up. Since Gotham is going to be sticking around at least for another year and a half, let’s look at some of the ways it can improve while the show is still young.
1) Quantity over quality.
Gotham is structured a bit differently than some modern shows like Breaking Bad, House of Cards, or even similar comic-book themed shows like Arrow or The Flash. It doesn’t have a 13 episode season that is typical of most cable or Netflix shows. As Gotham is on Fox, the first season will have 22 episodes—which is about two seasons worth of stories when compared to other media.
As a result, with 11 episodes so far we would normally be near the end of the show’s first season and story arcs—but we’re just halfway through. That would be fine if the writers didn’t jump the shark on some of the show’s biggest plot threads. Some of the best serialized storytelling takes its time and follows through on story arcs gradually. However, with Gotham, a key plot thread introduced in the pilot—Gordon being forced to exile Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) by faking his murder—is resolved only three episodes later. The show could have used take story arc and stretched it the duration of the season. Oswald’s eventual return would have made for a killer season finale.
With a season that must run 22 episodes, the writers clearly feel the need to resolve storylines quicker than they should. The show was initially supposed to run 16 episodes, which would have been tighter. This might’ve allowed the writers to flesh out this story arc so it had an earned resolution. Instead, it was resolved way too quickly, making it feel rushed. There’s a reason why most narrative, serialized TV shows only run 13 episodes in this day and age. As Breaking Bad proved, this tauter and more concise form of storytelling allows for better stories overall. Gotham would undoubtedly benefit from doing the same.
2) The writing and direction is awful.
With storylines all over the place, it is safe to say the writing of the show just isn’t very good. Between the characters that aren’t very logical (Rob Bricken of io9 described the characters as “barely rational human beings”) and the storylines that are resolved too neatly and quickly, Gotham is a hodgepodge of inconsistent tone and storytelling—which comes from the writers and direction.
Gotham has an impeccable cast—Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue, Jada Pinkett Smith, and John Doman, just to name a few—but many of them are wasted with atrocious dialogue and over-the-top writing. On top of that, there are moments of genuine subtlety that are squashed by the show’s inconsistencies; in “Spirit of the Goat,” Donal Logue gives a wonderfully nuanced performance that quickly veers into hysterics for no reason. In the same episode, he screams at McKenzie’s Gordon as they argue in an outlandish display of childish emotion, like two kids fighting in a sandbox. It really makes you scratch your head.
What’s worse is the tone—of which Gotham is like a Frankenstein monster. The show borrows from the gritty, realistic crime elements of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, while also lifting the slightly gothic atmosphere of the Burton films, with the period cars and timeless setting. It also references—for some bizarre reason I have yet to ascertain why—the campy and over-the-top silliness of Joel Schumacher’s Batman, right down to the inane dialogue and broad acting.
That isn’t to say that you can’t successfully mesh tones and different genres into one cohesive whole—except Gotham hasn’t achieved that yet. It feels confused over what it wants to be, like an embryo trying to figure out its sex. In one episode, like the aforementioned “Spirit of the Goat,” it’s a hard-edged crime drama. In another, like “Viper” or “The Balloonman,” it’s an over-the-top comic-book show that wears its zany colors on its sleeves.
As Nick Campbell of TV.Com says, “I’m suffering a bit of tonal whiplash.” I think that best describes the tonal discrepancies of Gotham. The show needs to sort out its identity crisis and settle on what kind of show it really wants to be.
3) There are too many characters.
The promise of Gotham was that it was meant to showcase honest cop James Gordon as he rises up the ranks in a corrupt and dirty city. Of course, Gordon’s journey is going to run parallel to Bruce Wayne’s, supplemented with the comic’s cast of supporting characters. But Gotham feels the need to wedge in every character from the Batman pantheon, winking and nodding in their eventual turns as Batman’s deadliest foes in the most ham-fisted way possible.
The early advertisements for Gotham included distinctive character posters featuring several of the show’s main characters. So, for example, we’d see a poster of Cory Smith as Edward Nygma with the tagline “Before he was The Riddler…” And so on and so on. The pilot was adamant on showing almost all of Batman’s villains before they were villains. While the show is getting better about this, almost every episode features some diversion with a side villain like Selina taunting Gordon with clues about the Wayne’s murder or Nygma creepily trying to flirt with one of the precinct’s secretaries. Okay, we get it—these people are creepy and weird and will eventually become creepier and weirder. We don’t need to see it in nearly every episode.
The show was originally supposed to be about Gordon and his struggle, so let’s see more of that. Let’s see Gordon make personal sacrifices that tear and eat away at his soul like a leech sucking away all the goodness from his noble heart. That’s what the show was initially supposed to be about, not the Batman’s Rogue Gallery Variety Hour.
4) The characters have no room to grow.
When series creator Bruno Heller was describing the show, he described it as “a world that’s going to become that familiar world of Batman, but it’s not there yet. It’s an embryo.” He described Gordon’s predicament as: “What would the city of Gotham look like to a young rookie cop coming into this world?”
That’s a wonderful mission statement and honestly an exciting prospect. Here is an idealistic, young cop that has to rise up the ranks in a corrupt city where he’s the only one wanting to do the right thing. Except the show doesn’t delve into Gordon’s internal struggle at all, throwing it aside for convoluted storylines and too many supporting characters. The pilot presented this great dilemma where Gordon had to compromise his morals in order to save Oswald’s life. However, nothing has really been done with that development. Gordon should be teetering on the edge, always one step closer to becoming engulfed in the chaos and corruption that he’s desperately trying to fight. Unfortunately, there is none of that.
Gordon isn’t the only character that is motionless. The writers have a lot of the characters, such as Fish Mooney, simply stand around in lifeless nightclubs scheming and plotting. Mooney—as played by Jada Pinkett Smith—is actually one of the more exciting characters on the show. Smith gives Mooney everything she has, channeling Eartha Kitt in some delicious ways, but it seems like the writers don’t know what to do with her.
The whole purpose of serialized storytelling is watching characters develop. To recall Walter White of Breaking Bad fame, it’s about transformation. We want to see characters evolve—make bad decisions, hopefully learn from them, and grow as people. There’s no way Gordon or any of the characters on Gotham can grow if there’s no water to help the seeds flourish—and no, that’s not a Poison Ivy joke, either.
5) The show can’t decide who it is about.
When Gotham was in the early stages of development, Bruno Heller and others involved in making the show said it would be about the early days of Gordon and the police department. It would be like the comic-book Gotham Central—but without Batman. Eleven episodes into the show, however, and it seems like the writers have no clue who the central character even is. Is it Gordon or young Bruce Wayne, already sleuthing as a detective at the tender age of 11? As Devin Faraci of Badass Digest stated, “The weirdest thing Gotham does wrong is that it has no long game; this is a series designed to go about ten to fifteen years, and yet by the end of the third episode you feel like it’s already set up half the pieces it needs.”
Batman Begins wisely only featured young Bruce for a couple scenes before jumping ahead to him as a young adult. How can you structure a show around a young kid without him becoming Batman much earlier than he’s supposed to? If the show is about Gordon, then don’t shift the focus so much between Gordon and Bullock as budding partners and Bruce and his young pal Selina. Selina, an orphan who acts way too much like Catwoman for a character that’s supposed to gradually become a cat burglar. Let’s see the internal struggle in Gordon, who has to cope with a corrupt police force and political system. The Bruce/Selina stuff just feels like filler. No one wants to see a prepubescent Bruce Wayne flirt with a miniature Michelle Pfeiffer.
6) The “villain of the week” shtick is getting old and cheesy.
Who could forget the episode “Viper,” which had street thugs breathing in a hallucinogenic pathogen that temporarily gave them superhuman strength—resulting in some atrocious CGI created buffoonery. Gotham could be NYPD Blue but with a harder, more comic-book oriented edge, exploring the criminal element as a serious threat. However, even as Gotham tries to borrow from that show loosely, it’s hard to take the show seriously when the villains are laughably over-the-top.
Instead of Gordon and Bullock investigating Gotham’s seedy underbelly, we have episodes like “The Balloonman,” where Gordon and Bullock must take down a vigilante that kills people with… balloons. (Unfortunately, The Cheesecakeman was unavailable because Gordon is lactose intolerant.) We’re all familiar with the “villain of the week” story gimmick, which Smallville utilized all too well in its early seasons before switching to more serialized storytelling. It’s actually something that many procedural shows do, especially the cop procedurals Gotham is trying to emulate.
If Gotham wants to emulate cop procedurals, it needs to stop giving us needlessly cheesy villains and start giving us actual pulpy storylines. One of the strongest episodes of the season was “Spirit of the Goat,” despite the corny title. It featured an actual murder investigation and showed Bullock—normally shown as inept—as a genuine detective. If Gotham wants to improve, showing us more of that nitty-gritty would go a long way.
7) It’s trying too hard to fit into Batman continuity
The most shocking thing Gotham could have done in its opening moments is kill Bruce Wayne. Or at the very least pretend to kill Bruce Wayne, creating this suspenseful mystery that dumbfounds audiences. It would have sent shockwaves through the comic-book community and announced Gotham as a show that wasn’t going to pull any punches. Furthermore, it would demonstrate it wasn’t beholden to Batman lore.
Alas, that’s not what happened on Gotham. The show opened with the murder of Wayne’s parents—something we’ve seen countless times before. The pilot tried to hinge the mystery on their killer, since his identity was unknown. However, anyone that’s read a comic-book or seen a Batman movie (which is, to say, a fair amount) knows who murdered them. That’s not really a mystery at all. As a result of being beholden to the lore, it removes a lot of the suspense. This is common practice for prequel stories—which is why most people detest them—but some have found a way to circumvent the eventuality of the source material. Bryan Fuller has expertly defied expectations with his TV show adaptation of Hannibal, for example. No one is safe on that show, which makes it that much more exciting and unpredictable.
Gotham could use some unpredictability to shake things up a bit, as the show follows its comic-book formula far too much. If the series wants to expand and reach new heights, all it has to do is stretch out its cape and take a heroic leap into the dark unknown.
Photo via Fox/YouTube
Dan Marcus is a geek culture reporter based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in First Showing and Trek Movie.