Monday, June 1, 2015

Gotham: Season One Review



GOTHAM: SEASON ONE

With Gotham having finished its initial season, I think it would be good to examine it both in terms of how it fits into the general Batman mythology and as its own independent series. 

I know a lot of Batman fans who love Gotham.  I also know a lot of Batman fans who hate Gotham.  Sometimes, the reasons for the love and/or hate are exactly the same.  We see the Rogue's Gallery of Batman villains appear long before the Caped Crusader slips on his cowl.  Look, there's Penguin!  There's Riddler!  There's Catwoman!  Harvey Dent is there too!

This, more than anything else as far as I can tell, is what divides the fanbase. One fan I know commented to me that with all these characters already around, Batman isn't necessary (and they ain't too fond of young Master Bruce either).  The villains will all be senior citizens by the time Bruce Wayne gets around to fighting them, the haters argue. 

Allow me, as a casual Batman fan, to offer my own simple and humble opinions on that point.

The fact that a lot of Batman villains are appearing on Gotham before Batman actually takes them on is not, I believe, a net negative.  One has to figure two things.  First, the villains didn't just spring fully formed like Athena out of Zeus' head.  They too had to grow into the figures they became.  Gotham gives them their own backstories.  We get to see the evolution of The Penguin from lowly hood to the King of Gotham crime.  We see Selina Kyle start out as a street urchin living by her wits and learning that her beauty can be as powerful a weapon as her cat-like skills.  We see Harvey Dent as the eager, young, enthusiastic crusader starting out his career in law.

Second, the heroes (particularly Wayne and future Commissioner Jim Gordon) have to have their evolution too.  About the only thing we know about Bruce Wayne's early years is the murder of his parents.  We know that that is the genesis of his crime-fighting, but do we know anything else about him post-Wayne murders?  Do we get to see how he starts dealing with this particularly traumatic blow?  Batman gave us the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, but then we jump to him as a full adult.  How he came to shape himself into the dual personas, the beginning of the Batcave, or even his day-to-day life we really don't give much thought to, until now.

Gordon too needs an origin story.  I think it is fascinating to see how one of the few honest cops rose to be Commissioner in a town that is as shady as they come.

Gotham is more Gordon-centered than Wayne-centered, so I don't think it's bad that Bruce sometimes appears to be a side player in the story.  Not that I think it's particularly good either. Sometimes Bruce Wayne does appear to be almost an afterthought, but Gotham's origins were made to be around Gordon, not Wayne.  It's a delicate balancing act that the show has to maintain: we need Gordon's fight with the system, we need Bruce's evolution from the WASP orphan into the Dark Knight, and we also need antagonists for them to face and for them to rise as well.

As I said, this is the big beef with the haters: that the villains are already there and are far too old to be menaces to Batman.  Well, I'd say that Gotham hasn't worked out its relationship with its antagonists just yet.  The age issue is a bit of a troubling one.  There's nothing wrong with Gordon being old enough to be Bruce's father (Ben McKenzie being 36, David Mazouz being 14).  Gordon would be something of a father figure to Bruce, and he would have to have been in the GCPD to start with.  Even the haters have to concede it would be not just impossible, but against established Canon to have Gordon and Wayne be contemporaries.

The other characters, well, maybe there is something off in that.  At 36 and 35, Robin Lord Taylor (Oswald Cobblepot) and Nicholas D'Agosto (Harvey Dent), are like Gordon, similarly old enough to be Bruce's father.  Cory Michael Smith (Edward Nygma) at 28 is literally twice Mazouz's age, so the confrontation between The Riddler and Batman isn't too odd.  To believe that CMS could have been Mazouz's father, you'd have to think Mazouz would have been conceived when CMS was 14 years old, which is plausible but highly unlikely. 

The others though, might be a little more difficult to paper over.

However, we aren't tied to the idea that the characters are the same age.  Oswald, Harvey, and others could theoretically be in their twenties, giving them only at most a decade older than the future Batman.  As such, should Bruce take up crime-fighting in his thirties, then his antagonists could be in their forties, which isn't that great of a gap.

My argument on the age issue is this: where exactly does it say Cobblepot, Dent, Nygma, or anyone else save Selina Kyle or maybe Poison Ivy had to be Bruce's contemporaries?  Why couldn't they be a bit older?  This isn't Gotham High, where Nygma was the President of the Chess Club, Dent head of the Future Lawyers Association, and Cobblepot and Wayne were junior members of the Gotham City Country Club.  The age issue isn't a deal-breaker, especially with the casting of people like RLT and especially D'Agosto (who looks at least a decade younger...curse his beauty).     

And as a side note, if we went by Batman, while fans were split on having the future Joker be the Wayne killer, no one seems to ever complain that The Joker would have been, like Gotham's Penguin or Two-Face, old enough to be Wayne's father either. Think about that: in Batman, the Wayne killer is at least in his late teens if not early twenties versus the pre-teen Bruce Wayne.  If we go by that, Bruce Wayne, who is probably in his late 30s at the time of the film's events, would be battling someone who would be at least in his late 40s or early 50s.  That being the case, where are all those people saying that it is impossible to have The Joker and Batman fighting it out despite their own age differences when their main argument against Gotham is that Penguin and Bruce are so much apart age-wise?

A little research reveals that the age difference between Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton is...15 years, one year GREATER than that between Cory Michael Smith and David Mazouz.  I await the haters' response.



Gotham, as a show, works for many reasons.  Chief among them are the performances.  Even the most anti-Gotham person concedes that Robin Lord Taylor, who plays Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin, has essentially run away with the show.  His is an absolutely brilliant performance: in turns weak and whimpering to murderously menacing and calculating, RLT runs the entire gamut of a seemingly pathetic figure who through a mixture of shrewd calculation and ruthless killing he rises to become the crime boss of Gotham, outwitting and outgunning experienced mob bosses like Don Falcone and Don Maroni.  Despite how he kills, one also adopts a somewhat protective attitude towards Ozzie.  We see this in his performances with guest star Carol Kane as Gertrude Kapelput, his mother.  He is extremely protective towards his mother (whom he is rather creepily close to: the scene of her sponging him while he bathes is, well, odd).  When he lies to her face about his criminal activities, causing her to leave and leaving both in tears, really tears at you.  To have someone who kills make you feel so sad for is a sign of an absolutely astonishing performance.

In short, in a just world Robin Lord Taylor would be a front-runner for an Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Emmy for his turn as Oswald Cobblepot.  The fact that his name is barely being mentioned when shows with smaller audiences are is a sign that the Television Academy has a soft spot not for genuinely brilliant performances like RLT, but for 'art' or niche programs like Game of Thrones or Better Call Saul.  Nothing against the actors on those shows or those shows themselves, but I figure Gotham has more recognition and viewers than either of those, so leaving RLT out while slipping in someone like Jonathan Banks from Better Call Saul is puzzling: the Academy voters picking people from shows THEY watch versus shows most people watch. 

We see also great performances from the other main future villain: Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma.  He makes the future Riddler likeable in his eagerness and clumsy nature with others.  We see that slow evolution to him becoming the master criminal he will end up with.  Unlike Cobblepot, who is pretty much a criminal from the get-go, Nygma works for the good guys (or semi-good guys): the Gotham City Police Department.  However, throughout the series when his story began taking more precedence, CMS dove into the crumbling mind of Nygma, driven to murder by his love for a woman (ain't that the way of the world, a dame causing us trouble).  CMS has made Nygma sympathetic but odd, slipping into lunacy with his puzzles and riddles that drive others to distraction.

I admit that I wasn't too eager about Donal Logue as Detective Harvey Bullock, James Gordon's partner, but now I find I have completely reversed my view on him.  Bullock is less the corrupt cop I imagined him to be into being more shady, staying barely within the law.  He is also cynical, sarcastic, generally unwilling to do the right thing but pretty much dragged into doing good (and his job) by the square-jawed moralistic Gordon.  However, bless Logue he actually manages to make Bullock into a more complex character than we've seen before.  In one episode, he participated in a group therapy session where he let his guard down to express his own greatest fear (dying alone and unnoticed), and he also has shown that as a detective he was just as competent as Gordon.  Logue also in an episode that focused on his early years showed how he came to be the lackadaisical figure we have come to know and love.

I also think highly of the two main younger actors: David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne and Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle.  The relationship between the future Batman and future Catwoman is part of the fun of Gotham (about the only real fun on this really dark and gritty show), and both of them really give top-notch performances as the na├»ve, unsure scion of wealth and the street kid living by her wits. 

As for the main character of Gordon, I think Ben McKenzie has that moral rectitude down pat.  I am glad that his scenes with Morena Baccarin as Dr. Leslie "Lee" Thompkins have lightened him up, because at times Gordon's rigid nature can make him come across as almost unbearable.  I'm also glad that we see that he is at least willing to bend a bit to the sleazy nature of both the city and the GCPD, for his stiff nature too can be a bit irritating. 

About the only performances that aren't particularly good are from Erin Richards as Barbara Kean and Jada Pinkett Smith as mob princess Fish Mooney.   In fairness I think their characters are not the best, but in fairness to JPS I think she was always meant to be a bit camp and over-the-top.  Therefore, I tend to forgive her broad style.  Richards is another matter: I think she comes across as blank and a bit of a nitwit, so much so one wonders apart from her body why Gordon would want to be with this person. 



In terms of other aspects, one thing that Gotham has is a great look.  The cinematography is also award-worthy.  The world of Gotham is a dark, unhappy one, befitting a city coming apart at the seams.  Note that on Gotham, it is always cloudy.  There never seems to be a bright sunny day on the show.  There is always this mood of gloom and disarray, a world of darkness.  It looks like it will always rain, and sometimes it does.  Other times it is dusk or night, but there is never any real brightness on Gotham and in Gotham, lending visually the cue that this world is one of eternal menace, where hope is in short supply when the Mayor, the Commissioner, the corporations, and most of the police department,  are on the take and the city's only hope comes from a few honest cops and a little rich orphan holed up in Wayne Manor.

The episodes have pretty much been good, keeping mostly a balance between the characters.  That isn't to say they've been perfect.  The Blind Fortune Teller, which was alleged to be the debut for the Joker, was a disaster and a poor way of introducing what should be a true iconic character (I say alleged because it hasn't been fully established that the kid was indeed the future Joker).  Sometimes the show seemed unsure of what it wanted to be: police procedural or Batman-building origin stories for the characters.  I think in the early episodes it meandered a bit, and sometimes Gotham went on odd tangents (Mooney's imprisonment on the Dollmaker's madhouse for example) when it could have focused more on building up to the final confrontation between Mooney, the Dons, and the Penguin and Bruce's discovery of a hidden chamber within Wayne Manor. 

However, when Gotham was good, it was very good.  At the moment, Season One has in my view a ranking of 8.4, which is not bad.  By no means is Gotham perfect, and hopefully in Season Two it will have a great focus on the characters while keeping some of the procedural that in a sense it should be (after all, it does deal with police investigating crimes).  It shouldn't turn into Law & Order: Gotham, but it can't go into boring subplots like Mooney's hostages or Barbara's bonkers bisexual romps.  It might also give them the chance to really investigate the Wayne murders (which kind of went by the wayside there).

Still, on the whole I think that thanks to some really solid performances, amazing cinematography, and some pretty good stories, Gotham has risen to be a fine addition to the Batman origins story.  I for one am so looking forward to this mythos-building series, and think the haters should give it a chance.  Go past some of the weaker first few episodes, but once we get into it, you'll find that a trip to Gotham is worth the time.   




Next Episode: Damned If You Do...

2 comments:

  1. If Gotham is streamed on Netflix or something, I might give it another shot since it seemed to have gotten better towards the end. However, from what I saw, I just could not take another cliched crime drama that I have seen a thousand times, which is why I dropped around episode 6 or 7. Great review though Rick.

    -James

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    Replies
    1. Definitely, it struggled to find itself early on. You should expect some Law & Order trappings (it is about detectives after all). As it started feeling its way though, it started experimenting with small story arcs involving crimes and some character explorations.

      If nothing else, Robin Lord Taylor's turn as Oswald Cobblepot is worth the cost of admission. He steals the show from everyone and it is simply one of the best performances on television I've seen.

      Should the Television Academy ignore him for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (which is likely since unlike Game of Thrones or Better Call Saul, Gotham isn't on cable), it officially gives up its duty to recognize the best in television.

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