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The failings of 'Gotham'

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GOTHAM
Jessica Miglio/FOX

Gotham, the sprawling serial set in Batman’s dingy and decadent haunt prior to his dark knight days, returns tonight with a jump-aboard for new viewers and a throat-clearing for the initiated.

Our hero, Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), starts his new assignment patrolling the mean, mad environs of Arkham Asylum—a loser beat, punishment for trying to be a straight-arrow cop in a crooked city. His partnership with morally sketchy detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) has been rebooted. Bullock now looooves Jim—gone is their tediously tempestuous rapport, at least this week—and is desperate to have him back on the force. Gordon also gains a new booster (and love interest?) in Dr. Leslie Tompkins, an Arkham physician played by Morena Baccarin in a thin role unworthy of the talent she demonstrated in Homeland and Firefly—but her presence and wit are welcome nonetheless.

The many mobster bosses, underbosses and wannabe bosses that rule Gotham and scheme against each other for clout and turf—The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), Butch (Drew Powell), Carmine Falcone (John Doman), Sal (David Zayas)—are given a handful of scenes that restate who they are and what they want and how they relate to each other. The show’s most provocative and problematic storyline—Gordon’s neglected, imperiled, sexually confused fiancé Barbara (Erin Richards) and her rekindled romance with detective Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena)—takes a turn. Meanwhile, Lil’ Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondoba) does some proto-Catwoman things with Lil’ Poison Ivy (Clare Foley). It’s cute, in a Muppet Babies kind of way. Other things happen, too. One thug kills another thug. A conscious uncoupling occurs. Gotham is a very, very busy place.

It’s also not a very good show. Gotham promised a saga that tracked the lives of Batman’s allies and enemies before Batman came along. It was, in short, to be a story of origin stories, a drama about becoming. But Gotham is too impatient to be that interesting; it wants to entertain us with the signature traits of its icons now. The show already has young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) playing dark knight detective, catting around with Selina and trying to solve the murder of his parents.

The personalities of Gordon, The Penguin, and Selina are already nearly fully formed; all they can become is more or less than what they already are. More would be intolerable, as the personalities here are already so arch and amped. Less would be a hollow gesture, as we’d be waiting around for these characters to reform around their marketable identities. Gotham Season 2: How The Penguin Got His Waddle Back!

The premise of the show came with a flaw: We know Gordon isn’t Gotham’s redeemer, so his struggles are futile. The show hasn’t yet figured out the workaround. With the city itself already a hell on Earth, the prospect of watching Gordon and friends spend who-knows-how-many seasons in a Sisyphean struggle against its demons feels exhausting. Gotham is a deterministic universe where everyone is largely predetermined—not because the writers are philosophically pessimistic, but because the defining artistic energy driving Gotham is brand management.

The best move Gotham could make by end of season is to kill Lil’ Bruce, or fake-kill him—but in a way that makes us think he’s out of the picture, and that Gordon is the only hope for Gotham. Bring Bruce back in a couple seasons, with an older actor, when Gotham is ready to push toward its endgame. Shuffle that boy off to Starling City or Central City or Smallville. Make him take Selina, too. Just get rid of all the kids. Can you tell I hate the kids? I hate the kids.

The irony is that Gotham so far is a metaphor for its own creative predicament. Reformer-redeemer Gordon and upwardly mobile wretches Fish and The Penguin flail to produce change in their worlds and lives. They are opposed by corrupt establishments determined to keep them right where they are and to squelch their bids for progress and promotion. (Here’s where an apologist might say: Gotham is a political allegory about class and stuff. Here’s where I say: No.) The struggles of the show’s cops and crooks don’t move me, anyway, because the show hasn’t made me care about stakes.

Also, after The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, any show about desperate, damned po-mo Scarfaces has to work very hard at being very good for me to give a hoot.

I hate how Gotham uses—or rather underuses—Jada Pinkett Smith and her punk lioness mob underboss. For the most part, the show keeps the character trapped in the dingy den of her usually lifeless nightclub, plotting schemes, toying with her employees or serving as a sassy threshold guardian for Gordon’s journeys into the underworld. Unleash her! Let her roam! Give her something to do! I am going to start watching Gotham wearing a T-shirt that says “Free Fish Mooney!”

Perhaps all of this was to be expected. But I didn’t expect Gotham to fail as a fanciful police procedural. My hope for NYPD Blue in Batworld hues haven’t been met. The case-of-the-week villains are either broadly-drawn, high-strange psychos or sketchily-drawn, bland baddies; our heroes are keystone cop stupid. Gotham’s showrunner, Bruno Heller, created The Mentalist, which in its early years was a very fine crime-time franchise with a bright, grim protagonist and a rogues gallery of deranged jokers. Maybe he tapped himself out, because The Mentalist is better at being Gotham than Gotham.

There’s a montage in tonight’s episode, set to metal guitar thrashing, that sums up Gotham’s lazy M.O. It finds Gordon suffering a parade of Arkham lunatics—each more cliché crazy than the last—as he investigates the episode’s case of the week, a madhouse murder mystery that requires smart people to be stupid until such time that the story decides to end. McKenzie and Logue are good actors and a winning combination; they deserve better writing.

Am I being harsh? I expect a lot from films and television shows derived from superhero comic books because I am a fan of superhero comic books, and I expect a lot from the comics, too. I came of age in the ’80s, a time when the genre took advantage of changing modes of distribution and made a leap in sophistication and ambition, marked by formal daring, realism, moral ambiguity, irreverence, and iconoclasm. It was a golden age analogous to the recent cable-driven golden age of TV drama. It was quickly followed by a discouraging period in which publishers poorly nurtured, if not squandered outright, this renaissance by aping the “edgy” sensibility instead of the innovation. TV might be breaking in a similarly bad direction. Gotham itself is as much a product of nihilism chic and the anti-hero glut as it is of the Superhero Inc. takeover of Hollywood.

The premise of Gotham excited me because it evoked a classic expression of the ’80s renaissance—Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli—and another, later comic that stands on its shoulders: Gotham Central, a gritty crime title that told tales of Batman’s city from the police’s point of view. Gotham is neither of those works, nor should it be. The best way to “service” a “fanboy” like me isn’t to sprinkle superhero adaptations with Easter eggs that affirm my geekiness (Ooo! Ooo! Morena Baccarin’s Dr. Leslie Thompkins is a wink and a link to the Leslie Thompkins introduced in Detective Comics #457, March, 1976!). A better way to please me would be to flatter my affection for this kind of material and my belief in its cultural worth with high-quality treatments.

But the truth is, I don’t see Gotham as a show for comic book fanboys. If anything, Gotham is post-fanboy, or fanboy-irrelevant. You don’t need deep knowledge or even meager knowledge of Batman lore to appreciate the drama; you only need general awareness of various pop-culture extrapolations of Batman. Gotham is aimed at a demographic (and media-saturated psychographic) who count two sets of Batman movie franchises as life markers. (This is to say nothing of the shades of Harry Potter in Young Bruce and Katniss in Selina.) The show groks with our memories of both film series and finds its points of difference in responding to them. Selina is an apt symbol for the synthesis and spin: She’s the Anne Hathaway Catwoman, but with Michelle Pfeiffer’s face—except she’s a teenager!

Gotham’s aesthetic and spirit split the difference between Tim Burton’s operatic quirk and Christopher Nolan’s operatic grit. It aspires to a more “fun” presentation of Batlandia than we’ve seen of late by tempering the grim with absurdity (and kids, those damn kids!) and encouraging over-the-top performances from the actors, a walk-back from Nolan that makes Gotham more Joel Schumacher-esque than anything else. It’s Hollywood trying to be “comic booky.”

The premise dials down the costumes and codenames and simplifies the mythology, but Gotham isn’t Bryan Singer’s X-Men or the early seasons of the old Smallville series, flashpoints at the dawn of Planet Comic-Con strip-mining. It isn’t trying to court the largest possible audience by sanding off conventions some might find—or used to find—campy-silly. Gotham assumes that the Batman mythos is now so ubiquitous that even someone who has never read a Batman comic can dig a pitch like “What if we did a Batman show that really wasn’t about Batman all?”

Gotham is fluff formed from the smoke trails of Batty things before it. And with Hollywood currently feasting on so many superhero properties and pop culture assimilating so many superhero worlds, Gotham could be the shape of mediocre things to come. Comic books aren’t taking over the world. They’re being Borged.

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