If the majority of reviews are correct and Gotham is one of the best fall pilots, we’re in serious trouble. I went into the show feeling cautiously optimistic but when it concluded, I was depressed and confused. The first episode is a complete mess; the tone is all over the map, the performances are mostly wooden, the dialogue is atrocious, and the attempt to create a comic book atmosphere fails. There is a good show buried somewhere in this material but it’s going to take a hell of a lot of digging to find it.
The main problem is that Gotham can’t decide at all what it is. It wants to be a gritty cop show but it also wants to be accessible for children. It wants to be a Batman origin story but it wants most of his main villains to still be front and center. It wants to be taken seriously as a drama but also campy fun. And it wants to recreate a lot of famous characters without actually changing much of anything about them. All of these things could work together if the writing was stronger and the show more confident in itself but what we got were scenes and characters that felt as if they didn’t belong in the same universe, let alone the same show.
We start with the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents. Oh wait, actually we start with a young Catwoman stalking the streets and looking like a steam punk cos-player. She steals some milk from a passerby, a wallet from a businessman and then finds herself watching as the Wayne’s are gunned down by a robber. Soon enough, rookie cop Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and veteran Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) are on the case. The death scene uses the same iconic imagery from the comics, movies, and other TV shows except this time we get CGI blood shooting out of their chests. Because ‘gritty’ I guess? And kids love blood?
Having Catwoman be a witness to the crime is a potentially interesting idea, but why start the show with her? Especially if Jim Gordon is supposed to be the focus? The answer is Gotham wants to cram in as many recognizable characters as soon as possible and fuck it if it makes any sense or is relevant to the plot. The scary thing? Catwoman’s introduction is the best one, even though she doesn’t say a word the entire episode. She, at least, feels like the character we all know and while comic fans may have scoffed at the way she stole milk to feed a stray cat, it was actually one of the more subtle character moments of the night.
Take the Riddler’s introduction for example. He’s a lab tech for the GCPD named Edward Nygma and he presents all his findings to Bullock and Gordon in riddles. Bullock even has the cringe worthy line, “If I wanted riddles Ed, I’d read the funny pages.” Get it?! CUZ HE’LL BE THE RIDDLER LATER!! AND BATMAN WAS ORIGNALLY IN THE FUNNY PAGES!!! SEE HOW WE CAN CONNECT EVERYTHING?! Gag me. And that’s all we get of Nygma. He’s just there so people can recognize him.
Robin Lord-Taylor fares a bit better as Oswald Cobblepot, the future Penguin, if only because he has more scenes and really looks the part. Taylor as the potential to make Cobblepot a fascinating villain, but the writing isn’t doing him any favors. He’s portrayed as ambitious, malicious, cowardly and stupid but none of these characteristics mesh. It’s as if four writers had different takes on the characters and all got to write one scene of his. Again, those characteristics could work together and since he’s a psychopath, it would make sense for him to be so changeable but it does not feel like that’s the choice the show made; it just feels like bad writing.
Bad writing permeates nearly every interaction between the idealistic Gordon and the corrupt Bullock. Donal Logue handles the material better than McKenzie but both are drawn too broadly as characters. Really, the above words are all I can think of to describe the way they’re characterized. Gordon is ‘idealistic’ and Bullock is ‘corrupt’. That’s all I got cuz that’s all the show gave me. And if the creators want Gotham to feel like a cop show then the main characters need to behave…uh…more like cops.
For example, would a detective go up to a little boy who just watched his parents die and promise him that he would catch the killer? And then upon discovering that the guy they caught was framed, would he knock on the boy’s door and tell him that? And would he then ask the boy to not tell anybody about their conversations and then promise again to catch the real killer? It’s terribly handled the way the show tries to force a connection between young Bruce Wayne and young Jim Gordon. The explanation we get is that Gordon’s father died when he was young so he feels bad for the kid, but come the fuck on. The only reason Gordon clues little Wayne (ha) in on the investigation is because the writers know he will be Batman one day and needed to find a way to plug him into the show.
I don’t envy show runner Bruno Heller. I know he’s capable of great writing. He was behind HBO’s Rome after all. Gotham can’t be all his fault. I’m sure the executives at FOX want the show to be one thing, their investors want it to be another, and Heller is caught in the middle. He’s also trying to please die hard fans and welcome people who have never heard of the Batman universe. Then he’s gotta recreate characters while making them similar enough to their comic counterparts. It’s no easy task.
The result though is a show that tries to please everyone and winds up pleasing no one. I can’t shake the feeling that my first reaction when I heard about this show was the right one: Bruce Wayne shouldn’t be in it at all and they should just adapt Gotham Central. In case you don’t know, Gotham Central is a comic series about the Gotham Police department struggling to remain relevant in a city patrolled by a superhero. Batman is barely in it but his presence looms over every issue. It’s brilliant, gritty and an interesting spin on the whole mythology. Gotham is trying too hard to have its cake and eat it too. We’ve got the cop angle but we’ve also got young Bruce Wayne, too many villains (don’t even get me started on Poison Ivy’s intro and that awful Joker tease), an utterly corrupt police force, two powerful mobsters, and a potential lesbian love triangle. That last one is the most offensive. Making Gordon’s fiancée a former lesbian who once dated a rival cop of his is just soap opera bullshit and it cheapens all three characters.
There are bright spots here and there. John Doman shows up at the end as mob kingpin Carmine Falcone (fans will hate the way the show pronounces his name) and he’s very effective in the role. He provides the episodes’ only laugh line and could be an interesting villain, particularly in the way he tries to bring Gordon over to his side. The final scene between Bullock, Gordon and Cobblepot tries to set up what the show will be about (Gordon fighting corruption on all sides) and even if it’s only one third a success, that’s still one third more successful than the rest of the scenes.
But overall, this was close to a disaster; a show with no consistent tone and way too eager to please everyone. I’ll give it another two episodes to see if it picks up but only because I love this universe. If this was any other show, I don’t think I would have made it through the whole hour.
P.S. The music score was downright OPRESSIVE. It never let up and seemed to be saying, ‘THIS IS EXCITING, THIS IS EXCITING, THIS IS EXCITING’ in order to make up for how uninteresting the plot was.