Saturday, August 6, 2016

Before Batman: Gotham Struggles To Find Its Stride In Season One!

The Good: Some engaging characters, Decent plots, Moments of performance
The Bad: Mixed performances by the younger cast members, Frequently gory, A lot of very unlikable characters
The Basics: The first season of Gotham is ambitious and when it plays to that potential, it works, but it stumbles almost as often as it hits.

Because I review every element of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, despite having a preference for DC Comics characters, I decided to spend the last week reviewing a wide range of DC Comics themes products. It was part of my lead-up to Suicide Squad (reviewed here!) and I figured for a little denouement from that, I would finally get around to reviewing Gotham's first season. I've watched the first season of Gotham in its entirety three times now (and at least two episodes from it twice more than that!), yet I had not managed to buckle down and write my review until now. What better time to write about a villain-packed show than the premiere weekend of Suicide Squad?!

The premise of Gotham is very simple: it is a prequel to Batman that explores both how Gotham City got so bad that it needed a vigilante hero to rise to save it and how Jim Gordon rose through the ranks of the corrupt police department to become Commissioner Gordon. The first season of Gotham quickly establishes its premise and challenges viewers to stick with it, despite there being only two good characters for the bulk of the season, an unseemly amount of graphic violence/gore, and an occasionally unbalanced mix of episodic and serialized plotlines. The result is a show that truly hinges on a fanbase already invested. It is also worth noting that for the DC Television Universe, Gotham is its own self-sustaining entity; it is not part of the same narrative as Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and/or Legends Of Tomorrow. That allows the show to present adult-themed stories which those who are fans of the Batman franchise would expect, but even there, Gotham pushes the envelope whenever it can. Case in point: In The Dark Knight (reviewed here!), when The Joker slams a gangster's head on the table to impale him through the eye, it is not shown; at least two episodes of Gotham feature graphic mutilation of eyeballs on-screen.

The first season of Gotham opens on an average night in Gotham City, where the street urchin known as Cat is thieving her way through a crowd when she is forced to run from one of the people she ripped off. Running into an alleyway, she witnesses the murder of Dr. Thomas and Martha Wayne, which leaves their son, Bruce, orphaned. Detective Jim Gordon and his mob-friendly partner get the case and Gordon promises Bruce Wayne he will find the person who killed his parents. In fact, with remarkable ease - despite a few near-death experiences at the hands of Fish Mooney and her cronies - Gordon and Bullock find the apparent killer and are forced to gun him down. Very quickly, however, the pair realizes they have accidentally killed a patsy and Gordon finds himself under investigation from Internal Affairs.

When Gordon appears unable to make good on his promise, Bruce Wayne begins his own investigation into the death of his parents and he begins to learn about the various dealings of Wayne Enterprises (his father's company). While Bruce Wayne discovers that mobsters have taken over Thomas Wayne's flagship project - a revitalization of Arkham - Gordon finds himself in the middle of a turf war between rival gangsters Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni. Falcone is plagued by dissent within his ranks, most notably from Fish Mooney, who believes Falcone is a relic, while Maroni benefits from Mooney discarding the young wannabe Oswald Cobblepot.

As the gang war looms, independent and connected individuals in Gotham City begin to experiment upon the populace, which leads to the disparity between Gotham's serialized and episodic elements. The first season is not simply a mobster vs. mobster vs. law enforcement story. Instead, while Bruce Wayne mourns and Fish Mooney plots, an episode will come along where a crazed scientist experiments on his child or children are abducted by crazies or Arkham Asylum experiences a rash of murders. The episodic elements of the first season of Gotham are used to introduce popular characters from the Batman franchise. While Oswald Cobblepot, Edward Nygma, Selina Kyle, Ivy, and Zsasz are introduced almost immediately in the primary, serialized, plotline, Jonathan Crane, The Graysons, Dr. Dulmacher, and a character widely believed to the the boy who will become The Joker are all introduced for single or double-episode mysteries that are essentially wrapped up by the episode's end.

The problem with the first season of Gotham is that the disparity between the two types of episodes makes for a show that is more erratic than it is satisfying. Objectively viewed, a great deal of time is spent on characters who are utterly loathsome: Fish Mooney and Oswald Cobblepot are career criminals who are cruel, scheming and entirely unlikable. It is virtually impossible to empathize even with Cobblepot as he quickly illustrates his willingness to murder people pretty much just for the hell of it (or a pair of shoes he likes).

At the flip side of the spectrum, the first season of Gotham rushes characters in the direction viewers know they will eventually go. From his first episode, Harvey Dent exhibits an explosive temper, for example. The real tragedy of this comes in the form of Edward Nygma. Nygma is the character who viewers know will become a villain, but he is not given even a full season in which viewers can completely empathize with and appreciate his abused, ostracized nature. Nygma spends much of the season excelling professionally, but being derided by his co-workers and rejected by his love interest, mostly because he is brilliant, but socially awkward. The long-arc of Gotham would have been so much better if Nygma has spent multiple seasons reaching his breaking point, but, alas, near the end of the first season, Nygma is inorganically turned to the Dark Side and it feels rushed.

And that is, largely, why it took me so long to write about the first season of Gotham: I watched the season three times before I could acknowledge that I did not truly like any of the characters as they were presented. I would never have cared about Oswald Cobblepot and what happened to the odious little sneak if I wasn't mildly interested to see how the writers and producers treated his transition from abused lackey to corrupt businessman. Similarly, the first season of Gotham is remarkably unsatisfying for watching Bruce Wayne as he gets no genuine clues in the deaths of his parents; he is basically mired in proving just how cold the case is. And, objectively viewed, in the first season of Gotham, Alfred is just a dick. He is such a prick to Bruce Wayne that it becomes almost inconceivable that Wayne would evolve into Batman and keep Alfred around, as opposed to jettisoning the butler from the payroll and going to work for his parent's company.

Despite some of the problems with creating prequel versions of characters who have been portrayed as icons, Gotham has some interesting and intriguing characters. In the first season of Gotham, the primary characters are:

Detective James Gordon - A highly-ethical, determined detective with the Gotham City Police Department, he is paired with the very jaded Bullock and he makes the rash promise to Bruce Wayne to find his parents' killer. When forced by the mob to kill Oswald Cobblepot for his betrayal of Fish Mooney, he fakes the murder instead. His lie is quickly exposed, putting his life in danger, when Cobblepot resurfaces in Gotham and he has to vouch for Oswald to Maroni. Keeping that truth from Barbara ruins their relationship. He determinedly puts together the pieces of a conspiracy that illustrate that the mob has control over most of Gotham's institutions, including the Mayor's office and the police commissioner. After Barbara leaves, he finds romance with the new forensic doctor, Leslie Thompkins,

Detective Harvey Bullock - Jaded and often drunk, he tries to never work harder than he has to, when he is assigned to work with Gordon. He is friendly with Fish Mooney and corrupt enough to take food from local food cart vendors. He interrogates suspects violently and has some experience with Gotham's more twisted side, as an apparent copycat of a goat killer crime indicates. He becomes increasingly loyal to Gordon, especially after Gordon manages to get him out from under the thumb of Commissioner Loeb,

Edward Nygma - The Gotham City Police Department's riddle-loving forensics expert, he is brilliant, but socially-awkward. He tries to flirt with Kristen Kringle, but his attempts at reaching out are treated as creepy. He aids in investigations and uses his brilliance to get the GCPD coroner fired. He becomes protective of Kringle, which leads him to start to exhibit signs of schizophrenia,

Barbara Kean - Gordon's socialite girlfriend, she stops trusting Gordon when he starts keeping some of his work secrets . . . but they follow him home. She leaves Gordon for her ex-girlfiend who informed her that Gordon is under investigation. When Montoya pushes her away, she leaves Gotham and when she returns, she discovers Selina and Ivy have taken up in her apartment and does not care. Her life is turned upside down when she falls victim to a serial killer,

Dr. Leslie Thompkins - A medical doctor who Jim Gordon meets when he is briefly assigned to security work at Arkham, she follows Gordon back to the GCPD after the medical examiner is relieved of duty. She gets excited about mysteries and miffed when Gordon prioritizes "professionalism" over showing affection at the stationhouse,

Carmine Falcone - The aging head of a Gotham mob family, he knew Gordon's father. He maintains control over his outfit by keeping various interests - like Fish Mooney and the Russians - in line. He has a deep love of his long-dead mother, which Mooney plays off of in order to plant someone close to him in her attempt to muscle him out. He attempts to make peace with Maroni while protecting his own interests,

Sal Maroni - Falcone's rival, he sees the potential of Oswald Cobblepot and takes him in when Cobblepot returns to Gotham. He tries to run his business and grow it, despite Falcone's plans, occasionally being forced to compromise, like with the Arkham project,

Fish Mooney - Falcone's most dangerous lieutenant, she quickly realizes that Cobblepot cannot be trusted and orders him killed. Soon after, she makes a power play on Falcone, finding an ambitious young woman who can get close to Falcone and make him vulnerable. When her power play fails, she is forced to flee Gotham and, in the process, she finds herself locked in the basement of an island mansion where people are victims of an organ harvesting scheme. She begins her return to power by organizing the inmates and working to free them from their prison,

Oswald Cobblepot - A young man with a noticeable limp, he is derided by those around him for his physicality (he is mockingly called "Penguin"). When he betrays Fish Mooney, she orders him killed, but Gordon spares his life, telling him never to return to Gotham. He does, however, and he quickly works his way into Maroni's inner circle. He gets into a position to get what he appears to want most, which is Fish Mooney's club, which he opens as a venue that will give his aging mother a place to perform (even if his customers don't like it!),

Selina Kyle - A girl who lives on the streets of Gotham, she is a thief who witnesses the murder of the Waynes. Ever resourceful, she tells Gordon she can identify the killer in order to avoid being put in foster care or sent to an orphanage after criminals prey upon many of Gotham's homeless children. She is put up at Wayne Manor for protection and she befriends Bruce Wayne, attempting to make him more streetsmart,

Alfred Pennyworth - Bruce Wayne's legal guardian after his employers are killed, he mentors Wayne and tries to get him to move on from his parents' death. He was once a soldier and when one of his old friends comes back into his life, he is almost killed. He protects Bruce Wayne and starts to teach his young ward how to defend himself,

and Bruce Wayne - The only child of Thomas and Martha Wayne, he is oprhaned when they are killed in a shooting in an alley. He becomes determined to find out who killed them and is grateful for Jim Gordon's assistance. He befriends Selina Kyle and is heartbroken when she confesses to him that she never saw the killer and finds himself at odds with her when she crosses the line in finding the man who tried to kill Alfred. His investigation makes him question both his father's motives and the actions of those at Wayne Enterprises following the murder of his parents.

There are even more characters, but the truth is Sarah Essen (Gordon and Bullock's boss), Montoya (who will potentially become The Question), and Butch Gilzean (Mooney's generic right-hand lacky who is brainwashed to become Cobblepot's enforcer) are presented incredibly monolithically or are underused. Indeed, one feels like the producers had no idea what to do with Montoya as she barely appears after sleeping with, then rejecting, Barbara.

The performances in the first season of Gotham are decidedly mixed. David Mazouz is just a kid, so it's hard to criticize him for playing Bruce Wayne as just a kid. Unfortunately, though, he lacks the gravitas to play Bruce Wayne as credible in his determination. Conversely, Camren Bicondova steals all her scenes as Selina Kyle, including playing off Erin Richards (Barbara) and Jada Pinkett Smith (Fish Mooney) in such a way that viewers feel they are of the same caliber. Bicondova has decent emotive and physical performance skills to make viewers believe she can be a great actor (if that is what the young woman choses to do with her life!).

Cory Michael Smith is great with delivering technobabble as Edward Nygma and Robin Lord Taylor quickly proves that he was not just cast for his look to embody Oswald Cobblepot. One of the real joys in the first season of Gotham is the lone scene Smith and Taylor share with one another. Ben McKenzie is somewhat white bread as Jim Gordon, but the truth is, it's pretty much the role, more than any problem with his performance. Gordon is characterized as a lawful good character and, as the first season of Gotham shows, that can be tough to play with much depth, charisma or complexity. At the other end of the spectrum, Jada Pinkett Smith plays Fish Mooney as opportunistic, cold, and willing to do horrible things . . . but her performance fails to make the viewer empathize or like her character. I love a good anti-hero and some of the best characters on television are slimy people willing to do whatever they can to advance their own agendas - Garak and Gul Dukat on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (reviewed here!) are great examples of this - but Fish Mooney never rises to that level because viewers never truly invest in rooting for her to take over. Like McKenzie, the fault probably does not lie with Pinkett Smith; she does the best she can with the material written for her.

Ultimately, it is disparities that make the first season of Gotham a tough sell to recommend. The situations are occasionally interesting, but they are not genuine mysteries; the characters are occasionally intriguing, but only because we're geeking out because we know who they are bound to become. Gotham is the prequel for Batman fans; not the show that will develop a new fanbase well.

For other works from the 2014 – 2015 television season, please check out my reviews of:
Game Of Thrones - Season 5
The Big Bang Theory - Season 8
Modern Family - Season 6
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Season 2
The Flash - Season 1
Orange Is The New Black - Season 3
Sense8 - Season 1
Grace And Frankie - Season 1
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Season 1
Agent Carter - Season 1
Daredevil - Season 1
The Newsroom - Season 3
House Of Cards - Season 3
Doctor Who - Season 8
True Blood - Season 7
The Walking Dead - Season 5


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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