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Before the Dark Knight: Gotham

So this is coming a little late, but you need to understand: I really wanted to hate Gotham.

Oh god, I wanted to hate it with every fiber in me. Let me count the reasons.

  1. I wanted to hate it because it was, literally, the show that got Almost Human canceled (it has the same production company, and Fox decided they could only afford one show from them, which meant that Almost Human had to go.)
  2. I wanted to hate it because it seemed like far too cute and cliche an idea: let’s go see all your favorites of Gotham before they fight/start crime!
  3. I wanted to hate it because those first trailers made it look like Gotham High School, and they were clearly going to shoe-horn in every damn character who ever appeared in Detective Comics.
  4. I wanted to hate it because, as much as I loved that Renee Montoya was going to be in it, they were totally messing with her timeline and I resented that. I wanted The Question, not a throw-away easter egg.
  5. I wanted to hate it because I love Batman and I couldn’t imagine how they were going to make this work.

Except I don’t hate Gotham. I really, really do not hate this show. A lot.

I love Gotham, and it’s mostly because of, well, Gotham.

Specifically, I mean the titular character. The biggest star of the show is the city itself, and in case you ever had a moment’s doubt, Gotham is a villain.

In all the movies, in all the cartoons, in all the comics, never has anyone done as perfect of job of capturing why Batman exists. Batman exists because Gotham exists, and Gotham is the Heart of Darkness. The city depicted in this TV show is so corrupt, so morally bankrupt, so beyond redemption, that the creators of this show are answering a question I never even realized I was asking: why would Batman put on the cowl in the first place? What made him who he becomes?

Now don’t say because of Joe Chill. Don’t say because of his parents. It’s more complicated than that, and the fact this show has actually managed to capture the determination in a 10-year-olds eyes as he realizes that the decay and rot at the heart of GOTHAM is ultimately what killed his parents is pretty heavy stuff. There’s no going to the police. The police are corrupt (even if that Jim Gordon guy is pretty nice.) City Hall is corrupt. Wayne Enterprises is corrupt. This kid can count the number of people he can trust on one hand and not use up all his fingers. It’s not really a surprise that at some point in the future becoming a costumed vigilante who uses a bat as his totem will seem like a valid lifestyle choice.

Bruno Heller has crafted a story in which Batman is the only possible outcome, the only believable outcome. Batman is inevitable.

Damn, but this is how you do a prequel.

Now, the TV show itself doesn’t focus on Bruce to the exclusion of all else, which is good, because his story is somewhat simple at the moment (although it’s fun to see the occasionally glimpse of the dark knight he will become.) Most of the story is about Jim Gordon, the one honest, competent cop in Gotham (Renee Montoya and her partner Crispus Allen do seem to be honest, but the jury is out on their competence.) Also getting major screen time is Jim’s partner, the cynical and corrupt sleazebag with a heart-of-gold, Harvey Bullock.

Jim is trying to find out why Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered and also survive in a landscape that expects him to be on the take to various crime families as a matter of course. (The police are so corrupt that at one point when the local crime boss wants to kill someone under police protection, he sends down one of his chief enforcers to the police station and demands the person be handed over. HE IS.) Gordon has a fiancée, Barbara, who was formally involved with Renee Montoya, so Renee has an extra personal reason for hoping she can prove Gordon is corrupt, which she tries to do for for quite a few episodes.

It all works pretty well. Jim closes a lot of high-profile cases early, makes the papers a lot (in a good way,) and it’s clear that even if organized crime finds his honesty worrying, he’s a cop on his way up. Of course he doesn’t know it, but his bane and blessing are both embodied in a criminal with whom he seems inextricably linked.

Penguin.

Dear god, this man is a treasure. Penguin’s journey through the criminal underworld mirrors Gordon’s, which I’m sure is not coincidence. Both men are trying to find their way through very dangerous territory, but where Gordon’s ‘handicap’ is moral, Penguin’s is literal — a physical deformity that makes him walk with one foot splayed out in a waddle. Saddled with the nickname ‘Penguin’ — a name he hates — he is consistently the subject of ridicule and bullying, surviving largely because his obsequious fawning endears him to a variety of masters. He’s also a liar, a snitch, and a murdering sociopath, who has no compunctions against killing for the thinnest of reasons and is driven by insatiable ambition.

Penguin is a Shakespearean Richard III who manipulates everyone around him, plays the fool when he needs to, and has so far consistently proven to always be the smartest man in any given room. He has latched on to Jim Gordon and has determined that he will use Gordon to claw his way to the top of Gotham’s underworld. I almost feel sorry for his boss turned rival Fish Mooney, although with a name like Fish, it’s not exactly a mystery which way this fight is going to go. (I’m sure she’ll turn in a few good licks before the end though.)

There’s some occasional dark humor and silliness, a morbid macabre sense of the surreal that I’ve seen other reviewers mock but which is, frankly, completely in keeping with a city that would spit out the likes of the Joker and Riddler without batting an eye. Speaking of which, the Riddler (pre-question mark) is also making regular appearances, as Edward Nigma (oh, Gotham, you punster) the adorkably nerdiest of them all CSI tech who desperately wants to be taken seriously by the popular kids (i.e. Gotham’s police detectives.) We’ve all known people like this, who have no social graces at all but desperately want to fit in. Every episode brings him a little closer to snapping.

However…the show is not perfect.

Selena Kyle’s presence on the show originally felt like the producers felt obligated to include her because, you know, Catwoman. It didn’t completely work, and really felt downright stalker-like at moments, with her obsessing over Bruce Wayne for reasons that were unclear and poorly articulated. Selena thankfully becomes more important to the plot later, but I had a real problem with her early scenes, which seemed to revolve solely around Bruce Wayne and his story arc. At times it felt like she was only there for Bruce to crush on, which is an awkward/creepy subplot given their ages. The contrast was particularly jarring because she seemed so rudderless and adrift in comparison to little Bruce’s laser focus on goals and achievement. (Even as a child, he is the man with the plan.) I like the effect that she’s having on him — in many ways, Selina is shaping Bruce through her cynicism about the mean streets of their city as much if not more than Alfred Pennyworth and Jim Gordon. However, it took about nine episodes for her to stop feeling like someone who only exists for Bruce’s benefit, and frankly that’s just not Selina’s style.

Major Crimes Unit is also…weird, primarily because it has somehow been divorced almost entirely from the GPD. Who runs Major Crimes? It apparently isn’t the police commissioner which is pretty much contrary to how that works anywhere else. So that’s a little odd. In the comics (and in the movies for the most part,) MCU is the group that handles supervillain cases, but since supervillains don’t really exist in Gotham yet, they’ve ended up feeling like a very open-chartered version of Internal Affairs. I’m at a loss to explain how that’s supposed to work. I also find Renee and Crispus (both important characters in the mainline DC universe) to be oddly adrift and lacking any real personal motives or story arcs.

All and all though, this show is far better than I expected, and I’m genuinely excited to see where they go with this.

This entry was posted in: Reviews

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Jenn is a writer, artist, and game producer living in a castle near the sea in a land called Honalee. (If anyone can prove any of that's not true, please email us and we'll update this page immediately.) She writes fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal mysteries.

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