Saturday, October 18, 2014

Criminals Are a Superstitious, Foreshadowing Lot

I’m going to get this out of the way right at the beginning:  I’m a huge Batman fan, but I hate seeing his origin story.  The reason is because I’ve seen it so. Many. Damn. Times.  And now, come to your television and mine, is Gotham; yet another origin story for Batman.  And as the TV Sluts most dedicated comic book nerd, I’m here to break it down for you.  Fair warning: I’m getting Bat-nerdy ALL OVER THIS MOFO.  I won’t feel badly if you need to turn back now.

I"m so desensitized to this image that for all I know, this could be from Modern Family.

The saving grace of this take on Batman’s origin is that it is told through the eyes of a young Lt. James Gordon, the man who will one day become Gotham City’s famous Commissioner of Police.  As we see how Gordon will eventually become the paragon of law and order, the show is promising to focus more on the development of the various rogues and ne’er-do-wells that will eventually becomes Batman’s famous villains than on the Dark Knight himself.  As such, it’s sort of Batman without the Batman, though a young Bruce Wayne is a regular character.

The first episode sets the stage for us with a variety of characters good, bad, and ambivalent react to the shocking murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the wealthiest couple in the city and, obviously, parents to young Bruce.  We see the reaction to the crime from the three different factions of people Gotham has laid out for us: the police investigating the crime, the mob factions who see it as a potential leverage point, and the people caught up in between, most of whom have rather familiar names.

They're like the Brady Bunch.  With more secrets.  And darker clothes.  

And that’s where Gotham earns a lot of its nerd street cred right off the bat.  Seriously, you guys, there hasn’t been a finer collection of Easter Eggs in one place since the last White House Easter Egg Roll.   All the mainstays of the Batman universe are here:  Sarah Essen is Jim Gordon’s captain.  His partner is Harvey Bullock.  The CSI-guy who helps them understand the ballistics of evidence is Edward Nygma.  Bullock and Gordon, who work in Homicide, are envious and jealous of two other cops always showing them up from Major Crimes, ReneeMontoya and Crispus Allen.  And that’s just the police force.  The show opens on a teenage Selina Kyle just learning how to be a thief.  The daughter of a mob lackey is a young Poison Ivy.  Mob boss Fish Mooney’s underling is none other than Oswald Cobblepot.  Right off the bat (heh), your Batman geeks are SQUEEE-ing all over the place.

The risk for the show, then, is how to tell a major story that everyone knows, how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, with this many characters, most of whom are the ones that are usually in the periphery.  Gotham aims to tackle that problem by running largely like a police procedural with an emphasis on the job that James Gordon has fallen into as the Last Good Man in Gotham City.  We can only presume that the deeper stories, already starting to be seeded in the pilot episode, will begin to fill in the holes that a Law & Order: Gotham would be unwilling to.

So how does it do in its first four episodes?  All told, not too bad.  Let’s start with look and feel.  Production value is high and the show looks slick.  The show gets a lot of free atmosphere simply from filming in New York rather than Los Angeles or Vancouver and as such, Gotham City looks and feels real.  New York is stylized, blending the actual architecture of a gritty city with enhanced fantastical elements to give it a more gothic feel.  The skies are always moody, the streets are always dirty.  To a comic book nerd like me, it looks very close to how Gotham City is supposed to look.  Denny O’Neil, one of the all-time greatest Batman writers who help shaped the character, once described Gotham as looking exactly like New York below 14th street at 10 minutes past midnight on the coldest, wettest night in November.  The show has followed that lead, effectively making Gotham City a character in and of herself.

So how about the story?  Wisely, the central mystery that we’re given (who actually killed the Waynes?) is carried through the first four episodes without being overbearing.   The show is devoting much more time to showing how corrupt Gotham City is and what it means to try to keep this city, built on a precarious system of checks and balances between the warring crime families, the police, and the emerging underclass of citizens who are taking matters into their own hands, from falling into chaos.  The writing itself is, for the most part, good while obviously trying to find its pace and hit its stride, a common issue for new shows.  Some truly clunky dialogue in the first episode is thankfully significantly improved by the third, which gives me a lot of confidence for the rest of the season.  (Though for the sake of full disclosure, I would watch this show no matter what just because of the topic.  I’m a sucker.)   

This course of action is not uncalled for in my case. 

The performances vary from middling to fascinating.  Donal Logue’s Harvey Bullock and Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot in particular steal just about every scene they’re in.  Taylor lets his proto-Penguin be sleazy and slimy while at the same time making you want to know more about this kid who is so clearly set on a bad path.   By episode four, Oswald has already started to become a minor player in the nascent gang war that has started to erupt since the death of the Waynes.  Likewise, Logue nails Harvey Bullock as the cop who is just going along to get along in a city as corrupt as Gotham is, despite the fact that underneath it all he really wishes he could make a difference.   The actor having the most fun with a role, however, is clearly Jada Pinkett Smith, cast as a mid-level mob boss named Fish Moody who nominally is in service to Carmine Falcone, the head of the most powerful mob family in Gotham, but scheming to improve her own station.  Watching Jada Pinkett Smith as she Eartha Kitts al over her scenes is legitimately fun.   And while Ben McKenzie is solid as James Gordon, it’s hard to get too creative with a hero character who has to carry all the action.  His best scenes so far have been playing off young Selina Kyle, cast here as a street orphan who’s ridiculously talented at getting by on her own.  (Selina is perhaps the character that the writers have nailed most solidly.  Every line she has absolutely sounds like something the 13-year-old version of Catwoman would say.)


That kind of devotion to the comics without being hemmed in by them is part of what makes Gotham so enjoyable for me.  The writers are playing with any number of nerdy references: Gordon and his Fiancé, Barbara, live in a curiously lavish penthouse apartment with the main feature being a huge clockface that doubles as a window.  Comic readers know that this couple’s future daughter, who becomes Batgirl, is frequently drawn in her own high-tech apartment in a prominent clocktower somewhere in Gotham.  Episode four revolves around a development deal to bring back the abandoned Arkham Asylum.  (A map showing the neighborhood even refers to the area as “Arkham City.")  Characters meet at the corner of Fourth and Grundy.  The dancers at Fish Moody’s night club are dressed curiously as harlequins.   There's even a struggling comedian who auditions at the same club.  (The producers have stated that they will tease exactly who becomes the Joker over time, and likely ambiguously owing to the ambiguous nature of the character's origins in the comics.)  

A Batman TV show has been something of the Holy Grail for both networks and Warner Brothers for some time.  For as popular as the character is, there are a dozen reasons why the last time Batman was on live action television, he was played by Adam West.  And while Gotham bears no resemblance at all to the 1960s Batman, fans of the Bat universe will be more than pleased to see it brought to them each week.  Whether or not it can win over more casual viewers is now the question.

Gotham airs Monday nights at 8pm on Fox.

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