Our recap of last week’s Gotham was absorbed into last week’s Thanksgiving break. But we were a group of (as was implied) Winnie the Poohs snuggled into our beds for a holiday hibernation, so chances are you wouldn’t have even wanted to read what I had to say last week. Mostly, it would have been sleepy half-thoughts and typos where too much hunny was gunked into the keyboard.
Since last week, we’ve pulled a switcheroo. Here at FSR, we’re wide-eyed and ready to go, but Gordon and Penguin and Sal Maroni just settled into their periwinkle nightgowns for a winter’s rest. Last week was the Gotham mid-season finale, and that means no new episodes until an undisclosed date in early 2015. So let’s make the best of what we’ve got. While the show’s napping, we’ll take a look at how Gotham has progressed; what’s changed, what hasn’t changed (and probably should), and what we’d like to see when Gotham wakes from its slumber for another half-season of Batman-tinged cop drama.
Gordon Went From Boy Scout to Badass Action Boy Scout
The first time we ever laid eyes on Detective James Gordon, he was a hero cop who wouldn’t play by everyone else’s rules. Hostage situation at police headquarters? According to every single cop in the place, the solution is “shoot bullets into the perp until he’s out of blood.” Gordon uses his head (also: a bottle of pills, his fists) to save the day with minimal bodily harm. The last time we’ll see Gordon in 2014, he’s been reassigned to Arkham Asylum security duty, because he’s still a hero cop and he still refuses to play by anyone else’s rules. Kinda the same really.
(Oh, and here’s a fun coincidence for you: “willing to hash it out with the overlooked and “reassigned to a crap detail” are exactly the first and last bits of Jimmy McNulty we see in the first season of The Wire– chatting about Snot Boogie to working the Marine Unit. Going back to the Gotham premiere, I had assumed the series would hew a lot closer to “Gotham Central”- and thus, one of its strongest influences, The Wire– but in the ensuing episodes, that’s definitely not the case. Still, it’s neat to know there are a few subtle touches of Wire hidden in Gotham City).
Boil Gordon down to his barest essentials, and he’s got a Boy Scout’s earnest goodness. Add anything darker (well, anything darker than a rare bout of wife-cheating- because other iterations have done that), and it wouldn’t be James Gordon. But Pilot Gordon was just as polished on the outside as he was within. After ten episodes, spattered with dirt and other less desirable fluids, he’s a snarling rebel with a James Dean streak. A Rebel With a Cause, if you will. It doesn’t matter who you are- the Mayor, the most powerful crime boss in Gotham, a crook wielding super-strength or a samurai sword- if you stand in the way of the morally upright, Gordon will invite you to kiss his ass.
This arc seems cemented into the foundations of the show (early episodes pile the frustrations high, until “Penguin’s Umbrella” rolls along and he finally snaps), and if that’s the case, Bruno Heller and the rest probably deserve some chastising. They did saddle us with several episodes’ worth of dull-as-dirt protagonist, after all. But given that Gordon actually spits a “kiss my ass” at the Mayor in the mid-season finale (I thought those were words only bad-cop Bullock could say), it’s water under the bridge at this point.
Bullock Stopped Being So Hilarious
Back when Gordon and Bullock were doing the dull cop/dirty cop routine, Bullock had a lot of slack to pick up. Because early Gordon had such a flimsy personality, Bullock had to throw out lines like “I’m gonna go get a danish. It’s what I deserve” on a regular basis. And we loved him for it.
Since then, immense forces have compacted Bullock’s antics into a very small compartment. He’s no longer blatantly corrupt and semi-evil; Gordon’s no longer a snooze; young Bruce Wayne has actual story arcs and character development. All of which mean a drop in allotted quip time per episode. The mid-season finale paired Bullock with Alfred, for god’s sake, and what did we get out of it? A few short shots of Alfred, bribing/knifing/sweet-talking his way through Bullock’s usual methods. Quippage was at an all-time low.
It must be tough to keep Bullock in balance with at least a dozen other central characters, but seeing Gotham’s wittiest character reduced to background noise isn’t pleasant.
Bruce Wayne Actually Does Things Now
The boy who would be Batman had precisely two settings in Gotham’s first seven episodes: Brood Silently and Not Appear On Camera. Once every episode or so, Gotham would sigh audibly, then throw us maybe 30 seconds of Bruce doing murder research or burning himself with a lighter. Here, it would drone halfheartedly, You didn’t forget about Bruce, did you? Gonna be Batman someday. But not now. Now he’s just going to sit there. And brood. OK, 30 seconds are up, time to go.
Like Gordon, a late-in-the-game episode finally woke Bruce from his stupor (for Gordon, “Penguin’s Umbrella;” for Bruce, “The Mask”) and turned him into a character we’d be excited to follow, week in and week out. And all it took was actually giving Bruce things to do- punching bullies or escaping from the clutches of criminals.
Again, one really has to question the colossal, semi-stupid risk of making Gordon and Bruce Wayne (arguably the two lead roles in Gotham, and those given the most play in the show’s early advertising) drab and/or nonexistent for the first sevenish episodes, all for a solid payoff two months into the show. Are things great now? You bet. Was is worth sitting through hours of sub-par heroes? Ummm…
Penguin Has Ceased Doing Anything at All
Chalk this up to another case like Bullock’s. Probably. In latter episodes, Gotham has put far more weight on the adventures of Badass Gordon and Young Batman, and the Penguin- whose rise to the top of the Mafia was haute cuisine- suddenly got shoved to the back of the line.
In the early stages of Gotham, I was frighteningly enamored with Robin Lord Taylor’s slight-waddle, all-menace presence. The words “#1 Penguin performance of all time” may have been thrown around. Taylor’s been consistent- beautifully so- but he also needs room to breathe, and the last three Gothams have given him precisely none.
Let’s see, in the last three weeks’ worth of episodes, Penguin has:
- Been stabbed in the hand.
- Discovered there was a mole in Falcone’s organization.
- Discovered the mole was Liza.
- Purposely sat on that information for some reason.
Just that, stretched thin over three episodes. Old Penguin could have taken care of that to-do list between commercial breaks. And it all stems from one crucial issue…
What’s Still the Same?
Baffling Villain Mismanagement
If Gotham has one flaw above all else (worse, one flaw that’s continued to befuddle the show just as profoundly in its pilot as its mid-season finale), it’s that it piles on villain after villain and then has nowhere to put them. We were introduced to six bad guys in the pilot alone (count ’em with me- Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Fish Mooney, Falcone, Riddler, Penguin), and really only had time for three. Half had parts of substance; half had super-speed walk-ons.
Some of those villains make instant sense within the show- I don’t think anyone’s worried that Gotham doesn’t have plans for Penguin- but some have taken up the valuable time of other, better characters, and have given us nothing to show for it. Say, Harvey Dent. Ol’ Harv is not a good D.A. Actually, he’s a profoundly terrible one. In two short episodes, he’s sent Gordon after Lovecraft (obvious to anyone with the slightest I’ve-watched-too-much-TV precognition: Lovecraft is not the Wayne murderer), inadvertently sent assassins after Selina Kyle and stood idly by, smirking slightly as Gordon got demoted to Arkham duty.
Is Dent supposed to be a hero? Is he supposed to be a mild jackass, who one day takes the plunge and becomes a really, truly terrible jackass? What has he added to the story besides general incompetence?
Not clear in the slightest. But when Gotham can’t even figure out which episodes should be named after which characters (“Selina Kyle” had a few scant, unimportant minutes of Selina Kyle, and Gotham has yet to learn that valuable lesson- even after “Arkham,” “Harvey Dent” and “Lovecraft” all did the same goddamn thing).
Truly Terrific Cinematography
Gotham is one of those rare breeds; a network TV show that doesn’t look at all like a network TV show. You know that look; that baseline cinematography shared by basically everything on FOX, ABC, NBC and CBS. Same handful of prepackaged wide shots, closeups and shot reverse shots for every single action and conversation. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might share a universe with Guardians of the Galaxy, but visually, it’s more akin to an average Grey’s Anatomy.
Gotham doesn’t look like a show currently airing on FOX (it’s at least FX-tier). Sure, it’s got its share of boilerplate (although even then the sets and costumes are rich enough to carry the slack in those instances), but in every Gotham there’s at least one moment where those behind the camera have poured their time and effort into making the show look gorgeous. In the mid-season finale is a shot of a recently deceased mobster, face-down in his own spaghetti. Tilt up just slightly and there’s Falcone, posing with a pistol, leaking a wispy trail of smoke. It’s positively Scorsese-ian. And as we all know, Scorsese will only lend his name to HBO or higher.
What Do We Want in 2015?
We had superpowers in Gotham before; just once, in “Venom” a month or so ago.
And it was beautiful. It was as though some trickster TV deity had split open a Law & Order at the seams, sprinkled in a few folks with super-strength and sealed everything back up, looking on with pride at the horror it had created. The fun wasn’t from the superpowers themselves (basic super-strength really- nothing we all haven’t seen before), but from seeing Gordon and Bullock and everyone else – normal people in a seemingly normal universe – react to seeing a human lift an ATM up above his head, then collapse like a Jenga tower, ATM and all.
And let’s face it, when Gotham sticks to the non-powered villains, it can sometimes err on the forgettable side. Like Copperhead in the mid-season finale. Did you actually recognize her as Copperhead, or did you think she was just your standard assassin with a bit of a Xenia Onatopp complex? It’s OK to admit it- I didn’t make the connection at first, either.
Drastic Universe Changes
Gotham’s already screwing with the timeline a tad- that way, we can have young Batman and young Gordon and then a crop of supervillains who always seemed to be about Batman’s age, all on the same show. That kind of meddling is small potatoes. What might behoove Gotham is an XXL potato or two- something that cuts a dividing line between Gotham and the regular Batman universe, marking off Gotham as its own entity, once and for all.
Because if it doesn’t, and Gotham stays tethered to regular Batman-dom… none of these characters can ever die. If we’re working with the assumption that Bruce Wayne will eventually grow up and cross paths with the already several-dozen comic characters represented in Gotham, that means every one of them must to survive through the entirety of a young Batman TV show.
Kinda kills the dramatic tension, doesn’t it? Make a stand for yourself, Gotham. You can be the universe where Carmine Falcone or Harvey Dent or whoever else was tragically cut down before Bruce had ever donned his first cape and cowl. Or, you could just kill off the characters that don’t become established supervillains. Still a few of those lying around.
Alright everyone, back to hibernation. We’ll see you once Gotham rears its head in springtime.