Having thoroughly conquered the multiplex, superheroes are now invading television in greater numbers than ever before. Both Marvel (via ABC and Netflix) and DC (via the CW and Fox) are putting their characters on smaller screens. With Marvel, I have a lot of curiosity and a decent amount of hope for the Defenders Netflix miniseries, but Agents Of SHIELD still struggles to make either its original heroes or D-List superbeings pop onscreen. And unfortunately, it’s still carrying the standard for the House Of Ideas on the TV front. But while DC has done well for itself with a lesser hero in the genre pond of the CW, it is now stepping it up by taking to a “proper” network with their crown jewel, Batman.
Sort of, anyway. Gotham is a strange beast in that it’s a Batman series that has cut itself off from actually using Batman. Agents of SHIELD has a similar issue conceptually, and offers little in the way of examples for how to construct a series whose appeal is based on being part of a greater, more colorful world without being able to actually use the best, most colorful pieces of that world. This is a spin-off problem. Try and explain why I should want to watch Gotham/AOS without mentioning Batman/the Avengers. It’s not easy to do, right?
Still, this is not insurmountable. There are positives to Gotham’s concept, in that Jim Gordon is an inherently better character than Phil Coulson, and more important to his respective mythos. Also, Batman has by far the best rogue’s gallery in the history of comics, which goes a long way towards making Gotham the most fully realized setting in the medium. And apparently Gotham Central has been one of DC’s best books of the last decade, so the GCPD is fertile enough ground for ongoing stories.
There’s still quite a bit wrong with Gotham’s basic premise, don’t get me wrong. But the problems aren’t spin-off problems, they’re prequel problems. Gordon’s rise paralleling Gotham’s fall is rife with potential, as is the dramatic irony of his ultimate triumph over the traditional mafia forces clearing the way for the takeover of the freaks that make Batman necessary (though that’s probably series-finale sort of stuff). No, the problems with Gotham are prequel problems, arising from the decision to set the series so early in the timeline that neither Batman nor any of his major antagonists are anywhere near the portion of the story when they become the figures that actually make this story interesting. Chud message board luminary The Prankster had the following to say, which I will simply quote instead of paraphrasing:
The “prequel problem” is thus: most stories, if they’re at all well-constructed, start at the point where things get interesting for the protagonists or the world of the story. This means that, almost by definition, the stuff that came before is going to be less interesting. There’s a website called Wordplayer run by screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot, and whatever you think of those guys they make some great points about how stories are constructed. One of their essays is about the “off-screen movie”, and the importance of creating a story where things are happening that we DON’T see, either parallel to the main action or before the events of the story (or, for that matter, afterwards). When you fill in all the blanks, you ironically remove depth from characters and the story, because you create the impression that nothing happens to these characters when you’re not looking at them, and thus, the story seems inert and unreal. They used the example of a character who execs insist be given more “screen time” but had nothing to do. Before, she would pop in and out of the story and create mystery; with the added screentime, she was established as a character who hung around and didn’t do anything.
This principle applies to prequels. Part of the fun of Star Wars is that it creates a huge, rich world full of history that’s glancingly mentioned but creates the impression of (pseudo-)reality. When the prequels went back and showed us everything, it destroyed this sense.
Stories “start at the point where things get interesting.” Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? So why the infatuation with prequels and “secret origin” stories of late? I guess it’s not overly complicated. Everyone wants everything to be a neverending franchise, a perpetual cash generator, and so the desire is to start at the beginning and never get anywhere close to an ending. That’s a model that has reaped great rewards for both network television and the comic book industry over the last century, and a show like this represents the merger of those two great American artrevenue formstreams, so this probably isn’t anything to be that shocked about. But while this approach has done very well financially for these media, it’s hard to deny that it has been a hindrance creatively. A story is not a story without an ending, not really, which is a large part of why things like superhero comics, daytime soaps, or Republic serials, for all their popularity, are not considered high art.
Does Gotham have a proper story to tell, one about its city and its police? Can they manage to tell such a story in a way that focuses on what it means to Gordon, rather than setting the table for the actual hero waiting in the wings? That remains to be seen, but things get off on the wrong foot straight out of the gate. This is a show about Gordon, and we aren’t even introduced to him until after an extended sequence depicting the murder of Batman’s parents…told for some reason, through the eyes of a tween Catwoman**.
Look, I know that they have to depict this bit of the iconography, and it may seem like a minor point to harp on. But introductions are extremely important, and the 2nd episode repeats the mistake by once again opening on Baby Bruce Wayne before moving on to the cops and crooks that he can’t really interact with, the ones who, oh yeah, also make up the main body of what this show is and has to be. What’s worse is that our actual intro to Gordon, when we get to it, isn’t half bad. He’s confronted with a criminal of a lunatic variety that the rest of the police aren’t prepared for, and once his decency and level-headedness defuse the situation, the corruption of the force immediately reasserts itself and wipes out his good deed. That’s the story the series is telling in a scene. But unfortunately, what it showed us is that embryonic Batman and Catwoman take precedence.
This premise is all wrapped up in the Batman mythos, obviously, but that premise is also that we will get to see Gotham develop slowly over time into the madhouse we know from so much other media. A more specific problem with prequels is that they so frequently lose track of their own story in the rush to cram in a bunch of references that carry no more weight than a wink, and tie off loose ends that weren’t actually loose. X-Men: First Class was a largely successful reboot and prequel, but a lot of the goodwill it builds over its runtime is squandered by the ill-conceived sequence on the beach at the end. The movie has largely completed its own story, but there is a palpable sense of panic that sets in at the last second, a desperation to shove all of the various characters into the precise positions we’ll find them in 40 years later, in the span of a few minutes. I suppose it’s hard for a project whose whole raison d’etre is to fill in gaps to accept that there are some gaps that it is okay, even preferable, to leave open, or else you run into the flattening effect Prankster referenced above. I mean, c’mon, 40 years? We can do some math ourselves.
Are Gotham’s first couple episodes on this level? No. But they do go overboard giving time to Baby Wayne, Kittenwoman, proto-Penguin and Riddler, a potential Joker, etc. This is a problem on several levels. In the broadest conceptual terms, the more this show allows itself to be “about” the larger mythos, the more it drives home the point that it can only show us the stuff we’re really interested in before the point where it gets really interesting. On a smaller level, the arc of the season(s) is going to be for us to see the rise of the freaks, and the pilot probably went too far on that score for what should be a very gradual process. But that’s not an uncommon issue for pilots; in their eagerness to sell their basic dramatic engine and conceit, they’ll frequently overreach, resolve a bit too much and then have to walk things back to a place from which viable storylines can spin out on a weekly basis. The pilot of The Shield is a good example in this regard – it packs an explosive finish that definitely digs its hooks in deep, but it will be years of slow building before Mackey gets back to a level of villainy on par with that displayed in his introduction.
Agents Of SHIELD has the same problem, shifted slightly over. Gotham hamstrings itself by placing its action too far in front of the main event, whereas AOS places its action just to the left of the real attractions. The result is two shows struggling to live in the shadow of their progenitors, without moving too far from the warm, comfy glow of brand recognition that resides at the heart of this mixed metaphor. Now, I’m a lifelong and unabashed Marvel zombie, but for this reason I am much more hopeful about Gotham’ s prospects than AOS’s. It’s true that AOS saw an uptick in quality once their status quo was forcibly overthrown by the big screen upheaval of The Winter Soldier, but it’s still little better than tolerable on its good days and really, how good a sign is it that such a desperately needed course correction had to be foisted upon it by the mothership? I’d love to be wrong about this, but I think we’ve seen pretty close to the best this show will ever have to offer us, and it’s just kinda okay.
Similarly, I’d love to be proven wrong about Gotham’s premise putting it in an insurmountable hole, but I also see more reason to think that might be the case. For one, I have a decent amount of faith in showrunner Bruno Heller, whose Rome was one of HBO’s more unappreciated efforts, and demonstrated a facility I think will be vital for pulling off the tone this show is going for. Rome tackles material that has both the gravity of history and the grandeur of myth, but Heller grounded it in a pulpy sensibility that kept things fun and lively without skimping on the brutality and ahem, adult situations that we demand of an HBO original. It got to have its pulp and its gravitas too, in a way that was ultimately quite enjoyable.
How this relates back to Gotham is that it is going for a similar balancing act with more overtly clashing tones. Right out of the gate it is mixing the lurid theatricality of the Burton films on the villain side of things with a throwback 70s vibe on the cops’ end, where Gordon’s material so far owes more to Serpico than anything Bruce Timm has done. Rome tells me that Heller understands that the words “grim”, “gritty” and “realistic” are not interchangeable. Gotham needs to be gritty, but not realistic, and that’s a distinction few seem interested in parsing.
Because here’s the rub: this needs to be a show where guy named Oswald Cobblepot can kill people with an umbrella, and sooner or later a mafia enforcer turns up half crocodile. But in order for the show to tell a real story about its main character, it also has to remain a show about a good man’s failure. That Gordon is doomed to fail to save his city does not doom the series; there is nobility to be found in a losing fight, perhaps more than any other. But that’s a tough narrative ball to keep your eye on, particularly when you’re occupying a primetime network spot trying to skew broad with what is ostensibly a children’s property.
Also giving me hope is Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue’s immediate chemistry (which duh, it’s Donal Logue, dude would have chemistry with a hemorrhoid pillow), as the square jawed idealist and slovenly realist who would make a great buddy cop pairing if their dislike of each other didn’t feel so genuine, and Bullock’s defeatism so lived in and sincere. He doesn’t even hate his partner; he just knows the fight is already lost.
I also took an immediate liking to the less-familiar villains, Fish Mooney and Carmine Falcone, who embody the camp and gravitas the show needs to balance. Mooney is the show’s most significant original creation, and Jada Pinkett-Smith devours scenery like she’s facing the electric chair in the morning. It’s kind of wonderful, and provided a nicely grounded counterpoint by the late-pilot entrance of Falcone. It’s important that these characters work, because they are small enough fish in the grand scheme of things that Gordon can score some actual wins by taking them down, which is going to be a rare but necessary thing if the show is going to continue to be swarmed with Penguins, Ivys, Riddlers, etc. But Falcone is especially significant because of what he represents.
Falcone’s role in the mythology is that of the last traditional mafia don to fall to the rising tide of freaks in Gotham, and that is obviously going to be a big part of the show’s overall arc. As previously mentioned, endings are a vital part of storytelling, and this angle allows a show permanently mired in the beginnings of a story to be about the end of something. John Doman brings a weathered authority to the role, and in his brief talk with Gordon presents a genuinely interesting angle for the character. Falcone styles himself as part of Gotham’s gentry; the least reputable, sure, but just as vital protector of the status quo and law and order (which, he avows, you can’t have organized crime without) as the vaunted Thomas Wayne. What this does is set up Gordon and Falcone as the old guard, destined to be supplanted by Batman and the Joker at the vanguard of Gotham’s war on crime. The Joker famously just wants to watch the world burn, but Carmine sees crime as having a purpose (even if it’s just profit), to the point that his involvement in the framing of Pepper is motivated by a desire not to let the Waynes’ murder spark a fire that will destabilize the city.
I really like the dynamic this sets up, and the dramatic irony created by having Gordon take down the devil he knows, while only we know how much worse the replacement will be. But whether Gotham follows up on the promising tracks it lays in these first 2 episodes, or ultimately drowns itself in references to a more interesting story than the one it’s telling remains to be seen. I’ll give it a season to find out (Logue alone is worth that), and perhaps keep checking in on it and/or AOS’s progress, if they start succeeding, or failing in an interesting enough way. Unfortunately, neither show is doing either just yet.
*I haven’t seen Arrow, but am told its fun and is successful enough to have back-doored a series for a slightly bigger name in the Flash
**Sidebar: her intro sequence rings abjectly absurd due to entirely unnecessary prop choices. Selina tears open the bag of a society lady, who, as they are wont to do, is grocery shopping late at night in the theater district. Said grocery bag spills out naught but two half gallons of milk, one of which she snatches up. She then ducks into an alley, and goes to pour some out for a stray cat from a jug that is suddenly 7/8 empty. I just…why any of this? Just too expensive to shoot a stunt-pour from a full bottle?