I find precious little of value in the first season of Gotham, now available in a complete season Blu-ray set. The visual design of the show is terrific; many in the ensemble and guest-starring cast turn in impressive performances; some of the episodes make for gripping, entertaining television; and…
…and I’m already out of nice things I can say about Gotham. It’s all downhill from there.
Like Smallville, Gotham promises a look at the titular city that will eventually become home to the Batman. The series begins with the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, orphaning the 12-year old Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) in the first step towards the cape-and-cowl. However, unlike Smallville‘s focus on the young Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne is at best a supporting player in Gotham, with most of the spotlight falling on newly-minted Gotham City Police Department detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), whose upright rectitude places him firmly out of step with the thoroughly corrupt Gotham City.
The pilot episode of Gotham introduces us to the show’s large ensemble cast as Gordon gets entangled in the Wayne’s murder. Gordon’s partner is the slovenly Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), a world-weary GCPD veteran who soon calls on local crime lord Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) for some questionable assistance in the Wayne murder investigation. Fish’s top lieutenant is the preening Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), who hates the nickname of “the Penguin” given to him by Mooney’s other flunkies. Gordon’s rash promise to Bruce to bring the murderer to justice soon comes back to haunt him when it turns out that the suspect who ended up shot and killed during arrest may not have been the murderer after all. The pilot establishes the ways Gordon and Wayne begin tugging on that thread, rapidly unraveling the thin veneer covering up the rot running through every sector of Gotham City.
The pilot is a hot mess: scatterbrained, way too on-the-nose, filled with laughable dialogue, and populated with broadly painted character tics rather than actual characters. The exception is Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney, who seizes control of the screen any time she’s on it with her gleeful chewing of the scenery. The pilot incorporates lots of storytelling elements I absolutely hate, and which Hollywood is convinced are required for live-action superhero comic book adaptations (and, to be fair, afflicts a lot of current superhero comic books). Nothing can ever exist independently; everything has to be connected. Everything requires a long, drawn-out, thorough explanation, because the Origin Story must explain everything about everything that will come afterwards. This adds up to a mass of improbably lucky coincidence and a lot of ominous portent. A young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) is a witness to the Wayne murders. Fish Mooney and the mob bosses of Gotham have a shady connection to the murder of the Waynes. Gordon and Bullock have to be the cops who investigate (and seemingly close) the Wayne murder. People tell Gordon repeatedly that he’s 1) new to Gotham, and 2) a Good Cop in a Bad City. It has to be made explicitly clear why Oswald earned the nickname “Penguin,” and that his job for Fish is to be her “umbrella man.” Like most Origin Stories, Gotham confuses complexity for sophistication. Just because I need photos and newspaper clippings stuck to a corkboard with thumbtacks and connected with string to follow what’s going on doesn’t make the series grown-up, especially when actually thinking about anything that happens makes you realize that none of it passes even a cursory smell test.
The series gets better after the execrable pilot episode, but never manages to rise far beyond “above average.” It feels like the creation of 3 or 4 people who all had a different vision of what Gotham should have been, since the series’ storytelling-by-committee mish-mash fails to set a consistent tone for the bulk of its 22 episode first season. It’s a superhero comic book story that’s trying desperately not to be a superhero comic book story, but this just means that the police procedural or organized crime stories get populated with implausibly outlandish characters and plot twists. Sometimes, this mixture works in intriguing ways. The third episode “The Balloonman” features an outlandish criminal who murders publicly untouchable ne’er-do-wells by handcuffing them to weather balloons and letting them drift off into the sky. It’s a ridiculous gimmick played very effectively for dark humor. “Season of the Goat” is another of my favorite episodes of the season, as a serial killer returns to Gotham even though Harvey Bullock killed him during an attempted arrest a decade earlier. It balances the mix of comic book preposterous and dark, gritty, urban crime drama perfectly. I was also impressed by “Red Hood,” which is an interesting spin on the “criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot” principle that has guided Batman almost since his inception, but where the plot successfully incorporates the improbable coincidences and over-the-top story elements.
If Gotham could hit those marks more regularly, I’d probably appreciate the series more, but those episodes are the exceptions and not the rule. More often, Gotham is “comic-book” in the pejorative sense, abandoning subtlety in favor of playing it big and broad and painted out in foot-high letters. Otherwise plausible cop-show and crime-drama tropes get thrown off-balance by weird comic book psycho killers or the show’s appalling lack of subtlety. The series is probably best in its midpoint, as Cobblepot’s machinations in the underworld mesh with Jim Gordon’s downfall and return with the GCPD. Even then, events end up getting drawn out way too long, and the show ends up repeating itself a lot. Cobblepot should really be nicknamed “Catman,” given the number of times he manages to evade getting whacked. Gordon keeps tilting at windmills as the uptight, upright white knight of the GCPD, seemingly learning nothing every time he’s knocked down. I grasp that the show is making a parallel between the uphill social climbing of these two characters up their respective ladders, but Gotham‘s stab at a more realistic tone just makes it increasingly implausible that those lording above Gordon and Cobblepot don’t bring them to a short, sharp, sudden, and ugly end. The series also drops precipitously from this mid-season peak, growing truly ludicrous as events begin to come to a head and the underworld bloodbath starts. While Fish Mooney is one of the few bright spots early on, her character ends up treading water quickly before getting diverted into possibly the stupidest, most tedious plot complication I’ve seen in some time. This ending plot thread tries to pass off ridiculously tortured logic without a shred of credibility as a testament to her personal charisma, but undermines itself with unintentional comedy by being so incredibly dumb.
This is all a shame, since there are a number of performances in Gotham that are fun and enjoyable, making one wish that the characters and actors had ended up in a better series. The breakout star seems to be Robin Lord Taylor’s Cobblepot, bringing a two-bit Batman villain into his own. His unctuous performance is a standout, plausibly rooted in his perpetual outsider status and burning desire for respect. John Doman gives Don Falcone a real sense of weight, both physical and metaphorical, as an intriguingly textured crime boss. It’s a shame that he seems to be walking offstage by the end of the season, although you never know in Gotham City. Sean Pertwee plays faithful Wayne family butler Alfred in his more modern incarnation, with a shadowy background that makes him a certified bad-ass (especially showcased in the episode “Lovecraft”). Sometimes, Alfred is curiously off-key, but for the most part he serves as a more interesting foil to the other characters.
Some other characters get off to strong starts but weak finishes. Cory Michael Smith is fascinating as forensic scientist Ed Nygma, whose quirky sensibilities and penchant for riddles drive almost everyone else around him crazy. He starts as little more than one-note schtick, but grows into something interesting as the series wears on, at least until a late-season plot twist. That twist is clearly intended to put him on the path to become the Riddler, but is highly out of character for what we’ve seen so far and what the Riddler is at his best in the comics. The twist throws his quirk too far out of whack. Camren Bicondova’s Selina Kyle is appropriately enigmatic, with her feline movements and early lack of dialogue fittingly foreshadowing her eventual evolution to Catwoman. Her skewed sense of morality and instincts for self-preservation are what make her interesting, even if she also gets ground up in the nonsense of the season’s endgame.
The show also sports an incredibly strong supporting casts in recurring background characters, guest stars, and even bit players. Richard Kind is terrific as Gotham’s thoroughly corrupt mayor, who is weak but not stupid. A number of memorably outlandish villains lurk among the guest stars, including Lili Taylor as an irrepressibly chirpy henchman, Anthony Carrigan as the cold psychotic assassin Victor Zsasz, Julian Sands as the driven Dr. Crane (father to the character destined to become the Batman villain the Scarecrow), and Christopher Heyerdahl as the Electrocutioner. I also have to credit the show for finding some terrific actors for bit parts throughout the series, giving the average citizenry of Gotham a distinctive look and voice that fits nicely with the overall vibe of the show.
Unfortunately, the strong cast ends up making two of the central characters feel flat and uninspiring. The show is admittedly not about Batman, but David Mazouz and the whole Bruce Wayne subplot add nothing of substance to the season, other than a decent suspense-filled extended chase in “Lovecraft.” Even worse is how little Ben McKenzie is given to work with as Jim Gordon, whose unbending moral stance ends up making him too much of a square too often. He only comes to life mid-season with the addition of Morena Baccarin as Dr. Leslie Thompkins, who soon becomes his new love interest. Then again, any straight man who doesn’t come to life when the charming and beautiful Morena Baccarin comes to Gotham is lying, but Gordon needed to be more interesting much earlier.
The absolute best thing about Gotham is its visual design. If Batman the Animated Series shows a Gotham that went from the 1930’s straight to the 1990’s, Gotham mixes up equal parts of the 1930’s, 1950’s, 1970’s, and 1990’s to create a city with a powerful sense of place but no real sense of time. Characters drive big 70’s cars but work with flip cell phones in bars and nightclubs that look only a step away from Prohibition. Lots of different Batman series have played around with Gotham as a character, and Gotham‘s best contribution is its crafting of another distinctive and memorable depiction of the famed fictional city.
Gotham: The Complete First Season comes in a slim case packing 4 Blu-ray discs. Video and audio are both high-quality, as one would expect for a modern TV series on home video. Deleted scenes are included with each episode, most of which look like they were rightly left on the cutting room floor. The bulk of the bonus features are collected on the last disc, and if you’re a fan of the series then there will be much to enjoy here. The three part “Gotham Invented” is relatively fluffy press kit material as assorted people attached to the production declare the fairly obvious. Much better is “Gotham: Designing the Fiction,” where the production designers dig into specific locations to detail their decisions and inspirations. It would make the series set worthwhile if it were the only bonus feature included. “The Game of Cobblepot” is a preposterously pompous look at Oswald Cobblepot’s rise through Gotham that so insufferable I couldn’t manage to sit all the way through it. If the intention was to present Oswald Cobblepot’s story as filtered through his own self-aggrandizing, self-serving sensibilities, then it succeeded a bit too well. “Gotham: The Legend Reborn” is a longer look at the earliest episodes, and has a fair bit of interesting material. It does repeat some material from the other featurettes, but includes enough new material to keep it interesting. The 2014 DC TV panel at the San Diego Comic-Con is included in edited format which has commentary by a number of the cast and crew that isn’t repeated, and includes comments from the cast and crew of Arrow, The Flash, and the now-canceled Constantine. A set of brief character profile videos focus on the major players; they’re decent if short. Finally, a gag reel has a handful of bloopers and flubs.
In the bonus features, series creator Bruno Heller and several of the cast members note their love for origin stories and how interesting they are. I think they’re necessary evils, but almost never as necessary as the average comic book superhero fan thinks they are. Origin Stories Suck, especially when they become obsessive about exploiting every last detail to Explain Things. Gotham was already starting on the wrong foot with me, but its inconsistent tone and increasingly incompetent execution would mean I’d probably hate it even if it didn’t indulge in the usual Origin Story excesses. At best, Gotham is a show that makes you wish it were better, but it doesn’t hit its best very often.