2014 was an exceptional year for genre nerds. In a span of twelve months, we received cinematic treasures such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. I slated Fox’s Gotham series in as the third and shiniest jewel in my comic book nerd triple crown. Much to my chagrin, I immediately found the show to be a chore to get through. Gotham felt like arriving for a blind date, feeling relieved that the person I am meeting is gorgeous and then having them break the ice with a racist joke. Gotham is a dusty old Atari console dressed up like an Xbox.
For weeks I struggled to makes sense of Gotham’s successful ratings relative to my indifference towards it. Was I somehow missing something? Once I came to the painful conclusion that Gotham and I were better off seeing other people, the shows issues became clear to me. With some breathing room between us, I saw that Gotham wasn’t an awful show. Looking at it objectively, Gotham was fun to look at, had a huge cast of characters and loads of bizarre crimes. There were far worse ways to spend an hour in front of the TV on a Monday night. Whoever, while watching the show with the vigilant eye of a Batman fan, I saw the program in a different light. Gotham was overflowing with plots, featured an excessive amount of villains and created a mockery of Batman’s mythology. It finally made sense to me that Gotham is a terrible show for Batman fans and a decent show for everyone else.
Gotham takes place 20-years before the arrival of The Batman in order to offer the audience insight into the rich history of the Batman universe. Batman fans are already aware of who these heroes and villains ultimately become. For fans, seeing iconic characters depicted as caricatures of their future selves is not at all interesting. Watching a young Riddler drinking from a cup with a question mark on it is a cheap and indulgent way of flat out pandering to the audience. Rather than winking at hardcore Batman fans, the writers should be focusing their creative energy on driving the narrative forward.
Knowledgeable fans watch to see the gap bridged between, innocuous Gotham City Police Department employee Edward Nygma and the Riddler. Jim Gordon arrives in Gotham as a younger, less mustached version of the commissioner we get in movies and comics. It doesn’t make for a compelling story to keep Gordon playing the “last good cop” in Gotham for the next 20 years until Batman arrives. Wouldn’t it be more compelling to have a broken down and cynical Jim Gordon arrive in Gotham? Doesn’t the more interesting arc consist of seeing Jim forced into the role of unlikely hero? At this point, I would take Gotham presenting him as a good cop, forced to compromise his values and then repenting for his misdeeds. We know that his fate is to rally against a broken and corrupt system. Gotham’s job as a series is to provide a compelling reason for him to do so. Gotham needs to be about the journey and not the destination. By giving the characters so little room to grow into who they will become Gotham is stuck in a narrative rut, spinning its wheels in place and going nowhere.
It’s counter-intuitive that Batman’s 75-year mythology is the factor most responsible for Gotham’s struggles. Gotham inserts prominent Batman characters into each episode at the frantic rate of a show that fears that it won’t be on the air long. In the first several episodes, the show introduced what should have been year’s worth of famous characters. So far we have seen Penguin, Riddler, Scarecrow, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Victor Szas as well as Bane’s Venom serum. Packing each episode with so many larger than life characters causes Gotham’s schizophrenic shifts in tone.
Each episode of Gotham frantically tosses disparate ideas at a creative wall, hoping to find anything that sticks. The series erratically cycles between procedural cop drama, organized crime politics, teen drama and super hero origin story. The only successful element of the show so far is the patiently unraveling tale of the Penguin’s rise to power. The Penguin is Gotham’s most compelling aspect because his arc has simmered over the entire season. Gotham continues to introduce characters from the Batman universe, each one deep enough to be the focus of an entire season. The show must consider taking a less is more approach. Much like a frozen turkey removed from the oven before receiving adequate time to cook, Gotham is an overstuffed and under developed mess.
One of the primary reasons that Gotham is a hit in the ratings is that the show is able to attract fans that are unfamiliar with Batman’s world. Gotham’s attempts to appeal to the broadest possible audience limits the types of stories that the series can tell. So far, Gotham’s been accessible to a wide audience because it adheres to a familiar procedural cop show template. Those accustomed to the structure can easily follow an episode’s plot despite being unfamiliar with the show. Usually the main story will center on cops chasing down the villain of the week. Gotham is a festering meat grinder of a city that takes in the innocent, chews them up and spits out damaged sociopaths. Right now, the show only provides us with the broken down sociopaths. The format dictates that we get the hunt and we see bad-guys brought to justice by the good guys each episode. The show usually leaves out the juicy details about how the villains ended up in the Gotham City meat grinder.
Shows like Fringe, Supernatural and most recently Marvel’s Agents of Shield all started out as lackluster case of the week procedural type shows. These programs did not get interesting until they abandoned the case of the week format and embraced heavy serialization. Once the weekly stories started bleeding into each other the writers had more room to expand the deep mythologies of each shows world. Once Fox picked up more episodes of Gotham, the show arrived at creative fork in the road. History says the series will carry on with the one-dimensional characters and impatient storytelling that has proven successful so far. To reach its potential it’s necessary for Gotham to use its new found security to slow down, take its foot off the gas pedal and tell deeper and more focused stories.
By marketing Gotham towards Batman fans and non-fans alike, Fox created a watered down show. Gotham paints itself into a creative corner with its simplified characters and disregard for Batman’s mythology. If I could “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” the part of my brain that holds “everything Batman,” then I might just find this show and its characters intriguing. Perhaps then, every threat to a familiar character’s life would have me on the edge of my seat. Since that is not the case, Gotham is a program that has yet to show long-standing Batman fans like myself anything enticing.
We are moving into a golden age of live-action comic book movies, television and video games. Dressing people up as beloved characters and parading them on screen is no longer enough to win fans over. Gotham expects Batman fans to have Pavlovian responses to seeing The Riddler and Harvey Dent on television. These days, if fans want to see people that look like the heroes and villains they have grown up reading about they can go to Comic-Con. Fans don’t just want a Batman series to be on television, they want a great Batman series on television. By bringing such a shallow Batman series to television, Fox gave Batman fans the show that they wanted but not the show they deserve.