Media · Story & Characters

“Gotham:” The Last Review

Gotham-Title
*Spoilers Throughout*

This is a different “Gotham” post as it’s going to serve as a “going away” regarding my episode reviews. Be aware that this is a very long post but I felt like an explanation was appropriate considering that I spent nearly a year and a half penning reviews on the program’s weekly episodes. I started out being genuinely excited about “Gotham” and I loved its first season, but my enthusiasm slowly fizzled thanks to multiple issues, which I’m going to touch on below.

Granted, it wasn’t all bad. Robin Lord Taylor never failed to disappoint as Penguin. Bruce Wayne’s evolution, assisted by an enjoyable performance by David Mazouz, was smart and mature. Ed Nygma’s transformation was handled masterfully. There were some good twists and shocking moments, and the setting for “Gotham” was stunning, possessing a rich, cinematic quality. The architectural details and vast size and scope of the city’s environments are beautiful and impressive, and it was one element of the show I deeply appreciated and thought was consistently executed well.

But sadly, that’s where my complements now end as the second season dragged under the weight of directionless plots, out-of-nowhere gore, an overly-serious tone, and too many baddies trying to command the screen, so much so that the second season’s “rise of the villains” felt more like a tidal wave. So I decided to put my viewership on indefinite hiatus, which is why you won’t be seeing any further episode reviews.

But for all of the time I spent looking into “Gotham,” I didn’t want to just leave it at that. So allow me to divulge into some final analysis for old time’s sake. (Please note these are my opinions and are intended to be constructively critical, not mean-spirited.)

1. “Gotham” = Batman The Jim Gordon Hour
Sad Jim
For me, the most interesting figures on “Gotham” have been the secondary characters (a term I’m using here to refer to anyone who isn’t Jim Gordon). From the start, the antagonists remained the show’s highlight. Penguin was my absolute favorite and I thought his story arc in season one was well-executed. Selena Kyle (Catwoman) was an all-around fun character. Ed Nygma (the Riddler) got more attention in the second season, which I think was a wise decision. Harvey Bullock added a sense of gruff charm and was a blast to watch. Yet these interesting characters fluttered in the background at times and rarely got much focus as the not-quite-so-engaging lead took the stage.

That’s not to say “Gotham”‘s lead character, Jim Gordon, is boring or colorless as Ben McKenzie offered up a consistently good performance. Having said that, “Gotham” isn’t so much a show about Batman and his future baddies but more like The Jim Gordon Hour. For the most part, I was okay with this going in as the show’s premise wasn’t so much about the boy who would become the Dark Knight but the city itself – as if Gotham was a character – and for that it worked but up to a point. Bruce Wayne can seem more like a background figure at times and I wished that wasn’t so. In my mind, he should have been the show’s constant central figure, not Jim Gordon. After all, when I think of Batman I think of, well, Batman and his sundry baddies (Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman, the Joker, etc.). But Jim Gordon, not so much.

For a time, Gordon’s inner conflicts made for some great drama as well as philosophical food for thought as he is a morally good man fighting crime in a morality-starved city that doesn’t play by his senses of decency or even normalcy. You can tell this burdens Jim, who loves his hometown but refuses to look the other way and watch it be consumed by criminals. But sometimes the show’s constant mantra of this-city-is-a-mess-I-gotta-clean-it-up wore thin. Granted, the idea of having a morally good cop stuck in a morally corrupt city played out well in season one. It was a strong concept to work with as Jim was forced to contend with how far he would go to put Gotham’s evil-doers in their place, which usually put him in a bind where extreme situations called for extreme measures. But this was where things started to get cyclical, as well as slightly jumbled, for me.

It’s no secret that a typical “Gotham” story formula goes a little like this: something bad happens, Jim investigates, Jim uncovers a Gordian knot, Jim unravels said Gordian knot without crossing too many lines, Jim saves the day, Jim laments about how Gotham is a mess and he has to get his hands dirty to clean it up. Lather, rinse, repeat. While season two tried to veer away from season one’s crime-of-the-week format, it wasn’t that stark of a switch. The only difference was that most of the new baddies got two or three episodes devoted to them as opposed to just one or were simply reprised in the second season’s backhalf. But even more frustrating was the constant tell-don’t-show manner in which characters asserted Jim Gordon was a bad man and not as moral as you might think.

Really he asks critic huh confused ugh
Because I never got that. At least not to the extent the show tried to play up.

Granted, Jim was never intended to be an image of perfect morality, but I never saw him as being “addicted,” to use Barbara’s words, to darkness. Jim did morally questionable things but typically felt guilty afterwards as he didn’t want to become a bad man in order to fight bad men. As C.S. Lewis once observed: “When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right…..Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.” By this definition, Jim Gordon is a good man as he understands when he does something wrong and can recognize good from evil. In contrast, the villains don’t grasp their own badness and either can’t discern right from wrong (like Jerome and Barbara) or don’t care to (like Penguin and Ed Nygma).

However, we’ve heard a plethora of characters, even Jim himself, spout how “dark” and “bad” he is yet this never fully coincides with Jim’s actions. Hence, this serves as an intratextual sign of unreliable narration as what we hear about Gordon doesn’t always match what we see. By way of example, in Fox’s own “24,” a typical episode showcased Jack Bauer, the lead antihero, doing morally questionable things for the right reasons, but any commentary about how questionable this was came after the fact. In Gordon’s case, we’re told that he’s morally dark but his actions don’t always support such assertions. Thus, “24” utilized a show-don’t-tell technique as we were chiefly shown what type of man Jack Bauer was; but on “Gotham” it’s more like tell-don’t-show as we’re chiefly told the type of man Jim Gordon is but his actions don’t always support said observations. This generated a deep sense of disconnect with me and it’s something I couldn’t overlook in terms of a narrative device.

2. Stuff and Things
stuff and things go away rick
“Gotham” also stumbled into plotting issues where stuff and things happen, but as to what end and why I’m left to question. “Gotham”‘s stories progressed from being tightly structured to becoming sloppy, even to the point of introducing seemingly crucial elements but not bothering to address any proverbial elephants in the room. This has been another principle complaint with season two as it lacks both long-term and short-term plots. While each episode showcases any number of short-term storyarcs, they don’t point towards any long-term outcomes. Hence, it just becomes stuff and things. Sometimes it’s interesting stuff and things, but stuff and things aren’t synonymous with plotting and story advancement.

To use Penguin as an example, he was given a solid long-term story arc for the first season and short-term arcs that were introduced on an episode-by-episode basis. These short-term arcs led him towards his long-term goal, which was a grasp at power in Gotham’s criminal underbelly. In contrast, in season two Penguin fell from grace, sought revenge for his mother’s murder, tried to embrace his inner lost humanity, and was supposedly “cured’ of his inner badness only to become a full-fledged villain once more. That’s fine but to what aim? Where is his character supposed to be headed in the long run? I love watching Penguin do stuff and things, but his character is capable of doing so much more.

And it’s not just Penguin who has suffered from directionless plots as the same can be said for the rest of “Gotham”‘s characters: their short-term arcs are evident in that they do stuff and things in any given episode, but where are they going? What’s the goal that they’re working towards? What’s the point behind all of the stuff and things they do? What will be the ultimate payoff? The only character with any sense of direction in season two seemed to be Bruce Wayne, who pounded the pavement to solve his parent’s murder and uncover murky secrets about Wayne Enterprises. Personally, I like to have some sort of idea of where I’m headed to in a story. I don’t need to know everything up front, but a nudge in the right direction is beneficial in terms of looking at the story as a big picture comprised of smaller snapshots. Just because a story is operating under a theme or premise or that we’re told a character is going to become “badder” (not a word, I know) or “darker” aren’t enough. If there’s no payoff or no rhyme or reason to it all, it’s just stuff – and things.

3. Into Darkness
turn lights off scared
As a writer myself, I agree that not every story should be constantly cheerful. The best fiction doesn’t try to sugarcoat life but doesn’t tend to wallow in despair either. The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, and The Hunger Games trilogy immediately come to mind as examples of how fiction can tackle dark subject matter but also contrast it with the good that life has to offer. These stories, and others like them, show readers that evil, sin, and death don’t always reign supreme and don’t conquer all.

“Gotham” initially followed this pattern as, despite its dark tone, there was an underlying promise that, to quote Jim Gordon, “There will be light.” Sin, evil, and bad choices were on display but the consequences of such were shown. Over time though, these consequences fell into the background and viewers were left to engage moral darkness without as much as a match light of goodness to offset it. Granted, some stories depict negative positives where negative actions are shown in such a way so readers or viewers are encouraged not to live in the same manner. The movie Scarface is a great example of this; however, even it manages not to be dark all of the time.

Hence becomes another issue I took with “Gotham” – the show steadily became darker, both in tone and its sense of morality. At first, I got used to the dimly lit locales and police procedural formula where violence was expected, even necessary, at times. However, the show’s usual cops-and-robbers/mob movie-style shootouts and stabbings eventually encompassed darker means of death and bodily harm. “Gotham” seems content to push the boundaries of its TV-14 rating; and while this doesn’t bother me so much on a visual level, it does concern me on a contextual level.

Visually, simulated violence is simulated violence – it’s 100% fake – but contextually-speaking, why is it present? What is the context and is it fitting? On “Gotham,” violence and torture aren’t met with a system of justice; instead, some of the violence feels tacked on as if it’s intended to serve as sheer shock value. This is what I took the most issue with – bloodletting for the sake of bloodletting. What purpose did it serve to witness Fish Mooney pluck her eye out? Why did the camera keep rolling when a character was blown literally to pieces? What point was behind showing Eduardo Flamingo bite out a police officer’s neck? Did any of these instances advance the plot? Was it intended to show the nature of evil that ultimately was met with justice? The answer to both of these questions is no – violence and gore were inserted seemingly for their own sake and nothing more. This is just cheap thrills, if you ask me.

In contrast, a good story shows people doing bad things, even violent things, but ultimately not getting away with them. I’m reminded of Samuel Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where the poem’s narrator recounts a dastardly deed for which he paid dearly. The poem is long, so I’ll let this meme summarize it’s overall message:
albatross bad time oh no
Thus, if characters do something wrong, their sins should eventually bring punishment (provided they don’t repent of their wrongs), not just happen without context or consequence. While violence in general doesn’t bother me, its context and nature can as “Gotham” became increasingly darker and veering further away from any source of moral light.

4. To Laugh or Not to Laugh – That is a Good Question
Funny but Not Laughing huh
I love humor, from slapstick, to parodies, to dry wit, to campy humor that’s purposely over-the-top but is still smart and clever. Batman has always possessed a certain camp factor, from the 1960s Adam West-led classic “Batman,” to Tim Burton’s Batman films, to even “Gotham” itself. “Gotham” is definitely not a sitcom nor even a funny action show like the Adam West series, and that’s okay because I don’t think that would work as the tone from which “Gotham” borrows is akin to the darker sense of realism found in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. But “Gotham”‘ isn’t entirely devoid of humor as it’s delivered intentional sarcasm and some funny wink-wink moments (Penguin likes tuna sandwiches – get it?). But it’s also offered up some moments where I find myself laughing but I’m not sure I’m supposed to be.

This is yet another element that caused disconnect with me albeit it’s minor. Like I said, I appreciate good, clever comedy; and at times “Gotham” has offered up intentionally funny moments, from Ed Nygma’s bumbling, to Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock’s bantering, to Penguin’s barbed wit. But these were delicately added and fit the tone of the story so they didn’t feel forced. This is a Batman product after all, so some camp is okay; but it has to fit with the type of Batman story you’re telling. If you want to make a Batman story that’s upbeat and colorful, then campy humor is appropriate. If you want to present a variation of the Dark Knight that’s more brooding, then the humor has to match. But a dramatic story has to be careful not to take itself so seriously that it ends up parodying itself.

I don’t like not knowing whether I should be laughing or if I should be taking something seriously. In an odd way, “Gotham” at times reminded me of Drake’s music video for “Hotline Bling.” The video is so goofy that you’re left wondering if Drake intentionally made it that way or if it’s just the way viewers interpreted it, as in Drake didn’t realize how corny his dancing was but people took it that way and went crazy making memes, vines, and .gifs.

Case in point:
Drake Hotline Bling Meme hurt crying
star wars drake hotline bling
Again, this is a minor point but I felt it was worth mentioning. The humor in “Gotham” has been a misfire at times, especially during the second season, almost as if it didn’t want to have intentional, clever humor so it replaced such moments with ridiculousness that wasn’t intended to be funny but you can’t help but laugh anyway. I could name several such moments: any time Barbara went nuts; any time Jim Gordon tried to be too brooding; anything having to do with Silver St. Cloud; practically anything Theo Galavan did or said; and the Order of St. Dumas (which I’ve renamed the “Assassin’s Creed” Cosplay Club for Men).

As you can see, most of the faulty areas lie within the second season’s new editions rather than the original cast. Ed Nygma can be funny because he’s awkward and that’s a part of who he is as a character. Harvey Bullock is genuinely funny because snark is a part of who he is. Even Alfred Pennyworth has an inner smart aleck ingrained in his personality. Moments of comedy from characters who possess something genuinely amusing or funny about their personalities always work. Thus, it seemed like the original cast didn’t have a problem keeping a balance between clever camp and drama. I wished “Gotham” would have retained this balance from season one where it knew when to be dramatic yet also knew when to inject genuine humor as opposed to the uber-serious tone season two dispensed with where any honest attempts at comedy are pushed aside for overblown austerity that you can’t help but chuckle at.

In the end, despite its faults, “Gotham” was an enjoyable show when it got things right by offering up tight stories, compelling characters, and a good contrast between moral darkness and goodness. But evidently that’s not the path the show wanted to continue to take based on my assessment. Again, all of this is just my opinion and I mean it as constructive criticism.

So to those of you who have read and enjoyed my “Gotham” reviews, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

*Update November 2016: I stopped watching “Gotham” after its second season’s midpoint though I’ve casually stayed up to date on the show’s developments. Apparently the writers, Taylor himself, and/or both parties decided to make Penguin gay, which is quite the departure from canon. I can’t help but feel this was done to pander to the PC crowd as well as accommodate Taylor’s own sexual orientation of choice as I sense this decision had some sort of motive behind it other than advancing the plot. I’m further disappointed that Taylor has shown harsh intolerance towards viewers (by, oddly enough, claiming they are intolerant) who don’t care for this angle, regardless of reason – some viewers felt it was too far from canon while others didn’t care for the gay dynamic. Rather than recognize that everybody has a right to their opinions and beliefs, Taylor labeled such sentiments as “horsesh–t” and accused anyone who didn’t care for the Penguin-Riddler “romance” as being homophobic. This is tasteless on his part as Taylor could have been graciously tolerant by indicating that viewers have the freedom to feel whatever they wish about the story and leave it at that rather than being so rude. In the end, on top of the stark departure from canon; constant resurrection of characters; increased dark, depressing tone; and Taylor’s uncouth response just cemented my decision to never return to “Gotham.”

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