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” is 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 end. While season one set a high bar on multiple levels, 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” and “wrath” of the villains felt more like a tidal wave. So after serious contemplation, 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.)
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 for me. 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 itself was a character – and for that it worked but up to a point. Bruce Wayne can seem more like a background figure at times (albeit he appeared to assume a more front-and-center role as season tow progressed) 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, Jim Gordon’s inner conflicts made for some great drama as well as philosophical food for thought: Jim 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 greatly 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 very bad man and not as moral as you might think.
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 (so consider the source), 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, the constant insistence that Jim was somehow a bad man became irksome. What confounded me the most was that I’m not sure if I’m supposed to believe this as, at least in my view, what I saw week after week didn’t entirely support such a claim. Provided I’m missing something (and I may very well be), I feel this is unreliable narration. We’ve heard a plethora of characters, even Jim himself, spout off 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 Jim 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 a morally questionable thing for the right reasons, but any commentary about how questionable this was came after the fact. In Jim 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 as a viewer and it’s something I couldn’t overlook in terms of a narrative device, much like the way a typo jumps out at you – no matter how hard you try to ignore it or explain it away, it’s still there and it still bugs you.
2. Stuff and Things
“Gotham” also stumbled into some plotting issues where stuff and things sure do happen, but as to what end and why I’m left to question. For as much as this pains me to say – and I, by no means, am implying any disrespect to the show’s writers – “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. (For instance, why was Barbara deranged and initially bent on wanting Jim dead? I’ve addressed this at length in my season two reviews, episode eight in particular, but it’s a good example of less than clean plotting.) This has been my principle complaint with season two – 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 engaging 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 all well and good, I suppose, but to what aim? Where is his character supposed to be headed in the long run?
Again, I don’t fault the actor: Robin Lord Taylor works with what he’s given and he does a great job at whatever is required of him. Taylor has proven he can tackle meaty stories (season one’s “Penguin’s Umbrella” is a good example), but now his character has seemingly been consigned to just doing stuff and things. I love watching Penguin do stuff and things, but his character, and, by proxy, his actor, are capable of doing so much more. I suppose I’m overly-critical of how Penguin’s character is handled because I’ve always been a Penguin fan even when I was young; so it’s frustrating to see such a great character relegated to the sidelines and not given a good direction on how he’s supposed to evolve.
A specific case in point: what was the purpose in having him cross paths with Ed Nygam for a mini-episode arc in season two? Granted, it was a chance to show off their collective dynamics, allowed Ed to deliver a cool villain-to-villain pep talk, and provided us some moments of good comedy. But where did it lead? This is a television show, not a novel: in the latter, you can have interesting side stories that don’t necessarily serve to carry along the main plot (for instance, most of the Quidditch scenes in the Harry Potter books fit into this category). But television shows require almost everything to be tied into a long-term arc. Deep down, I suspected this pairing was to satisfy the numerous fans who were dying to see their favorite baddies together (remember #Nygmobblepot?). I’ll admit I wanted to see Smith’s and Taylor’s respective baddies team up, too, and I was happy the writers worked a moment like that in. I just wanted more from the exchange, like some sort of alliance between two future super-villians or something that might have related to a long-term arc, either in the second season or possibly beyond. I appreciate fan service when it’s done well, as it was in this case, but that can’t be the only reason why scenes are added or characters get paired up.
And it’s not just Penguin who suffered from directionless plots – 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 that 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 eventually 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 want to know everything, but a nudge in the right direction is beneficial in terms of looking at the story as a big picture that’s 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 potential payoff or no rhyme or reason to it all, it’s just stuff – and things.
3. Into Darkness
As a fiction writer myself, I agree that not every story should be constantly cheerful. The world can be a dark place where death is inevitable and people choose to do wrong things. The best fiction doesn’t try to sugarcoat this 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 my 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 unabashedly 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 will 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 all 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, from hacked off limbs; to plucked out eyeballs; to decapitated heads; to gnawed-out jugulars; to torture-esque scenes; to even violence against women where male characters torment, torture, fight, and kill female characters. “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 (other than the male-versus-female violence), 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? By way of example, “24” and “The Walking Dead” feature violence in varying degrees but their contexts warrant such content. On “24,” violence was used to show the lengths terrorists would go to kill innocent people as well as the only means by which to deal with violent men. On “The Walking Dead,” violence is often gory as Walkers (i.e. zombies) are systematically exterminated though they’re the collective antagonist figure that has to be contained. While various living characters have treated each other with complete disregard for human life, this is usually shown to have grave (no pun intended) consequences. While nothing stops villains from committing horrible acts, they never go unpunished indefinitely and their punishment usually fits their crimes (re: the Governor’s demise in season four, for instance). It can be tough to watch at times but it’s not shocking for the sheer sake of being shocking.
On “Gotham” however, violence and torture aren’t met with a similar system of justice; instead, some of the violence feels tacked on as if it’s intended to serve as sheer shock value and nothing more. 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 female 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 kind of long, so I’ll let this meme summarize it’s overall message:
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 form any source of moral light.
4. To Laugh or Not to Laugh – That is a Good Question
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 in the way it’s presented. 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, starker 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 rather bizarre scenarios, moments where I find myself laughing but I’m not sure I’m supposed to be. For instance, episode eleven of season two was hilarious. But while I think some of it was intended to be funny, the rest was supposed to be serious yet it’s so serious that it was funny.
This happened quite a bit during season two, especially regarding Theo Galavan’s story arc. For starters, Galavan was so over-the-top that I couldn’t help but wonder if he was intended to be a comic foil of sorts. I struggled to take him seriously, despite the fact he could prove himself to be a brutal man. Galavan’s personality was so overblown that I wasn’t sure what drove him other than he’s a megalomaniac, which I guess can work only in his case it just made him a stock villain and an unintentionally funny one at that. (And, yes, also despite the fact he returned as some mighty warrior named Azrael, yet somehow Galavan brandishing a sword still wasn’t an image I can take seriously).
Case in point…
(This is Theo Galavan as Azrael. See? Even now I’m laughing because Galavan just doesn’t command a sense of dread and respect whether he’s himself or some resurrected warrior-person-being. I guess just I’m missing the whole intimidation factor here, so you’ll have to forgive me. But I suspect I might be more afraid if he wasn’t dressed to resemble a rejected Lord of the Rings cast member who was told one too many times that he was too tall to play a Hobbit.) (Also, as a side note, I know Dr. Hugo Strange assumed the role of chief villain in the second season’s backhalf, but as I had stopped watching at that point, I cannot offer any commentary on him, for good or bad.)
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 ridiculous and 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:
Again, episode eleven of season two was a “Hotline Bling” moment for me and it’s a good example of how “Gotham” sometimes took itself far too seriously. Was Bruce’s near-death intentionally crafted to be so overblown that you’re supposed to chuckle, or was it intended to be a genuinely dark, serious moment yet it came across as too serious and, hence, strangely comical?
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 (she’s a regular drama queen); practically anything Theo Galavan did or said; and the Order of St. Dumas (which I’ve officially 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 genuine drama. I wished “Gotham” would have retained this balance from season one where it knew when to be dramatic and serious 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.
5. Give the People What They Want
Lastly, it’s probably no secret that my “Gotham” posts were the longest posts I composed (including this one!). I’m not complaining as I enjoyed penning my “Gotham” reviews, especially when an episode was particularly good.
But unlike my “Gotham” reviews, my other posts are not written in real time, meaning they have been in my WordPress queue for a while before they’re actually posted. But I couldn’t queue my “Gotham” reviews as it’s in a review’s nature, at least for a television show, to be timely.
I also noticed my “Gotham” reviews were increasingly becoming negative, and I don’t like to dwell on the negatives of a book, movie, or television show unless doing so is of benefit to my readers. While I think people want to know about a story’s flaws, I’m willing to bet that they’re far more interested in knowing the good points, so I do my best to emphasize any positives in my reviews. But my “Gotham” reviews started to sound jaded and I was running out of things to analyze that I hadn’t already touched on. So I felt it was simply time to move on to other topics.
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. For the record, I think the show has a stellar cast and I’d definitely keep some of them on my radar so I can check out any future projects.
To those of you who have read and enjoyed my “Gotham” reviews, I thank you from the bottom of my heart and I hope you continue to visit my blog.