Monday, September 29, 2014

Pilot Season: Gotham (A Show With Everything But Yul Brenner)

In news completely unrelated to Gotham, I've been listening to the Chess soundtrack a lot lately, and as you can tell, it's kind of stuck in my head.

But in more related matters, there's a new show about Batman. Or rather, as the promotional materials make eminently clear, that's not about Batman. Indeed, Gotham is very intentionally a show that isn't about Batman, it's about Commissioner Gordon, and how he became the mustachioed badass we all know and love. Except for the part where it is clearly completely about Batman.

The pilot episode starts off with some clever shots of a young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) skulking down the streets, doing petty crime, when her quiet night is interrupted by the loud and emotionally traumatizing murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Selina sticks around just long enough to definitely know who the murderer is, before bugging off for the rest of the episode. That's when we're introduced to our actual main characters, Detectives James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). 

They come in to investigate the crime scene and talk to the witness (young Bruce, of course), and from the start we know what kind of cops they are. Gordon is young and idealistic and tough and exactly the kind of cop you want investigating a murder. Bullock is clearly dirty, rough, rude, and tries to get out of investigating the Wayne case because he knows that it's a one-way ticket to pissing off the Gotham crime scene. Needless to say, they don't get along.

The episode then consists of Gordon trying his gosh-darndest to solve the case by conventional, staid, solid police work, and Bullock using his network of CIs, mob connections, and weirdly sexual relationship with Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), a local crime boss with mafia ties. Bullock's way works better, and finds them attempting to arrest, and then shooting dead as he tried to flee, the Wayne's killer. Yay! All's well that ends well, and now young Master Bruce totally won't have crippling emotional problems, right?


No, it turns out that the Waynes were not killed in a random mugging, as was previously assumed, nor was the man Bullock just shot involved in any way. But at least he's dead now so that his daughter Ivy can grow up with crippling emotional problems like literally everyone else in the Batman universe.

As we learn when Fish Mooney's second in command, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), goes to two detectives from Major Crimes, the mugging was a setup. Fish Mooney was involved in taking out the Waynes, as was Carmine Falcone in all likelihood. This means that the takedown of that random mugger involved planted evidence, and means that the cops were in on it. We as an audience know the Gordon was innocent, but Bullock? Yeah, he totally did it.

Unfortunately, Major Crimes, which seems to consist entirely of Detective Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and her partner, think Gordon was in on it, and they decide to make his life hell. Gordon reacts precisely the way we expect and takes this as a personal challenge to solve the case. Because of course he does. He even goes and tells Bruce Wayne that they didn't actually catch the man who killed his parents, and that justice isn't served yet. Good job, Gordon. That's not going to screw the kid up like whoa.

Gordon's attempts to investigate the crime eventually reach Fish Mooney's attention, as well as the attention of Carmine Falcone himself. Mooney realizes that Oswald must have sold her out, and decides that the best way to handle this situation is to kill him. Or rather, since Major Crimes is closing in on her and Falcone is none to pleased at the moment, to have Gordon kill him. This way Gordon is just as dirty as the rest of them, and Oswald is handily out of the way.

Obviously Gordon doesn't kill the guy. Instead he pretends that he did and lets Oswald get away, so he can live to become a supervillain who wreaks horrible havoc on Gotham and totally does not deserve the leniency Gordon just showed him.

All of that happens in literally the first episode of the show, so I hope you understand that I really meant it when I said this show has everything. The plot is positively jam packed, and sheer number of characters introduced was kind of dizzying. 

That's not to say it was a bad first episode. It wasn't. It was pretty fun and watchable and reasonably entertaining. Just that it was a lot. Everything in this show is busy, from the plot to the character arcs and interactions to the freaking set direction. It's all so much to take in, like the executives are afraid they'll offend a fan if they leave anything out.

Overall, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. I can understand the executive's desire to make the most of their right to use all of these characters, but it feels false and weird to assume that everyone here is going to be a superhero or supervillain in about twenty years. And while I like the idea of doing origin stories for some of the lesser known characters, there's a flawed premise when it comes to creating an origin story for Commissioner Gordon. I mean, what kind of story is there? Once upon a time there was a really honest cop in a city of not very honest cops. He solved crime and was generally disliked, then one day he met Batman. The end.

I'm just saying, it's not really cinematic.

And the argument that this isn't a Batman show would be a lot more convincing if it weren't a complete and utter lie. Not only is this definitely a Batman show, the first episode revolves around the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce's emotional problems, and whether or not there was a big conspiracy about the whole thing. By the end of the episode it's clear that the search for the Wayne's real killer will be the arc for the rest of this season (at least) and that anyone claiming Gotham isn't about our favorite angsty superhero is just straight up lying.

It's not just that the show is openly obsessed with the Waynes. There's also the minor fact that of all of the characters introduced in the first episode, only one major figure isn't a big player from the Batman comics or cartoons. And that means that while this show is arguably about the rise of James Gordon, it's more about the creation and expansion of the Batman universe. 

If this show were really honestly truly about Gordon, then the pilot would be so bold as to include other characters not explicitly ripped from the pages of the Batman comic, in the idea that probably other people were doing crime in Gotham twenty years before Batman became Batman.

Except they didn't do that. Nearly every single figure from the first episode, from a low level mob lackey like Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin), to a socially awkward and generally unliked CSI tech like Ed Nygma (The Riddler), to the daughter of a random criminal who's barely even in the episode (Poison Ivy), to the detective on Major Crimes who keeps investigating Gordon (Renee Montoya/The Question)... You get the point. Nearly every character in this episode fits somewhere larger in the Batman mythos. The only original character we meet is Fish Mooney, and she's really there so she can expedite the rise of The Penguin. It's all coming up Batman.

I'm not entirely sure yet if this is a criticism of the show. Because on the one hand, it's pretty cool that they're including so many characters from the DC canon. We've not seen many quality live-action versions of these characters so far, and while it's only been one episode, so far it looks very promising. On the other hand, it's a little bit alarming that the writers of this show seem to have so little regard for their ability to come up with new characters that even the background is populated with familiar figures. It also creates a weird sense that the world of Gotham is incredibly small and claustrophobic. Everyone knows everyone else and by the time Batman starts Batmaning they will have all been at this for twenty years.

That's kind of weird.

There are, however, a lot of positive things I can say about the show. For starters, the actors really are fantastically cast. Ben McKenzie is phenomenal as Gordon, and Donal Logue continues to bring a weird amount of pathos and dimension to a traditional scumbag character. Cartagena is great as the straight laced Renee Montoya, and her interactions with both Gordon and Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) are crackling with tension. 

Jada Pinkett Smith, Robin Lord Taylor, and Cory Michael Smith (who plays Ed Nygma) are all fantastically threatening, each in their own way. Heck, even Sean Pertwee knocks it out of the park playing a much more down-to-earth Alfred than we usually see. So right on.

It's also worth noting that this show seems quite intentionally diverse, like the writers and casting directors paid a lot of attention to including diversity. Yes, the canonically non-white characters are still non-white, but also a lot of new characters invented for this show are also non-white, like Fish Mooney and Captain Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara). It even passes the Bechdel Test in its first episode, albeit only by a few lines. This is all very promising.

In general, I think that's where I fall on Gotham. It's all very promising. While the first episode is frenetic at best, and downright hectic at worst, and the show seems determined to cram Batman backstory down my throat, it's doing it all very well. I feel relatively comfortable with the show because at least it seems to have a basic grasp of the premise and the characters and the ideology here. It's not really a show about James Gordon, but it is a show about Gotham itself. And that has the potential to be just as interesting.

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