Sigh…GOTHAM. I…I just didn’t know what to make of you, man. Your series premiere held a lot of promise in its basic concept: a show focusing on the days before Batman came to town and following the exploits of a young police officer named James Gordon (Ben McKenzie). This idea never bothered me as I am an enormous fan of not just the Commissioner Gordon character, but of the Dark Knight’s entire supporting cast and Rogues Gallery. Be it gritty or campy, I am always ready to embrace whatever reinterpretation of the mythos comes sailing down the river. And it seemed as though the pilot had done its job well in establishing character motivations and story arcs that could maintain the audience’s focus for a long haul. Indeed, this first season finale had quite a bit of pay off for several important feuds and conflicts…too bad it feels like those pay offs came several seasons early.
Let me get the kudos out of the way because I feel a not-so-glowing review building: the acting is very good on the show. McKenzie is consistent at portraying all around nice (but tough) guy Gordon, Donal Logue plays a very entertaining Harvey Bullock, Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin steals every scene that he is in and even David Mazouz as young Bruce Wayne gets a moment or two throughout the season to show off his inner darkness. Even Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney can be a brassy and intimidating presence in the proper context (just a shame the show could never give her anything interesting to do). Everyone is trying and I am very appreciative for what they are doing to make the material pop. The problem isn’t with the actors. It’s everything else. From pacing to tone to characterization, GOTHAM’s first season is unabashedly, unbearably schizophrenic.
Again, I have nothing against tinkering with the Batman mythology to make it fresh and new. We’ve seen this story a dozen or more times in various formats, so whatever else the show runners can bring to the table, I say “go for it.” And I’m not against populating the world with colorful personalities. You want the stunning Morena Baccarin to play Dr. Leslie Thompkins and have her get romantically involved with Gordon? By all means, let ‘er rip! At least that’s something different and interesting to me as a fan of the franchise. Unfortunately, it felt as if the show was at war with itself over whether it was going to be a grim and gritty cop procedural in the vein of Nolan or a sadistic romp with just a hint of Burton/Schumacher campiness. Thankfully, by the time the finale rolled around, it felt as though it had struck a pretty good balance between the two by acknowledging the bleakness but still having some sense of fun about itself in the performances. It’s just too bad that between the pilot and the finale, most episodes weren’t able to maintain that balance.
More often than not, the season kept getting sidetracked with multiple plots and characters clamoring for attention. Gordon is supposed to be our lead…I think. I dunno. It’s hard to tell because usually his dilemmas involving police/judicial corruption are overshadowed by Penguin’s power plays for control of the underworld. Or is it the Wayne Enterprises conspiracy that Bruce is unraveling? Or is it whatever the hell waste of time was going on with Fish on Dollmaker’s surgical island resort? Or is it that underdeveloped and boring Barbara (Erin Richards) is now suddenly crazy because GOTHAM’s version of Christian Grey kidnapped her and made her fall in love with him? Or is it whatever freak/criminal/future Bat-villain of the week is hogging the spotlight? Subplots are nothing new to crime-dramas, but most of the time it feels like everything is demanding to be the main plot all at once.
GOTHAM is desperately trying to be the GAME OF THRONES parallel for non-cable based programming in that it wants to make every character matter and give you the feeling that everything is building towards one common outcome. The similarities end there since GAME OF THRONES actually knows the value of patience and takes its time to make you appreciate and enjoy the characters and their gradual development. But it definitely seems like the crew of GOTHAM panicked at a certain point and began to cram what feels like a good 2 or 3 seasons-worth of twists and plot points into each episode, jumping the gun with several reveals of future allies and villains like Scarecrow, Two-Face, the Flying Graysons and (possibly?) the Joker. These could have been more meaningful additions in later seasons, but instead it plays more like forced nods to the future Batman and his adversaries in an effort to keep hardcore fans with the show.
GOTHAM’s biggest weak spot this season was definitely its order for a full 22 episode run. The pacing and storytelling could have been streamlined and benefited greatly from a limited number of installments such as it was with AGENT CARTER’s 8 episode season. With a full order of 22 comes quite a bit of filler and character development can suffer greatly from it. Gordon appears to grow wise and come around to how the twisted and corrupt operate the city, but every 3 episodes or so he gets “reset” and is just as appalled at the lack of morality on display as he was in the pilot episode. Penguin is in a constant state of double-crossing people on a weekly basis and the novelty wears off quick to the point that by the time the season finale came around, I honestly forgot whose side he was supposed to be on (not that it really mattered since, ultimately, Penguin’s out for himself). Meanwhile, quirky side characters such as Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) suddenly get a burst of “crazy” towards the end for no other reason than to establish that he’s probably going to be full-on Riddler by next season. Even Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor on SMALLVILLE took his time over 7 seasons to become the villain we all know him to be…and at least he was entertaining in the interim.
All of these issues compounded into an epiphany I had during the show’s mid-season break: GOTHAM ultimately may not be allowed to grow and change. Gordon’s quest to turn the city around can never be fulfilled within the series without severely undermining a core principle of the mythos that remains consistent across a myriad of adaptations: it’s not until Batman shows up that things get better. I think it may be especially infuriating that, even though Mazouz does a commendable job in the role, young Bruce Wayne’s inclusion in the main cast is a persistent reminder of an endgame we will never see. An appearance here or there would be fine, but being constantly reminded that we have a Batman present who hasn’t even started shaving speaks to the not-so-reassuring thought that both the city and the show have a long way to go.
But despite my many gripes with this season, I don’t think it’s beyond saving. The actors and their respective characters have the potential to maintain investment for viewers. But GOTHAM needs to figure out what exactly its long game is in order to support its cast properly. Keep the focus on Gordon or, at the very least, understand that GOTHAM is not as adept at juggling multiple plots as GAME OF THRONES. Jump ahead a few years, take Bruce out of the spotlight for a bit so that when he does return to the story, it is more of a treat than a test in patience. Cut back on the number of main cast members vying for attention with plots that go nowhere (offing the dynamic-but-useless Fish is a step in the right direction). Bottom line: take your time and streamline. The potential for greatness is buried deep within you somewhere. It’s time to dig it up.
Final Score: 5.5 out of 10