Gotham Season 1
Gotham season 2 is almost upon us so it’s a good time to revisit season 1 and reflect on it as a whole before the second season starts doing its thing.
This is a very tough show to talk about because there was so much going on while there was so little going on so analysing the season on the whole is no easy task. I won’t be talking in depth about every character on the show because that would take forever. There are so many characters and most of them are relatively unimportant at this stage so some will only be mentioned in passing. For the purposes of this I’ll focus on what I think should be the core of the show with the rise of James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) running parallel to the rise of Oswald Cobblepot aka Batman villain The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).
On a conceptual level, Gotham isn’t a bad idea. Seeing one of the most famous comic book cities ever before the time it was defended by the resident vigilante crime fighter definitely has a lot of dramatic potential. Many people say that Batman is the most realistic of all superhero stories and in some ways I would agree with it though there are many other characters grounded enough to replicate a real world feel. A good example of that is Daredevil as was recently proven by Marvel Studios and Netflix. There are other characters that could fit a gritty realistic template as well but I don’t disagree that Batman is definitely one of them.
If done correctly then it’s very possible to tell an engaging crime story set in Gotham City without Batman needing to be around for it to work. Focusing on James Gordon – an honest cop in a dishonest city is also a great idea as he’s such a mainstay of the Batman mythos that people will easily identify him and it lends the series a point of recognition for a general audience as most people will be used to seeing this character in every adaptation of Batman so far, most relevantly in Christopher Nolan’s well regarded Dark Knight trilogy.
I don’t feel that Gotham was very successful in telling an engaging story in this opening season. The biggest problem was a lack of real focus on what the show was trying to be. Sometimes it was about Gordon trying to make his way in a corrupt city, sometimes it was about a growing tension between the gang leaders, other times it was about Penguin’s rise to power and lots of focus was also given to Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) dealing with the death of his parents by learning life lessons relevant to his future identity as Batman. There were many other meandering subplots as well such as the saga of Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) that had no real connection to anything else that was going on.
This lack of focus meant that the show really struggled to find its feet in any meaningful way early on. I think that part of that could be attributed to the season being extended part of the way through meaning that some plots dragged on a lot longer than they should have but that’s not the whole problem. Pretty much from the pilot episode I never got the impression that there was a clear idea of what sort of show this was. In terms of setup and execution it looked as if it was going to be a world grounded in some kind of realism that relied on human characters making human decisions based on the framework that they operated in but it drifted into the realms of the ridiculous all too often. Episodes like “The Balloon Man” was the earliest example of this all too frequent occurrence with many promising ideas all but destroyed by laughable execution. For clarity, “The Balloon Man” was not a promising idea but it’s a great example of the heights -pun intended- of ridiculousness that this show was seemingly unafraid to go to.
Tonally the show was all over the place with situations being played for comedy that really shouldn’t have been such as the investigation scene in the episode “Rogues Gallery” where the urgency of the plot is lessened by the cartoonish silliness of the various interviews with Arkham Asylum inmates. Scenes like this give the more serious situations less weight by comparison. It’s a shame as lots of these stories were really interesting but they were brought down by what was going on around it.
Gotham did have some good characters and the people cast to play them are very talented people so it’s even more disappointing that they are often so poorly written. James Gordon is a good example of the inconsistency with how these characters are written. Our first impression of Gordon is that he’s a good cop in a bad town. He has a strong sense of morality and justice which puts him at odds with everyone he works with due to Gotham City being so profoundly corrupt. Most of the police department have simply accepted that the city is run by the mob and do what they can to operate within that. Gordon comes along and he’s unwilling to compromise in the face of this corruption. This makes him an interesting character on paper as he’s constantly fighting against the current trying to get things done.
The show does some interesting things to show the massive corruption in Gotham City. Most of the references are really overt but there are some nicely done subtleties as well. Things like and Arkham Guard in “Rogues Gallery” being reluctant to admit he made a mistake because he would lose a week’s pay or the jaded cop in “Selina Kyle” who would rather prioritise a restaurant that pays him protection money than cordon off the scene of a murder that will likely never be solved. Both sides of the argument are given due attention and these examples give the audience a clear idea of exactly what Gordon is up against.
In a lot of ways Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) represents the sort of cop that Gordon could be if he simply accepts what goes on here. Bullock is a good man and wants to make a difference but years of working as a cop in Gotham City have broken his spirit to the point where he feels that he can’t make a massive difference. He does what he can but he does accept how things work. A good example of that is found in “Selina Kyle” when Bullock takes Gordon to Fish Mooney to try to find some information and she makes no secret of the fact that she tried to have people killed. This level of confidence within the mob shows just how corrupt Gotham is and how much of a collective apathy is felt among the police force. Bullock is a good contrast to Gordon’s naive idealism as he is often used to point out the practical reasons why Gordon’s outlook doesn’t necessarily work within the framework of Gotham City.
The episode “Everyone Has a Cobblepot” gives a suitable explanation for why the police are so powerless against the mob. In that episode it is established that pretty much every cop in Gotham has been ordered by someone in the mob to kill a criminal or suffer the same fate themselves. As such Gotham’s gangs have something incriminating on pretty much every member of the police force. This means that there is only so much that can be done by the police to bring down criminals. It’s a mutual understanding where the police have to leave the gangs alone to protect their secret. Gordon is immune to this because he only pretended to kill Cobblepot when ordered to by mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Doman). When Cobblepot was revealed to be alive Gordon had no incriminating secrets preventing him from taking the necessary action.
His development throughout the season is somewhat hindered by the fact that by his very characterisation he is so self righteous. The fact that he always has to be right within the context of the show really limits things as he never really shows any visible signs of questioning his morality though there are some moments where it looks like he is going to play the game a little to further his own interests. In “Everyone Has a Cobblepot” he uses some leverage he has on Commissioner Loeb (Peter Scolari) to blackmail him into sponsoring him for union representative. Unfortunately this was pretty much the only example of Gordon getting his hands dirty in the entire season. The finale “All Happy Families are Alike” did have Gordon acknowledge that if someone had to lead the criminal element of Gotham then Falcone was probably the best choice. I don’t think that one really worked as it felt rushed as Gordon definitely wasn’t at that point in his development where he would accept that. The rest of the time he was portrayed as some sort of angel fighting on the side of right and I was expecting a lot more complexity in exploring the criminal element of Gotham.
Beyond his relationship with his lethargic partner Bullock there are other significant connections he has throughout. The main one initially is his relationship with Barbara Keen (Erin Richards) who starts off as his fiancée but is quickly removed from that role due to her self destructive nature and all of the secrets she keeps from him. Her character is so poorly handled and their relationship more or less goes around in circles before it ends. Her personal story is really messed up as she ends up killing her parents and getting arrested. Unless the producers are making a massive change to established Batman canon then I very much doubt that this is the Barbara that he famously ends up marrying. Her overall story would take too long to get into and her character is never really that interesting until the last few episodes of the season. Even at that she is only interesting by comparison to how uninteresting she was earlier on.
As the season goes on he enters a romantic relationship with Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin). Their relationship feels as much of an afterthought as anything else. Baccarin is a really good actress and as such Leigh -as she is known- becomes engaging because of her performance rather than good writing. She simply isn’t around enough to make that much of an impact on the overall narrative and the brief scenes they share together are awkwardly written.
At the beginning of the season he has a strong connection with the young Bruce Wayne as he has vowed to bring the murderer of his parents to justice. This story is in the background of many of the early episodes but it all but disappears as time goes on when Gordon seems to give up on that one. None of the scenes they share together are really all that exciting as their interactions are a little awkward. In theory it’s a clever twist on their future partnership when he becomes Batman but as with most things the execution is sorely lacking.
Gordon’s most important relationship is with Oswald Cobblepot aka the Penguin. This starts when Gordon spares his life when Falcone orders Gordon to kill him and develops as the season goes on. Initially Cobblepot feels somewhat indebted to Gordon for saving his life and as the season goes on he seems genuinely keen to help the police. He basically wants a similar relationship to the one Bullock and Fish share but Gordon really doesn’t want to use known criminals as informants. I think it would be interesting if the relationship between Gordon and Penguin was developed to mirror Bullock and Fish’ arrangement. It would be great to see Gordon being less naive and self righteous. There were shades of it in the season but not enough to be considered effective.
Ben McKenzie does a great job as Gordon for the most part. He does suffer with not having much to work with but when the material is strong then there’s a real sense of integrity and strength to the character. He is believable as an experienced and intelligent cop and it’s easy to see a genuine desire to help others.
Cobblepot was at times an interesting character in his own right. When he was introduced he was a snivelling subservient henchman to the more powerful Fish Mooney. It was always known that he had an ambition to be in her position so his goal from early on was clear. The show has him taken from her employ far too quickly for that to become as interesting as it could be.
I will give the writers their due in creating Cobblepot as being a devious and intelligent character. In the early episodes he establishes himself as being useful to Gordon while being noticed by Maroni (David Zayas) who he hides behind to keep him safe from the influence of Cobblepot. He manages to get in Maroni’s good graces as they seem to have had similar backgrounds so he plays on that to manipulate the situation. It’s initially cleverly done as he whispers the right poison in Maroni’s ears to make things work in his favour.
Once he starts to get what he wants and is given control of Fish Mooney’s club things really slow down for him. He seems to enjoy having his own little corner of the world but his development all but stops. There are many awkward scenes where he’s trying to keep his mother (Carol Kane) happy in the club even though she clearly resents them. Some of these moments are darkly funny but on the whole they are pretty awkward and there are far too many of them so the whole thing drags on past where the point had been made. He does stage his own attack on Falcone through Liza (Makenzie Leigh), a woman used to manipulate him by Fish Mooney. Cobblepot realises this and uses it to his advantage. Sadly the whole thing loses any subtlety when the season finale has him yelling “I’m the king of Gotham!” over and over again when it seems that any opposition is out of his way.
Robin Lord Taylor is great in the role. He looks and acts awkward, easily making the transition from coward to psychopath at the drop of a hat. Even in the worst episodes his performance was always magnetic and he really sold the character to the audience. I normally found him a joy to watch due to how unsettling he could be.
As a story arc the idea of a gang war bubbling within Gotham City is a fantastic idea and it could have gone on for many seasons if it had been given the time to breathe. There was plenty of scope for the story to develop with constantly shifting loyalties and the figurative chess game between the major players causing various problems for Gordon and the rest of the police as the season continues. It didn’t need to get as far as it did by the end of season 1 anyway. I am curious to see what season 2 will bring after the show rushed past something that had so much potential.
Gordon and Cobblepot’s binary rise to power in different ways should definitely have been the central theme of Gotham and perhaps that was the intention but the producers seemed too eager to toss in as many Batman references as humanly possible. Characters like Harvey Dent (Nicholas D’Agosto) and Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk) were tossed into the mix in small roles that basically became inconsequential. I imagine more development of them is planned as time goes on but their introduction could have waited until a much later point.
Other painfully overt references make the show cringeworthy more often than not. For instance the episode “The Blind Fortune Teller” introduced both the Flying Graysons and what will more than likely become the Joker. It’s only season 1, again these things can wait. There was also an admittedly good 2 part story that eventually gave audiences the Scarecrow that will become a problem for Batman. Beyond that there were many more unsubtle references in pretty much every episode.
Probably the most unsubtle of them all is the use of Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) aka the future Riddler. From the first episode he constantly talks in riddles that irritate everyone around him, acts about as creepy as it gets and does things like drink out of a mug with a question mark on it. By the end of season 1 he is killing and leaving cryptic clues so has become the Riddler in everything but name only. The show really should have picked a few references to wink at the audience with instead of the onslaught of Batman trivia.
Another misstep the show took was the development of Bruce Wayne. Many of the episodes had him learn a lesson that will become useful when he dons the cape and cowl so it can sometimes feel like a young Batman in training. It feels like it’s happening very quickly for him but I get the impression that having him learn skills and lessons was the only way the writers could keep him around. I think there’s a strong argument for having his parents around as main characters for at least the first season. That way Bruce can always be around but nothing really hangs on him in terms of development. The idea of corruption within Wayne Enterprises could have been developed from an adult perspective. If the first season finale had ended with the murder of his parents after the audience was invested in them then it would have been far stronger. At least Sean Pertwee’s Alfred was always a lot of fun to watch and their relationship was genuinely touching but given the speed of Bruce’s development I’m expecting him to become Batman by the end of next season.
When Gotham was at its best it could really excel. Episodes like “Red Hood” and “Everyone Has a Cobblepot” really show how a subtle development of how poisoned Gotham city is by crime and corruption can enhance the story. Episodes like these show an ideology that has settled into the population that leave the whole place seemingly beyond redemption. There’s the idea that people on the streets feel that the system is against them and act out against it. It brings a complexity to life in the city that is lacking from the majority of the series. Ideally there would be more examples of being able to see the point of view of the criminals. At the end of the day they are simply trying to survive and will often do whatever they can to ensure that their families are safe.
There’s a great speech in “Red Hood” that talks about stealing from the bank being entirely justifiable as banks only exploit people so stealing from them is stealing from a corrupt entity instead of the people it pretends to represent. It was a good point well made and shows people who are a product of the corruption in Gotham city. More of that sort of scope would have made the show more enjoyable on the whole.
There is lots more going on in Gotham and that’s sort of the problem. I’ve tried to sum up the season as best I can with a focus on what I believe should have been the centre of the show. Unfortunately the whole experience is so muddled that it’s really difficult to talk about where the whole thing exactly goes wrong. There’s plenty I didn’t talk about such as the characterisation of a young Selina Kyle but I tried to keep it to what I felt was very important.
I’ll be handing over the reviewing duties of this show to Aaron when season 2 begins as he has more to say about it than I do so I hope everyone will make a point of reading what he thinks of the second season.