Gotham: The Complete First Season
Published Sep 15, 2015In theory, Gotham should be a great show. These characters, most of whom fall and fail by the time Batman rises in a future outside of the scope of this origin series, are destined for tragedy, and we know it. We know that the idealistic detective, James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), won't clean up and fix Gotham, just as we know that young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), whose parents are murdered in the pilot episode, will never quite move on from that act of violence.
The creators and writers of Gotham understand this. They know they're telling a morally ambiguous, tragic story rooted in notions of order and anarchy. They also understand the importance of hinting at things to come and slowly building up the psychology of those that will eventually eschew social order in favour of destruction. As James slowly makes concessions throughout the first season, extending favours to Oswald (Robin Lord Taylor), a known criminal, for personal gain and making increasingly murky decisions in the name of upholding justice, there's a sense that he too will turn out like his corrupt but well intentioned partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). There's also an underlying sense of futility when young Bruce attempts to battle the board of directors at Wayne Enterprises that stems from the glances and warnings of his war-torn butler/caretaker Alfred (Sean Pertwee) and his far more worldly and defeated friend Selina (Camren Bicondova).
And as secondary characters slowly become recognizable, such as Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), an awkward but well intentioned forensic investigator that we know will eventually become the Riddler, there's a sense that the thematic tapestry here is paved by the damning effects of social imbalance, violence and instability. The Joker also pops up (Cameron Monaghan), as does the Scarecrow (Charlie Tahan), both with their own tragic origins, heightening the rather dark tone that this series is going for.
But despite all of these considerations, and despite Gotham's gleeful embrace of unseemly human behaviour, something about it never quite works.
Though it improves a bit by the end of Season One, much of the writing is rather clumsy. Characters often awkwardly insert motivations or backstory unnaturally into conversation (almost everything involving James' love interest, Barbara (Erin Richards), is stated rather than shown) and there's a weird tendency to insert campy moments or purple prose at inopportune times. And since there's an overall tendency to force feelings upon the characters, pushing them into romances or big decisions with little more than a quick verbal justification, there's very little emotional investment. These people often act as mere archetypes, either cackling or scowling their exposition before jumping into life-threatening situations.
The problem here is balance and tone. Everyone involved in Gotham wants to maintain a bit of askew comic exaggeration while exploring the darker aspects of the human experience, but in order to sell the latter, these characters need quiet moments of reflection, and they need time to show how they respond to a situation or come to a conclusion without being pushed there mechanically. And in order to sell the former, a consistent dialogue or aesthetic format needs to be adhered to consistently rather than just popping up intermittently to remind us that this is more than a police procedural.
In some later episodes, there is some flirtation with the idea of slowing things down a bit. Characters are occasionally given little introspective moments to demonstrate complex thinking that isn't motivated by plot. When Gotham paces itself and steps away from the familiar stylistic tropes of network TV, it starts to get at something; it connects with its audience. With time, it's possible this style will emerge naturally, as the audience will be established and there won't be as much fear of alienating viewers with multi-episode arcs or by allowing conflicts to go unspoken.
For now though, Gotham is pretty mediocre, serviceable with only hints at something better. Interestingly enough, much of these writer motivations are discussed in the multiple mini-supplements included with the DVD set that ultimately comprise one greater "Making Of" featurette. There's also a gag reel, character profiles and a Comic-Con supplement.