We Need To Talk About Gotham

Comic books are in. Not just in the movie sphere, but in the television world as well. Between Marvel and DC alone there are roughly seven shows on air that spawned from comic books. DC itself currently has three shows on the air, with two more on the way (possibly more if things like Teen Titans get greenlit). So it’s natural that with so many properties being adapted that one of them would fall short of the mark. The problem with Gotham, is that it doesn’t even seem to be trying.

Now, traditional essay writing suggests that I should present you with a thesis. So in honor of that, my thesis is as such: Gotham is aimless. It’s lacking a sense of purpose and because of it, the show has no idea what it wants to be. If the show continues on like this, it will crash and burn and become something of a regretful notch in the history of comic book television.

And here is the evidence. To start, we’ll go all the way back to the beginning. Now I understand that pilots are usually rough. The writers have no choice but to cram introductions of the world, and every major character into roughly forty-two minutes of air time. That’s not an easy thing to do. So I can forgive that.

The bigger issues arose in the next few episodes. For whatever reason the writers felt like beating viewers over the head with how the characters felt about the world. For example, Gordon would nonstop reiterate to Bullock that he was a cop and needed to uphold the law. Meanwhile, Bullock would always tell Gordon that he needed to “get with the program” and follow the corruption like anyone else, lest he get eaten alive. We established this relationship pretty quickly in the first episode, there was very little need to remind us of it several times per episode. Not only did this prevent actual progress from happening, it makes the viewers feel stupid because the show isn’t treating them like people who can understand basic motivations. Thankfully this was a problem the show corrected eventually, but it took way longer than it should have.

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There’s also the fact that several characters in the show exist without purpose. It’s bound to happen in a show that has a ton of characters (like Lost for instance). It gets difficult to keep track and assign everyone a worthwhile plot line. But Gotham doesn’t have a ton of characters like Lost does. It has roughly the same amount of “main characters” as a show like Arrow or The Flash.

Let’s take Barbara Gordon for instance. Initially the character was supposed to be someone who was there to support Gordon and be his light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. But through Gordon’s inability to socialize and Barbara’s stubborness, the whole thing falls apart. Now if the show’s goal was to portray how Gotham is tearing people apart and “sucking the life” out of Gordon, then great. You showed that.

But then they kept the character around. She floated from place to place, random event to random event and thus far has yet to show any sort of development or relation to the plot. Mind you, at the time of this writing there are only four episodes in the season left. So if they plan on taking her anywhere, they’ll have to do it fast.

Barbara Gordon isn’t the only character this has happened with. Characters like Catwoman initially show promise and a relation to the “overarching plot” of the season (I use quotes because saying the season has a focused plot is a bit of an overstatement). Even Fish Mooney, who for the longest time was the closest thing the season had to a main antagonist. But her arc came to a swift end in the middle of the season. So now she’s just bumbling about Dollmaker’s mansion until the end of the season where her character will be off the show. If you never planned on the character going anywhere after their initial arc, why keep them around? You’re just asking for the viewers to think about why this character is still on their TV.

Yet other characters, like the Riddler, have literally no focus or storyline associated with them. So far the Riddler has existed only to be weird. Sure, the fact that the other characters make fun of him and he has this girl that occasionally thinks he’s weird (or doesn’t, depending on the episode) no doubt plays into his eventual turn into a villain. But that isn’t story. It’s a collection of random moments. Even worse, the Riddler only factors into the story of other characters when he’s needed. So he’s literally a walking plot device that occasionally makes everyone around him uncomfortable.

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To step away from characters for a bit, the overall season’s plot of Gotham is nonexistent. Most shows – even procedural cop shows and whatnot – have a story that they’ll touch on throughout the season, culminating in a large and important season finale. Gotham has none of that. The initial arc of the season involved the brewing mob war between Fish Mooney and Don Falcone. But as stated above, that storyline came to an end in the middle of season. Now characters like the Penguin are left with nothing to do.

Instead the show fills its time with random episodes with throwaway villains. Even the ones that do touch on famous Batman villains (such as Scarecrow) leave you wanting. Why have a two-parter dedicated to the “origins” of Scarecrow when you could have made him a more interesting character later in the show. Are we to assume that those two episodes were all it took before he became Batman’s enemy? Gotham doesn’t do a good job of leaving the doors open for the return of characters such as these. If the show keeps on this pace, they’ll run out of interesting villains in no time.

Speaking of interesting characters, the show committed a cardinal sin a few episodes ago in attempting to introduce to kid who would eventually become the Joker. If you want a lesson in how not to be subtle, this episode is worth a look. Not only is the Joker’s father a man known as Cicero, he grew up in a circus, and before the end of the episode the kid is laughing like a psychopath. Where is the origin in that? He’s practically already the Joker! He’s just missing a little make up and the gun that goes BANG!

Look at this ridiculous punk.
Look at this ridiculous punk.

And while I’m of the mind that the Joker is best left anonymous, there have been attempts to give him and origin of sorts, like Batman ’89 and such. That’s fine, but this isn’t the beginning of the Joker we saw. This kid was already the Joker. And frankly, that’s a bit boring to watch. If this show is supposed to be about the slow descent all these people go through into becoming villains, then maybe don’t start them off with one foot off the deep end already.

If the show just had something even close to a seasonal arc, then the show would feel like it had a lot more purpose to it. But right now there’s no telling where it will go. What kind of end game is there? I suppose the obvious answer is that Bruce Wayne will be Batman. But the show – supposedly – is supposed to be about Jim Gordon. And unfortunately it’s terribly hard to care about him and his struggles in Gotham City. The obstacles he faces are so random and out of the blue – like being transferred to Arkham Asylum for two episodes – that they fail to make any sort of imprint

Now all of this isn’t to say that Gotham hasn’t done a few things right. You have noticed that there are a few main characters I haven’t touched on yet. Namely, Bruce Wayne. And while I think children are super annoying on television, they’ve done a pretty decent job on making him interesting. The story about his search into his parents death is interesting, mostly because it doesn’t seem to follow the comics in any way. Their original approach to his parent’s death is one of the few things that works.

They’ve also taken what seems like a good deal of inspiration from Batman: Earth One when developing Alfred’s character. It’s a refreshing take on the butler, one that I hope will continue to make a difference in the show’s quality.

Then there’s Detective Bullock. He isn’t one of the show’s most developed characters, but he’s consistent, which is more than I can say for some of the other characters on the show. He delivers a great deal of humor and after the first six episodes or so you can see a real friendship developing between him and Gordon.

Lastly, there’s the Penguin. It’s very telling that one of the most made fun of villains in Batman’s history is currently the best character on the show. With some glaring exceptions, the character has remained on the most consistent path. His rise to power and working his way through the city’s inner workings has been fun to watch. The only problem is that he was hitched the Fish Mooney storyline. So once her purpose came to an end, so did his. There seem to be some hints of what’s coming for Penguin, with him striking a deal with Gordon, but for now he’s in a weird stasis. So for now we’re left watching the man we’ve seen have tons of street smarts and be relatively ruthless bumble around a club, making an ass of himself.

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You might be wondering where the main character of the show, James Gordon fits into all this. The truth is, Gordon still isn’t much of a character. He’s a decent bit ahead of where he was at the beginning of the season, constantly repeating his mantra about cleaning up the city and resisting corruption. But aside from that he’s more of a cipher through which we see all these other characters. The most interesting bits are when Gordon does take that brief step into the dark side. Moments when he works with Penguin and realizes just how easy it would be to reach his goals if he were to just take that final step are great. They’re little bits of character study that I wish the show would explore more.

How does the show fix all these issues you might ask? Well it’s actually very simple. The show simply needs a purpose. Each season needs that storyline in which all the characters are linked to. Shows like Arrow and Flash do this very well. Even from the first episode, you realize where things are headed. That way you’re not left wondering why this episode happened or where into some puzzle it fits. In Gotham’s case there isn’t even a puzzle, just a random assortment of pieces that don’t fit together at all. If there’s a through line to the entire season, then there will be purpose for each character that relates to that season’s current plot. Then you won’t have these extra limbs that don’t do anything and make you wonder why they were there in the first place.

And while it may be difficult to think of villains that are old enough, or developed enough to be a consistent threat for a season, it’s actually the opposite. The show managed to do it this season for the first half. They just need to look a little harder. Take the Court of Owls storyline for example. They’re a secret society that consisted of Gotham’s wealthiest and occult obsessed. They were also around since the founding of Gotham, so long before Batman became Batman. It sounds like the perfect fit for Gotham to tackle.

If the writers are feeling really desperate, there’s always the time jump. Move everyone along their story by five years or so. That way we’ve skipped all the boring stuff and can start fresh from a new point of interest. It’s unlikely to happen, but it’s an option worth exploring.

Gotham has a lot of potential. It has one a collection of some of the richest characters in comic book history. But so far it’s squandering all of them. If the show doesn’t fix itself up, it’s hard to imagine it being on air for much longer. And unfortunately for the show’s sake, the man behind the whee, Bruno Heller, is probably the last person you want. This is the man who created a six-season long villain Red John without figuring out his identity first. He just kind of made it up on the spot when it came time to end that story. So if you’re looking for a reason behind all the trouble the show is in, there’s why.

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