Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Unapologetically Adult

Probably the hardest thing to accomplish when depicting a famous superhero before they became one is sacrificing the tropes we've come to identify with them. Mark Clamen in Critics at Large suggests that Gotham more than compensates with a compelling backstory.

Dark City: FOX's Gotham

Donal Logue and Benjamin McKenzie star in Gotham, on FOX
"…with a very few examples of cruelty he will be more compassionate than those who, out of excessive mercy, permit disorders to continue, from which arise murders and plundering; for these usually harm the community at large, while the executions that come from the prince harm particular individuals." Machiavelli, The Prince 

"You can't have organized crime without law and order." Don Falcone, Gotham 
I was surprised how much I enjoyed the premiere episode of Gotham. I had pre-set expectations for FOX's much publicized Batman-without-Batman prequel series, and they were mainly skeptical. Ten years of Smallville(especially the more tortured plot and character elements of its final season) loomed large in my mind as September approached. As fun as the notion of a story set in Gotham years before the arrival of its caped and cowled crusader might be in theory, Gotham seemed a project destined to be over-burdened by a famously established future continuity and a wealth of film and television adaptations of the Batman universe. Developed for television by Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, HBO's Rome), the show promises to tell the largely unwritten story of a young James Gordon, destined of course to become Police Commissioner Gordon and Batman's best official defender, but who for now is still a rookie detective finding his way in a thoroughly corrupt police department. However, if the pilot is any indication of its ambitions, Gordon (Benjamin McKenzie, Southland) is merely the face of the show's real main character, the city of Gotham itself.

Robin Lord Taylor and Benjamin McKenzie in Gotham
Gotham comes to the small screen with all the advantages and disadvantages of stepping in to a well-established, deeply beloved and (to some) exhausted franchise. It has a built-in audience of viewers but an equally large audience of waiting naysayers whose expectations can never be satisfied. But it also has advantages over other "young" series (e.g. "young Merlin", "young Superman" or even now, amazingly, "young Mary, Queen of Scots"), which come with a primarily teenage cast and inevitable teen storylines. Gotham is in contrast an unapologetically adult show – even if its youngest characters, young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz, Touch), and Selina "Cat" Kyle (Camren Bicondova) with her preternatural agility, pixie haircut and unexplained goggles, are already shaping up to be the show's most intriguing. Batman and Batman stories come in all flavours and styles – from the colourfully camp to the morbidly existential – but its universe is no stranger to moral ambiguity, something that this show thoroughly embraces.

Gotham paints a portrait of a city in precarious balance between extremes. Organized crime on one side and a complicit and corrupt police force on the other, Gotham is a city that had long operated by clear and defined rules, if not laws, that keep it in balance. (The corrupt police are still following rules after all, just not necessarily the "right" ones. There are clear obligations and loyalties that worked to keep the city stable, if not actually secure.) With the violent and sudden murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne that tenuous equilibrium begins to wobble, and a crisis is imminent as the elements which once kept chaos in check begin to fray without the establishment of any new modes of order. We have yet to see precisely how the now-murdered Waynes contributed to that ordering, but mob boss Don Falcone (played with controlled menace by The Wire's John Doman, and who is one of the show's few big picture voices) fears what their murders hearken to: "Gotham is on a knife edge," he warns the fresh-faced Detective Gordon in their first encounter.

Gordon is partnered with the grizzled and morally compromised Harvey Bullock, played by Donal Logue (Terriers). Despite any larger ambitions, Gotham is still a cop show and this partnership thankfully works. Initially broadly defined – cynical, corrupt cop with his naïve rookie partner – Logue is a master of bringing humour and humanity to even the most melodramatic scenes (hanging upside-down on a meat hook, for example). Bullock is a survivor of the first order, and plays faithfully by the rules that were given him. But as those rules change, the show suggests, the people who populate Gotham will also change, and it will be interesting to see how much of that humour and humanity is sacrificed to the darkness.

Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney on Gotham
Some of the show's supporting characters – John Doman as Falcone and Jada Pinkett Smith as gangster Fish Mooney – are as sharply written as any protagonist and both actors do well with roles that could have been thankless and cartoonish. Pinkett Smith's portrayal of Mooney is easily – ironically, considering the underworld she lives in – the brightest, certainly most colourful, element in both of the two episodes which have aired. Some characters, like Gordon's fiancée Barbara (Erin Richards), fare a little worse. Barbara so far feels like a placeholder figure, a sounding board for Gordon's inner life, and not yet a full character of her own. Major Crimes detectives Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen (played by Victoria Cartagena and Andrew Stewart-Jones respectively) also remain frustratingly undeveloped, superficial counterparts to Gordon and Bullock and basically catalysts for plot points. But Robin Lord Taylor deserves the biggest props for his creepy portrayal of Oswald "Penguin" Cobblepot. Taylor is riveting and terrifying here, at times intelligent and sympathetic and then, on a dime, bestial and sociopathic.

Cinematographically, the city looks gorgeous: all neon and steel and high ceilings and sharp, dusty beams of light. The perpetually cloudy Gotham is a stylistic mixture of 40s-era architecture – call it gargoyle chic – and 70s-era sedans and cop culture, complete with beating suspects with phone books. I confess I was initially distracted by the setting, trying to get my bearings on the rules of the show. (Cameras seem to use turn of the century flash powder, but credit cards are plastic and contemporary. We’ve seen some, but not many, cell phones, but have yet to see a desktop computer or the internet.) But by the time the second episode aired, I stopped kicking the tires and found myself fully invested in the show's design and conceit.

The pilot was content to paint broadly, expressionically, and atmospherically – building, or better crumbling, towards a city worthy of crying out for the arrival of its greatest and darkest hero. And that means things are going to get worse – far worse – before they get any better. Gotham has already demonstrated a bold willingness to aim high narratively and thematically, and if the series can embrace the moral ambiguity and patient world-building on display in its first hour, it will be all the better for it: let the big questions be posed, if not answered, and have our players work themselves through a darkened landscape. (It is worth noting that the second episode – penned by Heller himself, who also wrote the pilot – underwhelms in this regard, offering a 'baddie of the week' plot which took some focus from the broader story initiated the week before.) Obviously the more traditional narrative will be the slow, progressive evolution of Gotham PD's poster child for police corruption Harvey Bullock (and no doubt that is coming) but Jim Gordon's confrontation with the moral lines he may have to cross, and the dark choices he will certainly have to face, in order to make a difference is the stronger story – and the first hour, especially its final scenes, already had implications in that regard.

Gotham airs on Mondays at 8 p.m ET, on FOX in the U.S. and on CTV in Canada. Its third episode airs on October 6.

-originally published on October 3, 2014 in Critics at Large.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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