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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Opinion: Gotham is good, but how far will it go?

I’ll admit when I first heard about Gotham, I wasn’t terribly enthused. A Batman show without Batman? What’s the point? Why show what iconic characters like Jim Gordon and Oswald Cobblepot a.k.a. The Penguin were up to before the time of the Dark Knight if we already know where they’ll end up? Despite my reservations, I gave the show a chance when it initially aired back in September and I am very glad I did. The show’s writers have done an excellent job of taking the iconic denizens of Gotham City and not only showing viewers who they were before Bruce Wayne donned the bat-eared cowl but also how they slowly evolve into the characters we know and love. However, as much as I’ve enjoyed watching Gotham, one question has kept tugging at the back of my mind: how far into the Batman mythos are the show’s writers willing to go?

This article contains minor spoilers for Gotham, consider yourself warned

Baiting the Hook

As devoted viewers already know, Gotham is currently following two central plot lines with a number of smaller sub-plots branching off from them. First, we have a younger, less seasoned but no less devoted to justice version of Jim Gordon played by Ben McKenzie. Along with his jaded yet good-hearted partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), Gordon must face down not only the petty criminals and greedy mobsters of Gotham but also the rampant corruption that has infested the Gotham City Police Department. One case that continuously haunts Gordon throughout the show’s first season is the unsolved murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne which has made their son, young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), into an orphan. The death of his parents has left Bruce shaken but it has also awakened in him a determination to not only discover the truth behind his parents’ murder but to also rid Gotham of its criminal element despite the misgivings of his butler and guardian Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee).

Throughout the show’s first season, Gotham’s writers have done an admirable job of balancing the two plot lines and also having them cross over every now and then. There’s a surprising amount of tension and drama when, for instance, Gordon is kidnapped in episode 8 (“The Mask”) and forced to fight for his life in an underground fight club run by a sadistic investments banker or in episode 10 (“Lovecraft”) when Bruce and a younger version of Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) must escape a squad of assassins who infiltrate Wayne Manor. And let’s not forget Penguin (played brilliantly by Robin Lord Taylor) whose rise to prominence is fraught with its own perils as he maneuvers in and out of the good graces of powerful crime lords such as Carmine “The Roman” Falcone (John Doman), Salvatore “The Boss” Maroni (David Zayas), and Maria “Fish” Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith).

The framework that houses these tales of Gotham’s early days is a unique one since, as I mentioned before, we already know what’s eventually going to happen. We know that Oswald Cobblepot will one day rise from his current position as a lowly criminal lapdog to become one of the most feared criminal overlords of Gotham City, we know that Jim Gordon will one day become the Commissioner of the GCPD, and we know that young Bruce Wayne will one day become the thing that all criminals fear. So why do we continue watching if we already know more or less where all these characters are going to end up?

A Strong Base

I’d say one of Gotham’s biggest strengths is in how well it captures the mood of Batman while also offering plenty of fan service. Up to this point, the show has been grounded in realism which definitely helps to support its gritty, bleak backdrop. That being said, the writers also aren’t afraid to bend the rules a little. There haven’t been any Superman sightings and young Ivy Pepper (Clare Foley) likely won’t adopt her more “flowery” persona anytime soon but elements such as the Viper serum (a prototype of the Venom serum used by Batman villain Bane) seen in episode 5 (“Viper”) and the terrifying fate of young Jonathan Crane (Charlie Tahan) in episode 15 (“The Scarecrow”) prove that the age of supervillains isn’t that far off.

However, Gotham’s penchant for reminding viewers who these characters will eventually become is, unfortunately, a little too on-the-nose at times. I mean, we already know Cobblepot will become The Penguin, did the show’s writers really have to give him a limp that “conveniently” makes it look like he’s constantly waddling like the very creature he is often compared to? Or how about Selina’s constant insistence that she be called “Cat” (nothing quite as lame as giving yourself a nickname and then forcing everyone around you to use it)? Or that one random blink-and-you’ll-miss-it outburst Harvey Dent had in episode 9 (“Harvey Dent”) that hinted at his darker nature (why not just have him flipping a double-sided coin while holding a gun and get the whole thing over with)?

Despite these minor pet-peeves, I still enjoy Gotham both because of its pre-conceived familiarity and because of its more original details. Seeing Oswald Cobblepot as a conniving momma’s boy or pre-Riddler Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) as an undervalued forensics analyst helps me to better understand and appreciate these characters both in Gotham and within the larger tapestry of Batman lore. However, as I previously mentioned, seeing where these characters started out is only half the fun and I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’m curious to see how and when the proverbial other shoe is going to drop.

Enough Possibilities to Fill a Rogue’s Gallery

Unsurprisingly, Gotham has been confirmed for a second season which means the show’s writers now have the exciting yet also quite daunting task of venturing further into the Batman timeline and ever closer to that fateful moment when Bruce Wayne first dons the cape and cowl. Now, granted, the writers are under no obligation to ever actually reach that moment. Even as we come to the end of Gotham’s first season (the final four episodes are set to start airing on April 13), Bruce Wayne is still a young child with much to learn, Jim Gordon is still just a detective battling insurmountable forces from without and within, and Oswald Cobblepot still likely has many more hurdles to cross before becoming one of Gotham’s most notorious kingpins.

I’d reckon that Gotham could go on for three or four seasons and still not be anywhere near the point where we stop seeing these characters as Jim, Bruce, and Oswald and start seeing them as Commissioner Gordon, Batman, and Penguin. Could there be a time-jump between seasons that takes us ahead to a period where adult Bruce is finalizing his plans to become Batman? Sure, but would we really want that? I’d imagine there would be some real logistical problems with trying to turn what is essentially a crime show set within the world of Batman into a show about Batman.

Then again, there is a subtle sense of buildup throughout Gotham’s first season (the opening of Arkham Asylum, showing the origins of so many supervillains, Bruce starting out on his quest towards justice) which means the writers are now obligated to provide some sort of final payoff. The problem there is that, if one domino falls, the rest kind of have to as well. You can’t have a show where supervillains like Poison Ivy, Riddler, Two-Face, Penguin, and Scarecrow are running around and not have Batman as well. So where should the show end? How far into established Batman lore do Gotham’s writers dare venture? Is it possible to keep the show’s momentum up even with the absence of the Caped Crusader?

I’m wary about speculating too much in regards to Gotham’s future mainly because I’m so divided. On the one hand, I really like the show’s unique premise as a prequel. It allows the writers to draw attention to elements that fans may have never considered (such the camaraderie that flourishes between Gordon and Bullock) or even elements that Batman’s creators never considered (such as making Oswald and Jim into reluctant friends). Having said that, I’d be lying if  I also said that the idea of a live-action television show with Batman in it didn’t get me more than a little excited.

For now, I’m willing to sit back and see where Gotham’s writers decide to go. Considering the high quality of this first season, I’m confident that the series will continue to impress and will also continue being one of the most engrossing shows on television whether you’re a Batman fan or not. The future may or may not be gliding in on bat-shaped wings but if Gotham’s level of quality is anything to go by, that’s hardly a problem at this point.  

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