It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that FOX’s Gotham was the most anticipated new show last fall. The concept of a Batman-adjacent show chronicling the pre-Dark Knight lives of Jim Gordon, Catwoman, Penguin, Riddler and a host of others had fans and critics notably excited. The opportunities were vast, given that the period the show would involve had only been scarcely touched upon. Netflix even nabbed the rights before a single episode aired. By the time September 22 rolled around, the hype train was barreling down the tracks and Gotham looked almost too big to fail.
Then the show began.
The early returns were actually quite positive. Reports from a smattering of critics, like AP’s Alicia Rancilio, who got an early look at the pilot last June promised a well-built crime drama that was certain to please fans.
Others, like HitFix's Daniel Fienberg were more measured in their response to episode one.
I was one with the crowd in regard to the pilot, writing that it was a solid first step for a show that still had much to prove. The weeks following would provide numerous hours of both banal and bizarre television, illustrating a show that was wracked with an identity crisis. As Jeff Jensen smartly put for Entertainment Weekly, Gotham sits somewhere between the grit of Christopher Nolan and the camp of Joel Schumacher. Unsurprisingly, those two tones never meshed, leaving the show in a state of confusion throughout much of the season. Add the fact that there is no clear main character in a city teeming with them, and you have a drama that, as Fienberg predicted, was full of unfulfilled promises.
What exactly did Gotham promise us? To start, it pledged to be a show about growth. Prior to the show’s launch, former FOX chairman Kevin Reilly, who is now the President of TBS and TNT, noted that the show would follow classic Batman characters to see how they became what they are, including Bruce Wayne. How much Reilly’s exit from FOX affected the show is unclear, though, given that he was often forward-thinking in a way network executives are rarely considered to be, there must have been some impact. Yet, early on Reilly and showrunner Bruno Heller weren’t on the same page, at least publicly. While Reilly championed the show as a Batman origin story of sorts that would have a “larger-than-life quality,” Heller, was quick to note that Batman would not appear on the show, which would focus on human problems with the only larger-than-life character being the city of Gotham. With the first season wrapped, it’s easy to say that all of that was nonsense. From the beginning, Gotham was draped with an unrealistic visage that made it difficult to lean into the story. Its characters were broad and outlandish and, most troubling, featuring nearly fully formed personalities.
The main hinge of Gotham was that we would see characters we knew and loved at times in their lives that were unfamiliar and we would watch them progress. But, save for maybe Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), nearly every character on the show quickly settled into their personalities, and has remained entrenched since the early weeks. Instead of taking time to mourn the loss of his parents, to wander about aimlessly (and, as should have been, absently), Bruce quickly became Baby Batman. He spent his time poring over details of his parents’ murder and investigating Wayne Enterprises. He displayed the lack of normal human emotion that is often apparent in Batman depictions (when the character dons cape and cowl, that is), instead of those of a child whose world had been upturned. Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) saw his share of setbacks, but his outlook has been virtually the same from the outset. Constantly scheming and shockingly violent, Oswald was the show’s early star, but that shine has since faded, as has the character’s development. Gordon (Ben McKenzie) has fared similarly; he is the same hothead cop with a penchant for justice that he was in the pilot. While he has made strides in cleaning up the GCPD, as a character there has been only horizontal movement. This is remarkable considering the early talk from Heller was all about psychology. The show, he said, would start with character psychology and build from there, but construction has been all but nonexistent.
Of all of Gotham’s failings, poor writing, improper tone, marooning talented actors Donal Logue and Morena Baccarin (in a show far beneath their skill and dynamism), its inability to make decent use of the wealth of opportunity afforded by setting the show prior to Batman’s existence is the most exasperating. Instead of giving us a serialized look at the early years of these characters (serialization: another unfulfilled promise from Heller), what we’ve been given is a show that floored the gas pedal. The apparent rush to move its characters as closely as possible to those with whom Batman lovers and, particularly, novices are acquainted, is nothing short of baffling. Heller and the writers seem ill-equipped to handle the vast freedom provided them, having been continually tripped up throughout the season by the fact that the endpoints of all their major characters are set in stone. It’s a fact that has shrouded the entire production in a haze of dullness.
Prequels are not inherently boring. Countless non-fiction books revel in the finer details of events that cannot be changed. Erik Larson’s latest opus, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is a fine example (as are many of his books). From page one the reader knows the Lusitania will sink. They know when, and by whom, but that doesn’t derail the tension in the chapters when the torpedo is rushing toward the ship’s hull. Gotham, instead of delving into the nitty gritty aspects of these characters lives before Batman, has shown a fear of them. The writers’ remedy has been to force everyone, from Gordon to Penguin as close as possible to their comic counterparts. Penguin is now the self-proclaimed king of Gotham. Gordon looks to be only a few steps away from the commissioner seat. A time-jump now seems necessary. What ground is there left to cover that Gotham’s frustrating first season hasn’t swallowed? If it weren’t for the presence of 14-year-old David Mazouz, you’d think the Dark Knight was already lurking in the shadows. It certainly didn’t help that there was no room to breathe.
At the beginning of the season, it seemed that there was casting news for Gotham every day. The slew of guest stars and characters has been bewildering and utterly useless. The last thing a show struggling to find focus needed was a parade of faces without any explanation as to why they were there in the first place. Despite claiming early on to have the entirety of the first season mapped out, Heller and his team delivered a season of loosely connected stories that, at the forefront, seemed focused on introducing as many characters as possible. In the beginning, I wrote that Gotham was a show dying to be a serialized program in the vein of cable’s highest dramas beholden to the network way of doing things. The first episodes delivered self-contained stories that also exhibited a clear focus on the long game. By the seventh installment, “Penguin’s Umbrella,” the writers appeared to have a grasp of their overarching story, and a competent plan moving forward. When the calendar turned, it looked as though that plan was left in 2014, in favor of exceedingly peculiar storylines that had little semblance of connection. Even worse, the cast list continued to balloon, despite the fact that there was not enough plot to go around. The finale helped trim things, and hopefully Season Two will pump the brakes on introducing any new characters. With Falcone, Maroni and Fish all out of the picture, Penguin should see more development and a relationship between he and Gordon will likely form (good or bad).
I could go on ad nauseum about the faults of this show, particularly because of the hype that swelled my anticipation last fall, but there’s little use. It’s time to look forward. What can Gotham do to improve?
It really isn’t as derelict as my previous paragraphs make it seem. The show routinely got solid performances from both bit-players and the top of the call sheet; it was the writing that failed them. Heller claimed to have the entire season mapped out, and that the show would be serialized, but those claims rang false. Lucky for him, there will be a Season Two, and plenty of time to make good on promises. With fewer characters, the show can take time to actually focus on those left standing. Provided the writers don’t use the newfound space as an excuse to introduce more faces, Season Two is primed to give us far greater characterization than was possible this year. If all goes well that will mean more episodes like “Spirit of the Goat,” which gave Bullock center stage and gave viewers a necessary glimpse into Gordon’s partner. Then there’s the question of tone. Heller wanted the show to focus on the human issues of those roaming Gotham, but it never did. It was always larger-than-life, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the comic book shows on the air skew toward a gritty realism, but Gotham doesn’t have to. The most exhilarated I was watching the show this season came when Fish Mooney gouged her own eye out in “Red Hood” because it was fucking insane. This show could live, and thrive, in insanity if it allows itself to become vastly unpredictable. Realism be damned. Gotham never felt real or human, so why not indulge the tendency to be a little crazy?
?There’s little doubt that excitement for Gotham will be far more measured this fall than last, and there is good reason for that. Gotham gave us a first season that continually made bad on its initial promises and likely shrugged off large numbers of viewers for it. Those that stuck it out were given a string of uneven episodes that often left a bad taste in the mouth. Season Two has a lot to make up for, but Monday’s finale was the first step in making that happen. The water cooler conversations may be waning in this era of binge-watching, but as shows like Game of Thrones and The Good Wife have proven, the “did you see that?” nature of television is still very much alive. Gotham could become a part of that if it embraces its inherent lunacy. And then, just maybe, it will not only become the show we were promised, but the one we deserve.
Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.