Gotham: “The Mask”

(Episode 1.08)

TV Reviews Gotham
Gotham: “The Mask”

People often speak of the way time flies and how, despite their best efforts, any attempt to stymie its progression is fruitless. More than anything in my life, I’ve found that great television can make time’s swift movement feel as though it’s stuck in neutral. Unlike the anticipation of a film, whose timeline is so large that it’s easy to put the arrival out of mind, the next episode of a show you’re embroiled in is just seven days away. If the program is something truly mesmerizing, like the final season of Breaking Bad, those seven days can feel longer than the fitful night of Christmas Eve, in which sleep never comes, and the moment when you can finally tiptoe down the stairs seems like it never will.

I’m sure there are those that await Gotham every week, but I’m not one of them. There is no slowing of time for me, and come Monday my approach to the show is more apprehension than anticipation. Even after last week’s solid outing, which delivered on some of the promises that the writers have put forth, I was still wary of what was to come at 8PM. Gotham is not a bad show—far from it—but it’s not a good show, either. At its best, it’s a semi-competent crime drama with the added twist of existing in a comic book world. At it’s worst, which it is more often than not, it feels exceedingly false and hellbent on being a middleman, ferrying characters that have existed for 75-plus years across an ocean of time that, up until this show, has remained relatively untouched.

So much of what has troubled Gotham reared its head in “The Mask.” A bland main story overrun by a mass of subplots was the main culprit here, flanked by subpar writing and phoned-in acting. Once again, the show’s existence as a villain-of-the-week crime drama befuddles. Gotham seems, at times, to have clear aspirations to be something different, something larger. Instead of being a formulaic procedural, it clearly wants to tell a larger story told over multiple weeks, but it seems incapable, or afraid of actually doing so. Thus, it remains weighed down by uninteresting weekly plots having little to do with the grand scheme. Further, the show’s focus on that grander narrative is obviously affecting these “main” plots, which often are given the bare minimum of screentime in order to even be considered a main plot at all. The conflict between the two narratives drives home Gotham’s largest issue, a crippling identity crisis. At eight weeks, this show still seems uncertain of what stories it wants to tell. Does it want to be a police drama? A mob drama? Focus on villains, or heroes? There may be, as is often the case with network television shows, other factors at play causing this rift. Perhaps, the writers would love to tell only the larger story, but are being forced to include weekly narratives by those with larger pockets. Speculation aside, the fact remains that cuts need to be made. The world of Gotham is vast, and a full-season pickup should lessen some of the pressure on the writing staff (despite increasingly alarming ratings), allowing them to tell the story they want to tell at a pace that is palatable to viewers. Right now, they seem focused on squeezing as many characters fans know into the show, despite plots continuing to crack due to the, already massive, amount of faces to keep track of.

Even more alarming are the non-stop reports of characters that are still to come. The last thing Gotham needs right now is to add on, but nevertheless here comes Harvey Dent, and Hush and Scarecrow. Surely, hopefully, God-willing, some will be simple Easter eggs, but the show’s lack of subtlety and understanding that less is so very often more, indicate otherwise. I understand the desire to include all these characters. As a Batman fanatic, I would be finding a way to include them all myself were I in the writer’s room. But it is increasingly frustrating to watch this show squander its potential each week with problems that are, seemingly, easy to fix.

“The Mask” also put front-and-center an issue I have been battling since week one, but have left off the page until now. Every aspect of this episode felt false, which has occurred in other weeks through writing or directing or acting, but this week it was across the board. Lines felt forced and awkward, actors’ movements decidedly choreographed and unnatural. Every passing minute, it was easier to envision the script, because it made itself so apparent. Television, like many art forms, has the ability to be transportive. Despite sets that appear immaculately detailed, and the frequent establishing shots of Gotham that are peppered in each episode, nothing about the world of Gotham feels real, resulting in the show lacking a transportive aspect. I know that might seem like an odd statement to make about a fictional television show (especially one set in a comic book universe), but every successful show exists in some sort of reality, no matter how odd or twisted that reality may be from the one we exist in. Everything on Gotham rings false for me in a jarring way. The actors are clearly acting, not yet embodying their characters, and the sets are clearly sets. Often it’s small things, like the fact that Barbara and Jim live inside a clock, but it occurs so frequently over the course of the hour that I’m left firmly aware that I’m merely sitting on my couch, watching a group of adults pretending to be something they’re not.

The good news is that the fixes are easy or, at least, they appear that way from my sofa. Many have noted, and they’re all correct, that Gotham would benefit from simplification. Cut out the fat and tell the story you want to tell. Limit the amount of characters you bring on screen (this includes Bruce, Nigma and Selina). If the writers do those two things, the show would improve, and little would be lost. Whether the writers are capable of making those changes remains up in the air, but if they do, Gotham could become the show so many of us envisioned it would be. If that time comes, I may start counting down the days until the next episode. But for now, Monday can wait.

Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.

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