Fox’s new Batman-ish TV show Gotham just might be the most enjoyable thing on television right now, to a certain type of viewer. If you are the kind of person who slows down as they pass accidents on the motorway, or laughs at YouTube videos of parkour mishaps, this should be the TV event of your century. The giddy schadenfreude of watching as its creators make almost every decision that could be made wrong even wronger – twice – makes Gotham more than just a scientifically fascinating case study in failure. It’s a genuine joy to behold from beginning to end, and although I know it makes me a bad person I just can’t look away.
The pattern becomes clear within the first few minutes of the pilot episode. The core concept of the show, made clear by its marketing, is to show viewers how a young Bruce Wayne was transformed into the heroic vigilante Batman by the traumatic murder of his parents. It was always going to be a risky strategy, basing the entire show around that iconic moment as its single, solitary lynchpin. Still, head writer Bruno Heller and co. could have approached it any number of ways. They could have made it the dramatic climax to the first season, or even withheld it until some distant point int the show’s run. They clearly needed to postpone it until at least the end of the pilot, to give us a chance to see Bruce Wayne’s idyllic life beforehand – his relationship with his parents, how it shaped his character, what sort of people they were before he lost them.
It tells you everything that you need to know about the minds behind Gotham that, before the title card appears, little Bruce is on his knees between two dead bodies, screaming his rage to the sky. It tosses you a little bonus nugget of knowledge that, out of some bizarrely misguided stylistic choice, they muffled his scream in post-production so it sounds like a boiling kettle.
This is one of many areas in which the show suffers by comparison to the CW’s Arrow; a show which stays true to its comic-book origins by presenting us with an obvious knock-off of Batman, who happens to dress in green. Starting out as a very thinly veiled attempt at recreating the feel of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight franchise for the small screen, it has grown into a quite satisfying mixture of glib teen-soap emoting and high-spirited superheroics. One thing the team behind Arrow got right from the beginning was splitting the story of its hero into two strands. We get our ‘present day’ narrative, following the grim-faced avenger as he struggles to clean up his city, but this is intercut with flashbacks to the start of his evolution – a time when he was a relatively recognisable human specimen, struggling just to survive. This means that, despite the Arrow himself being characterised as a deadened, robotic crime-fighting machine, we are constantly reminded that he wasn’t always this way, and the show tries – with varying degrees of success – to show us the events which shaped him.
Gotham, however, shuts the door on this firmly in its opening scene. From that moment on the show can’t really about showing us how Bruce Wayne turned into Batman, because Bruce Wayne as a character doesn’t really exist. We can have no idea what impact the traumatic murders have on the boy, because we never had the first clue who he was beforehand.
Since it can’t really be about Bruce Wayne, the writers seem to have decided to just flip the switch and have him essentially transform into an eight-year-old version of Batman instantaneously. In the days following his loss, young Bruce is already training himself to overcome his fear of heights, burning himself to harden his body, somehow obtaining police files from open murder investigations, and interrogating detectives with unnerving perception. They’re already well on the way to reaching the critical mass Smallville achieved in its later seasons – where we had a character with Superman’s name, his origin, all his enemies, his day-job, his glasses and most of his powers, but who was under no circumstances allowed to be called “Superman” as it would violate the show’s original, worn out concept.
In this case, it doesn’t look like poor Bruce is even going to be allowed out of his mansion. Every episode, Lil’ Commissioner Gordon hikes up to give him an update on the cases he’s been working, the failures he’s suffered, and to seek the professional counsel of an eight-year-old boy he barely knows, for reasons which are never satisfactorily explained. Now and again, he hints that he would really really appreciate it if an expert vigilante with some sort of awesome costume could step in to help sometime soon. Bruce’s existence, however, seems to be confined to one of two tasteful drawing rooms in his parents’ house – weirdly, after the pilot, we don’t even get the relief of an exterior establishing shot to break up the monotony. It’s almost as if, on the day they filmed that first introductory shot of the mansion, they simply forgot to get any pick-ups to edit into later episodes.
But no. That would just be ridiculous.
The location provided for James Gordon and his supermodel trophy wife Barbara are another curiosity. A young couple, who are struggling to make a home for themselves in a strange new city – a home situated in, by all appearances, a penthouse apartment of staggering opulence in one of the city’s luxury high-rises. This disconnect between character and location is never addressed; the closest we come is the unsupported assertion that Barbara manages an art gallery. The space doesn’t feel like it belongs to either character and, for all it tells us about them as individuals or as a couple, those scenes may as well be set in a hotel room. The only explanation I can give is that, like Barbara herself, the show sees Gordon’s apartment as a luxury possession to communicate his status as a supercool protagonist to its audience. This guy is cool, look at his girlfriend. His apartment has a giant clockface in one of its windows. Because he’s cool.
My favourite location might be the GCPD police station. In and of itself it’s a nice bit of design, a more gothic imitation of the memorable “converted church” precinct from The Shield. However, certain limitations of its open-plan setup become apparent as tension rises between Gordon and his gruff partner, and they start having tense, secretive but quite loud arguments with each other across their desks – which are situated on a raised plinth, directly in the middle of rows and rows of other occupied desks. This lack of privacy gets really ridiculous in one scene, when an adolescent Catwoman threatens her arresting officer with a fake charge of sexual molestation. The dialogue must have been written with a closed interrogation room in mind but, jaw-droppingly, Gotham decided to stage it on a bench in the most open, crowded part of the precinct, in full view and earshot of a dozen witnesses.
There is so much more to discover, which I hesitate to spoil for you. The mysterious will of Thomas Wayne, which explicitly forbids his son from ever visiting a psychiatrist in the event of his death. The bizarre squeals of cheesy electric guitar which drift onto the soundtrack over random montages, as if they got lost on the way to a show broadcast over twenty years ago. The inexplicably brief but glorious appearance of Lieutenant Bill Cranston, who is quite possibly the single most entertaining character to appear in the history of television – albeit for reasons his creators could neither understand nor control.
My advice? Stop reading this. Close the tab. Find Gotham and watch it. Cherish it.