Caution: This review may contain minor spoilers for the first season of GOTHAM.
You can’t blame DC Entertainment for dipping into the well so many times with the Batman franchise. Despite almost a dozen films since the 1940s, an infamous live-action TV series in the 1960s and countless animated appearances over the years, the saga of Bruce Wayne and his extended family remains unstoppable. It’s no surprise that at last check, eight of DC’s top ten books were Batman or related titles. Which is why it was surprising that GOTHAM, the first live-action television foray since 2002’s similarly batless outing Birds of Prey, would choose to go almost entirely without the Dark Knight. However, as the season went on, it became clear that it would not be entirely divorced from the rich mythology of the comics world.
It begins with the all-too-familiar tragedy of the death of Bruce Wayne’s (David Mazouz) parents, a singular event that proves to be a defining moment for both the future Batman and the newest recruit to Gotham’s finest, Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie). As Gordon and partner Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) begin to investigate, he uncovers a hotbed of crime as rival mob bosses Carmine “The Roman” Falcone (John Doman) and Sal Maroni (David Zayas) jostle for control of the city, giving birth to power struggles between mobster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor). Meanwhile, Bruce – under the care of butler Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) – begins his own investigation into the murder of his parents, leading him to his first encounters with street rat Selina “Cat” Kyle (Camren Bicondova).
The initial appeal of GOTHAM was the promise that it would be close to Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark’s Gotham Central, the Eisner and Harvey Award winning cult series that followed the hard-working members of the GCPD. At its best, GOTHAM works similarly to this cult favourite comic series, with Gordon struggling to stay on the straight and narrow despite the best efforts of his crooked partner and just about everyone else in the city. We can almost catch glimpses of the Batman: Year One Gordon, caught at the junction of challenged beliefs and struggling to stay afloat in a sea of corruption. Gordon is portrayed as unrelentingly “good”, something that comes across as wooden at times. Yet show also has a genuinely compelling power struggle in the mob war, an opera worthy of Mario Puzo that gets off to a solid early start with “Penguin’s Umbrella,” and runs through to its violent conclusion in the season finale.
Conversely, GOTHAM is weakest when it uses those comic book influences as overt Easter eggs, or attempts to squeeze in references to later events. A proto-Riddler (Cory Michael Smith as creepy medical examiner Edward Nygma) throws out his wordplay and weirds-out the girls. “The Fearsome Dr. Crane”/”The Scarecrow” gives us the origin story of Jonathan Crane and his psychotic father, and “Red Hood” introduces a concept that will play a very important part in the history of Batman’s greatest foe. “Spirit of the Goat,” involving a masked killer who acts against Gotham’s rich and corrupt elite, shows what a TV series hamstrung by an inability to use some of the more famous characters comes up with: a clumsy analogue for the symbol that Batman will eventually become. The most controversial decision was the implied Joker origin story in “The Blind Fortune Teller,” an episode that not only introduces the Graysons (the future parents of first Robin, Dick Grayson), but a character who kills his mother for being a “nagging, drunken whore.” His maniacal laughter is to suggest The Joker, which if confirmed, robs the villain of much of his mystery.
The character development is also a little uneven, with some players given a chance to shine and others left to neglect. Robin Lord Taylor’s “Penguin” is the alternative ‘anti-hero’ of the season, his rise to power parallel to Gordon’s moving and shaking. Yet the characterisation as an “emo” snivelling lackey is frustratingly cringey at times. Nevertheless, it is difficult to look away when Taylor is on screen, and it is anticipated he will continue to serve as a focus of the series. The strongest players are undoubtedly Alfred and Bullock, both rough-around-the-edges characters with healthy doses of skepticism needed in a show such as this. Pertwee’s Alfred is loosely based on the Batman: Earth One version of the butler, complete with military background and no-nonsense street-smarts. He acts as the audience’s voice in many scenes, questioning Bruce’s obsession, something that remains true later in the fictional chronology. Bullock is every bit the reluctant partner to a hero cop we want him to be, a desperately needed trait when Gordon has been written as far too straight-laced for his own good.
The women perhaps fare the worst: Fish Mooney is a powerful figure, but she is a caricature for much of the season, with Pinkett Smith chewing up scenery as she channels Eartha Kitt. When she does regain a modicum of power later in the season, it is initially done outside the reigns of the main story. The young Selina Kyle is a tricky one for the writers, balancing the emerging villain with being the love interest for Bruce results in her coming off as pretentious more often that not, and a frustrating reminder that this kitten has her nails clipped for the moment. Gordon’s wife, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) appears to be tethered to her apartment for much of the season, as we literally don’t see her doing anything except waiting around there. When she is finally given a storyline, beginning with the end-season three parter “Beasts of Prey”/”Under the Knife”/”The Anvil and The Hammer”, she is literally a victim. Indeed, the resolution to that story in the season finale certainly doesn’t do wonders for positive representation, ending with a catfight with Jim’s new beau, Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin).
GOTHAM has a massive cast, and perhaps was far too keen to nail the Batman connections in the first year. All credit to the young Mazouz as the teenage Bruce Wayne, but his subplot is one of the weaker links in the first half of the season, one that detracts focus from the Gotham cops who should rightfully be the proper stars of this series. Wayne’s presence removes drama, such as the ‘dangerous’ hike he takes in “The Scarecrow”, as at no time could we reasonably be expected to believe that Bruce won’t grow up to don a cape and cowl and patrol Gotham’s streets at night.
Where the season leaves us in the bullet-filled conclusion “All Happy Families Are Alike” is ultimately anti-climactic, but there is little denying that GOTHAM still has a certain watchability that overcomes some first season flaws. These are, after all, mostly iconic characters, even if they are being a little less than iconic at this stage. If the second season of GOTHAM hopes to stand on its own feet, a greater emphasis on some of the characters core to the GCPD, original villains and less focus on the future crazies will mark it as something unique on television.