Wednesday, September 24, 2014
No one was expecting this to be good, right? Because it's not. Gotham, as far as I can tell from this pilot episode, is not good. But that doesn't mean it isn't any fun.
I guess I should further clarify the above by explaining that Gotham is fun for me, and I think your enjoyment of this show will depend on what you like in your Batman. Batman is a character who's gone through many varied interpretations in his 75 years, all of them pretty valid. True, this show's whole driving thrust is that this is Gotham before there was a Batman, but anyone who's seen a Batman movie or read a Batman comic knows that Gotham the city is intrinsically linked to Batman. One's take on Batman typically aligns with one's take on Gotham.
Personally, I'm of the mind that one can and should learn to appreciate all forms of Batman/Gotham. From back alley vigilante lurking in the darkness to hairy chested sci-fi jet setter or caped fascist, I think most every read on Batman has meaning and every read enriches the other. Same for Gotham, a city that contains everything from dirty urban hellholes to high society gala venues. So what can we make of Gotham's take on Batman and Gotham?
The first thing I noticed about Gotham was the set design. It's gaudy and soundstagey and it's not even trying to look like a real city. It acts as a sort of counterpoint to Christopher Nolan's last two Batman movies, which used actual city locations to evoke that feeling that Gotham could be any major city in America as long as it rhymed with "Schmicago" or "Schmew York." The sets look very much like how a kid who reads a lot of Batman comics would imagine places in a city. That first scene in the Gotham police station, for example. It looks like a police station that's just one giant room filled with desks and ringing phones while jail cells line the walls. I can't think of a single police station that would ever want a set up like that. Really if anything, Gotham's set design is evocative of Tim Burton's Batman, with just a small touch of that Schumacher flair (read: gaudiness).
The set design is really just the start of it. It's emblematic of the hefty doses of camp that lace the writing and performances. It being the pilot episode, Gotham went in hard on trying to sell you on who these characters are and what their motivations mean to the story they want to tell, going so far as to have characters explaining to other characters who they are. Jim Gordon tells Harvey Bullock, "You're a cynic," Barbara Kean tells Renee Montoya that Jim Gordon is "The most honest man I've ever met," Oswald Cobblepot hates being called "The Penguin," Bullock tells Ed Nygma to quit it with the riddles, etc. This cycle of characters introducing themselves to each other is pretty much the meat of this episode, and it reeks of desperation. Every new scene brings new characters into the fold, saying their own names with a weighted significance, as if to say "Yeah? You get it? You know this character right? That character you know? Wow you're so smart and good at Gotham." They held back on turning their heads, looking directly into the camera, and giving us a knowing wink, but man they may as well have. It felt like all of those little passing references to the source material that you see in superhero movies just got crammed into one episode and they were like "OK, I guess we'll turn this into a series." "But these are just references to comic book things, shouldn't we actually build an interesting plot too?" "Yeah sure we'll figure it out later AFTER WE'RE DONE COUNTING ALL THAT SWEET CASHEESH, RIGHT?? UP TOP!"
As groan-inducing as all the introductory clever name-offs were, I felt the performances were all on point. I've seen some people on twitter saying the acting is bad, but I think they're missing the degree of camp that's going into these performances. None of these actors seem like they are taking any of this too seriously, and it's not like they don't care about it, but as a result what we end up seeing are some more playfully outrageous performances from most everyone. This isn't bad acting in the sense that Carey Mulligan is a bad actor (sit down, she is). It's camp. You see it in Ed Nygma's delight at how clever he is, you see it in Mario Pepper's battered wife clutching her robe and speaking in a performative Tennesse Williams by way of Broadway hysterical woman style, you see it in Jada Pinkett Smith making a clear actor's choice when she does a little wig adjust after putting a thug in his place.
The one exception seems to be Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon. McKenzie kind of has the one thing that he does, which is being a seething good guy with perpetually gritted teeth. It's fine, it works, especially considering the idea that Jim Gordon is supposed to be incorruptible and surrounded by lunatics. In that way it provides this interesting and, at times, funny contrast within Gotham, dropping McKenzie's typical serious TV cop in the middle of a bunch of campy overacting. I think it's interesting because whenever we see a Batman story, each one of his villains seem to be reflective on the type of Batman story we're getting, and Batman is crazy enough to face them head-on every time, but in a Jim Gordon story with Batman's villains, he is entirely out of his element. Gotham reflects this point in particular by casting serious man McKenzie alongside the likes of Donal Logue, wise cracking vampire sidekick to Stephen Dorff, noted bumbling sit-com dad, and perhaps at one time TV's best answer to Jeff Bridges.
The Gotham City of Gotham as evidenced by its villains, is one that is informed by its gritty predecessors, but is not beholden to them. Gotham works within the trappings of a crime show to foster the more outrageous and campy leanings of its cast. It doesn't seem to be working as the producers may have intended, but what we have is something more interesting than a simple "Phantom Menace, but it's Batman," although when it falls flat it does feel like this show may just be "Phantom Mencace, but it's Batman." It's far from a perfect show, but Gotham doesn't need to be. It never needed to be because people were going to watch it no matter what; that's how nerd consumer culture works. What's nice about Gotham is that it doesn't try to be perfect and it doesn't try to follow in the footsteps of something like Nolan's Batman movies-- it's just trying to have some fun.