Gotham – Season 1 (TV, 2014 – 2015)
A show featuring Bruce Wayne in his youth and how he became Batman was proposed before ‘Smallville’, in fact it’s the project the creators of that show originally pitched before being asked to develop a similar idea around Superman instead. Now over a decade and three blockbuster ‘Dark Knight’ movies later, we get this. Was it worth the wait?
After the billionaire parents of Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) are murdered, Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) with partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) find their city spiralling into chaos, with rival mobsters and upcoming villains causing problems. Discovering links to politicians and the police, principled Gordon takes on the task of trying to sort the city and police force, while young Master Wayne with the help of butler Alfred (Sean Pertwee) and runaway Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) is determined to find out who killed his parents and make up for not being able to stop them.
Last time we saw some of this was in the fantastic ‘Batman Begins’ but in comparison that hardly covered these origins of Batman, this is a fuller story of his beginning and that of so many of his adversaries. Though what the Dark Knight films gave us was excellent, this really builds on that to fill in all the gaps in a way that should eventually be a complete and coherent transformation from orphaned boy to hardened billionaire vigilante. It starts where it should, showing the killing of the Waynes as it’s what starts everything off, not really messing with what we’ve seen before though adding another viewpoint of the event. Apparently next year’s ‘Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice’ will be including a version of this pivotal scene too, though I think it’s a bad move to overdo it and in that case it may be superfluous and unnecessary, though I can’t be sure until I’ve seen the movie.
The time setting is very ambiguous, while there are only a few older computers with old CRT monitors shown, there are also flip-phones that are only a few years old. The architecture and interiors also reflect this ambiguity in that they are mainly older buildings that just look like they’ve not been updated, but then a few settings are very modern-looking indeed. This is all in aid of the show trying to work with the canon of Batman adaptations that bot have preceded and will follow, and really follows the ability of comic books to situate the narrative in whatever era they wish.
There are a number of revelatory casting choices in the show, with actors taking on roles that both have a long history but also have been so very well filled in recent years thanks to Christopher Nolan. Ben McKenzie is surprisingly well cast as Jim Gordon, I originally wasn’t so sure about his casting as I just remember him from ‘The O.C.’ and quite honestly not being anything special in that. He’s really grown as an actor, he has a good and fitting screen presence now, as Gordon takes on mobsters and corrupt cops it’s important that he commands respect and within a few episodes I was really convinced.
One of the other casting choices, that of Sean Pertwee as Alfred works very well, with the role calling for a lot of extra complexity from what has often been done before. Butler Alfred has an interesting history alluded to early on by his demeanour, skills and unusual attitude, and later elaborated upon in a way that clearly allows for more to be revealed in future seasons.
Strong female characters abound, especially Selina Kyle brilliantly played by Camren Bicondova whose dancing roots perfectly suit her characters light-footed and acrobatic ways. The show also features Barbara Kean, whose character is destined to be even more fascinating, though in this season she gets a few episodes that are very unexpectedly twisty, For lovers of the comics at least one episode nicely assembles a chunk what will go on to become the ‘Birds of Prey’, and rather than making a big fuss about it the implication is left more subtle which I prefer as the way to handle references such as this.
Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin is the main Batman villain developed in this season, with his alliances, methods, and motives always in a state of change, but always taking advantage that a full show has to develop a backstory for him that will inform the choices he makes later on as the character we better recognise. There are many nods to other key villains, some subtle and others named outright, including one in particular who the season also develops on the side so that by the final episode they have completely changed and ready to be more villainous in the second season. It gives me the sense that they are developing almost a roster of villains and characters that are all at different stages in their development. Some further along than others, with the potential for each subsequent season to focus on one or a few and see how they turn into the villains we know they become and face off against the fully developed Batman. There are many shifts in power through the course of the season, I think that may be an ongoing feature as a way of showcasing different villains and keeping the situation in Gotham City ever-changing.
Other villains feature, mainly ambitious mobster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) who is not adapted directly from the comics but serves an important role to fill this pre-Batman time so that his future nemeses aren’t all used up before he gets on the scene. One (more minor) villain is a bit Christian Grey, and his influence on the latter episodes is powerful. Another character we are introduced to seems hugely familiar, avoiding spoilers, all I’ll say is that I hope he’s a bit of a red herring, the character he seems to foreshadow is so iconic and it might be a bit early to play that card.
Even right from the pilot episode the show sets up so many key characters, I do wonder if it could be a bit too much too soon? The show is brilliantly written with frequent cliffhanger endings, it really avoids tying episodes up neatly, making it compelling viewing as I feel a show of this nature really should be. There are multiple threads to the narrative, not just Bruce or Jim, and each one has a sufficient level of depth and complexity. Showrunner Bruno Heller’s previous success ‘The Mentalist’ had these good features too. The prolonged resolution of the protagonist’s nemesis Red John took years, maybe that’s why I’m a little concerned some developments here seem a bit too fast as I expect Heller to be playing a longer game.
It’s a compelling and strong first season, I just hope that they haven’t used up too much in one go. Heller’s track record with ‘The Mentalist’ gives me a certain degree of confidence that he can sustain a quality storyline for a few more seasons, though I expect the second season will be quite a different pace and focus. So many characters have been introduced and developed, hopefully none will end up wasted or sidelined, that’s going to be the tricky part to get right, I eagerly await seeing what the second season brings.