Why TV’s GOTHAM is So Good. And How HBO’s ROME May Be the Best Model for the Series…

Posted: December 5, 2014 in COMICS, TELEVISION
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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I don’t know if I’m the only one who’s been (pleasantly) surprised by how good the Gotham TV series is proving to be. I’m genuinely hooked; I was hooked in fact really quickly.
And it’s very rare that that happens to me, as far as episodic TV goes. But the pilot was something far better than I expected, managing to engage, intrigue and draw in. And several episodes in, the quality level hasn’t dropped yet.

So what has gone so right with Gotham? An obvious point of comparison for me is Marvel’s flagship TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which I have also been watching but with nothing like the same level of enthusiasm. In fact, having watched the pilot and the first three or four episodes of AoS, I initially stopped watching, finding it hard to sustain interest. About 3/4 of the way through the first season I drifted back in and resumed watching, but the point is that it’s made far less of an impression in a season-plus than Gotham managed to make in just the pilot alone.

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Literally from the opening sequence of the young Selina Kyle prowling the alleyways, a silent, mythical presence to the defining act of Bruce Wayne’s parents being shot dead, Gotham enticed, infected and compelled.

I’d have to go back to around 2005 for the last time I followed a TV series with the commitment I’m affording to Gotham; and that was for the brilliant HBO/BBC series Rome – and curiously that too was a series produced and largely written by Gotham’s chief architect Bruno Heller. The case could be made that in both cases – Gotham and Rome – I had a preexisting interest in the setting that might’ve made me more open to being engaged. But my preexisting interest in ancient (and particularly Republican) Rome didn’t guarantee I’d respond favorably to the HBO series; there’ve been several modern on-screen depictions of the Roman world that I’ve utterly hated. It’s all about the approach, the quality and the characters (and the actors cast to portray them). If HBO’s Rome, for example, had badly cast the roles of Caesar or Cicero or Brutus the entire series might’ve suffered.

As it happened, the series was astonishingly well cast, the quality writing brought to great life by the equally high-quality acting. Any pre-judgement thoughts going into Gotham were in fact similar in tone to whatever thoughts I might’ve had before watching Rome. Thoughts along the lines of ‘well, I hope they get a good Caesar’ and ‘if they mis-cast Brutus or Antony, it’s going to be unwatchable’.

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Both Rome and Gotham are rich, loaded settings (one mythical, the other historical but with substantial semi-mythical elements) with pre-existing communities of enthusiasts and aficionados, meaning that viewers come into shows like that with broader expectations and preconceptions than with other types of series.

That creates an extra layer of difficulty for the series’ creators and writers to deal with, because they’re essentially writing situations and characters that a large percentage of viewers already know about. But Rome got it right, managing both to take artistic licenses where necessary while also remaining true to the history; Gotham, from what I can ascertain this early on, appears to be succeeding along the same lines. It is the Gotham we know, and it isn’t at the same time. It’s a fresh new take on an old world, both familiar and unfamiliar, and therefore able to hold preexisting Batman enthusiasts while also  not alienating basic, unencumbered TV viewers.

So whereas with Rome I would wonder how they’d pace the historical chronology in terms of an episodic TV drama or how they’d portray the social dynamics of the city itself, in Gotham’s case it was wondering just what a child Catwoman would be like and whether it would work, whether The Penguin or The Riddler could be done for television in a way that didn’t come off looking camp and silly, or whether a child actor (notoriously unreliable little creatures) suitable enough to portray Bruce Wayne could be found. In regard to that latter question, I’d wondered the same thing about the key role of Octavian in HBO’s Rome; whether there was a child actor on earth that could adequately portray the future Emperor Augustus as a young boy. As it happened, there was; and the same has proven true of David Mazouz as the child Bruce Wayne – a character that could’ve been very annoying if misjudged, but instead has proven palatable, particularly as he hasn’t had a lot of screen-time and isn’t the central focus.

Cr: Jessica Miglio/FOX

The key to telling a story in an already well-known mythology where many of the key outcomes are already known from day one has to be to create characters and dynamics that are interesting in themselves regardless of end-destination and to create enough intrigue and uncertainty as to how the journey is going to unfold and how those pre-determined end-points are going to be reached.

For example, we know Ed Nigma’s ultimate destiny, as we do Bruce Wayne’s, Selina Kyle’s and James Gordon’s. We therefore also know that none of those characters can be killed in the course of the series, which you could argue removes a lot of the tension that might otherwise be there.
However, the same again was true of HBO’s Rome; anyone who knew the history knew exactly who was going to live and who was going to die. In fact you could’ve set your watch to it and predict in exactly what episode Caesar would be assassinated or Pompey would flee to Egypt, etc.

But in some ways that sort of dynamic is more engaging than the standard storytelling dynamic of having no idea where things are going, partly because you know it’s going somewhere – somewhere interesting, at that. I have no idea where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is going, but that uncertainty doesn’t make it more exciting to me. Rome, as I said, had a large number of predetermined outcomes, but the interest was in seeing how they got there and in how good the drama of it would be (and the drama of it was incredibly good, as it happened).

If Gotham follows that Rome model, we’ll be in for an amazing series; and with Bruno Heller at the helm it’s entirely possible this is the approach we’ll get. But we’re only just at the beginning of this journey right now and it is already hitting the marks.

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Aside from Robbin Lord Taylor’s Cobblepot, the most engaging characters get limited screen-time at this stage; Selina, Nigma and Wayne getting mostly limited to brief appearances that serve to whet the appetite while the main focus is on the less fantastical characters and the human drama. Which is something I might’ve thought would be boring (it certainly wouldn’t work as a comic), but actually is working well enough so far, due to good writing and to broadly enjoyable characters and solid performances. Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon is wholly watchable and sympathetic, while Harvey Bullock has grown on me more and more since the pilot, and even relatively minor characters like Allen and Montoya are quickly becoming a likeable presence in the mix.

Gordon and Bullock, the main vehicle for the broader narrative, make an enjoyable double-act, albeit a little on the cliched good cop/bad cop side. They are reminiscent in fact of Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo in Heller’s Rome series; they’re the street-level guys whose eyes we see the Gotham narrative through, even though the real fascination lies ‘off-screen’ with the more famous personages like Cobblepot, Selina Kyle and the young Bruce Wayne.

In Rome, Vorenus and Pullo were the common-soldier level lens through which we were shown the 1st century BC Roman world, even though we knew the really fascinating historic stuff was happening elsewhere with Caesar and Antony, Brutus and Cicero, etc. It’s a winning formula that has served both series’ well (and another classic example of that is how the first Star Wars film was told through the eyes of the droids, Artoo and Threepio).

But the high standard of characterisation goes beyond just these. The rival crime bosses, Falcone and Maroni are both highly watchable, even likeable, characters, and even Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney, an originally annoying presence in the pilot, has turned out to be an enjoyable character in her own right. Cobblepot might wear a little thin due to too much consecutive screen time, though that’s simply how the series is being written; you sense there’s a chronology being followed when it comes to introducing and developing characters, with the Penguin having been chosen to emerge first, while the Riddler and Catwoman remain a visible presence in the background, teasing us with tastes of the inevitable possibilities. Some on-line have criticised the Nigma character, suggesting that his Riddler-isms are too overdone for so early on in the series; which may be true, but he still provides a colorful – albeit minor – presence for now.

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Camren Bicondova’s child Catwoman has been one of the bright surprises of the first few episodes; she was, in fact, from her very first appearance in the pilot. At this stage I think it might be for the best that we’re not seeing too much of her character, just glimpses here and there (apart from the second episode), as it keeps curiosity and momentum going.

Bicondova has already given us a worthy addition to the long on-screen history of Selina Kyle, at times feeling like a young Julie Newmar, and with the promise of much more development to come.

These seeds planted early on tease us along with the promise of things to come; a tapestry of slowly-sewn connections that will form a bigger picture over time. However, unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which tries to set up a lot of mysteries and long-playing narratives and sub-narratives over the course of its first season, there’s more than enough happening in Gotham’s immediate narrative episode-to-episode, so that it isn’t a case of viewers feeling like they’re sitting around waiting for answers and pay-offs but actually getting substantial drama in the meantime.

And there have also been numerous little sweeteners scattered about the opening volley of episodes too; the brief glimpse of a young Poison Ivy in the pilot, for example, or the minor delight of seeing Carol Kane show up as Cobblepot’s slightly unhinged mother (for as long as I live, Carol Kane’s off-key fairy in Scrooged will remain one of my all-time favorite comedy-film performances). This slightly damaged mother-son relationship proves to be one of the most Gothic-esque elements of the series and would’ve sat just as well in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

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The idea itself of a Gotham series not centered on Batman was an unknown risk going in, with possible doubts over whether it could still be interesting; but those doubts were quashed pretty much straight away.

Again the same thing happened with HBO’s Rome, which had a superb opening episode that introduced viewers to a gritty, but evocative and believable Roman world in the same way the Gotham pilot effectively establishes its world in the pilot. The show’s (and the fictional city’s) atmosphere is exactly what it should be, having a strong visual tone. It isn’t as classically dark and Gothic as Tim Burton’s Gotham City was (still the definitive on-screen depiction of Gotham City to some, myself probably included), but this TV incarnation was clearly going for a more gritty, real-world tone.

There’s an effective sense of a society rotten to its core; a society devoid of trust, hope or heroes, and in which Jim Gordon is the only man willing to fight the collectively-sustained system of corruption that permeates every walk of Gotham life. Paving the way of course for the young boy currently in the care of Alfred Pennyworth to one day become the dark hero the dark city is in need of; which parallels yet another Rome reference in that the boy Octavian was always destined to be the central character-journey of that series, the final episode ending with him becoming Emperor and realising his destiny as the future Augustus and ‘saviour of Rome’.

The boy Bruce Wayne of this Gotham series is on a similar journey, and I’d be very surprised (and a touch disappointed) if the series, however long it goes on for, doesn’t end with a dramatic shot of the grown-up, fully-realised Dark Knight standing on a city rooftop and looking up at the bat-signal in the sky.

Alright, I’m getting ahead of things there – sorry, that’s the fan-boy in me coming out. But whatever we end up with in the end, this series is off to a superb start. That doesn’t guarantee it’ll stay at that level of quality throughout its run, but I’m optimistic. HBO’s Rome might even be my favorite TV series of all time; and with Bruno Heller handling Gotham – a mythology which, like that of Rome, I have a long and deep-rooted affinity for – I couldn’t ask for a better prospect.

And for the first time in many years, I have a TV series I’m genuinely excited by and enthusiastically following.

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