Today, Fox announced that Gotham has been picked up for a full season of 22 episodes. After watching four, I’m already exhausted with the show and have no idea how it’s going to keep this concept going in its current state. The cases of the week aren’t particularly intriguing, character relationships are wafer-thin, and logic rarely comes into play with the show’s plotting. And then there’s the bigger question of what does this show build to? The series is setting up so much of Batman’s world, but we’re not going to get to that point any time soon unless this show decides to jump forward in time. Gotham can’t survive on teases of a status quo that won’t come to be for years, but the writers have yet to craft a story that proves their version of Jim Gordon is a lead that can sustain an entire series.
Listening to some past episodes of NPR Monkey See’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast this weekend, I came across a quote from Glen Weldon that addresses one of the major problems of Gotham over a month before the series debuted. While talking about the fall season’s slate of comic-book-themed TV shows, Weldon had this simple advice for the writers of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Arrow, Constantine, The Flash, and Gotham:
Here’s how you improve all of these shows in one fell swoop. Very quickly, you just give the writers’ room this edict: No abstract nouns… Amid all these larger-than-life things, people are still people and they still talk like human beings, and as soon as you start getting an abstract noun in there, it feels like you’re pressing down on it. So don’t say ‘good,’ don’t say ‘evil,’ don’t say ‘justice,’ don’t say ‘power.’ ‘Power’ especially. Don’t say ‘crime,’ don’t say ‘corruption.’ This is going to be tough for Gotham, but don’t say ‘This city.’ ‘This city needs me.’ No, it doesn’t. People need you.
Gotham is a show that runs on abstract nouns. The dialogue is overblown in hopes that it will add gravitas to the story, but it ultimately strips the show of its humanity. These abstract concepts are what drive the plot (we can throw “war” in there as Oswald’s big abstract noun), and that makes it extremely hard to connect to the characters on a personal level. While tonight’s episode is an improvement over the last couple of chapters, “Arkham” is still wildly uneven, frustrating, and shallow. Escalating the Gotham mob war gives this episode a stronger sense of forward momentum, but there are still plenty of developments that prevent this show from rising above mediocrity.
Arkham has been mentioned before on this series, and this week we discover that the abandoned district is a major part of Gotham’s mob war. Thomas and Martha Wayne wanted to create affordable housing and turn the old asylum into a state-of-the-art mental health facility—a plan that Carmine Falcone sides with because it presents him with significant financial gain—but Sal Maroni wants to turn the district in a waste disposal site. As the day of voting nears, the two mob bosses employ the same hitman to take out the councilmen that could negatively affect them, a strategy that eventually makes the mayor a target.
This week’s villain doesn’t have a silly gimmick like the ’50s-styled child snatchers and The Balloonman, he just uses a retractable metal spear to kill his targets. His first victim is a councilman that is stupid enough to take a strange device from a strange man in a parking lot and put it up to his eye, and his second victim is a man who doesn’t realize you should use the stairs instead of waiting for the elevators when being chased by a killer. Elected officials in Gotham City aren’t especially smart, so it’s not hard to pick them off one by one, even when they have police protection like the mayor does.
After two weeks of heavily exaggerated villains, it’s refreshing to see a more subdued antagonistic that has a threatening presence without pushing too hard. By taking a less aggressive approach, actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim makes assassin Gladwell a surprisingly captivating villain, so it’s unfortunate that he’s shot dead by Gordon and Bullock when he comes after the mayor. The attack on the mayor ultimately leads to a compromise on the Arkham plan, and it’s laughable in its awfulness. Arkham will have low-income housing and the asylum will be retrofitted to fit modern standards, but the district will also contain a waste disposal site so that Gotham’s underprivileged citizens will be living in a dump. To make the decision even more hilarious, Maroni delights in the compromise by grabbing a piece of steak with his bare hands and biting into it, transitioning from a stereotypical Italian mob boss to a grotesque caricature.
Oswald Cobblepot has the potential to be a fascinating character. He has delusions that what he’s doing is heroic, which explains why he became a snitch for the GCPD, but he’s actually a homicidal maniac that is working to build his own empire. He also might have romantic feelings for Jim Gordon judging by how desperately he wants to work with the detective. Oswald’s “Men!” comment when he enters Barbara’s apartment at the start of the episode continues the gay coding of the character, and his obsessive desire to work with Gordon comes across as partially motivated by an urge to be closer to the detective on a more intimate level.
The character has potential, but it’s not fully explored. Instead, Oswald is being rushed through a story that puts him a position of power in Maroni’s crew, which is confusing for a number of reasons. The big one is that everyone thinks that Oswald was killed, so he decides to lay low by going right back to what he was doing before, this time with a different boss and a different GCPD contact. A big part of Oswald’s character is that he’s an outcast that stands out from the crowd because of his personality and appearance, and yet he’s the character that is put in an undercover position. He doesn’t even try to be inconspicuous about eavesdropping on Maroni while washing dishes, and immediately after Oswald’s boss yells at him for not minding his own business, he gets right back to the staring and the listening.
In order to fast track his way into Maroni’s good graces, Oswald sets up a robbery to make himself look like a hero when he saves a bag of Maroni’s money. Because the restaurant manager was killed in the stick-up, Maroni offers the position to the dishwasher, which is hilarious because Oswald has absolutely no qualifications for restaurant management beyond being able to survive a robbery that he staged himself. This show is making things too easy for the character, and there’s no sense that Oswald is in danger as he starts to gain more power for himself by playing with fire.
Oswald’s thread ends with him bringing his thief accomplices some cannolis from the restaurant, and for a second it seems like this show will actually have a lighter moment as Oswald relaxes with a group that may potentially become his crew when he’s a mob boss. But alas, it is not to be. I understand why Oswald poisons his partners—he doesn’t want them ratting him and this way he gets to keep all the money they stole—but he isn’t going to build an empire if he kills everyone that offers him help.
After four episodes, it’s fair to say that this show’s depiction of female characters is deeply unfortunate. Commissioner Sarah Essen of the GCPD doesn’t give a shit about cleaning up her squad, and in fact encourages her officers to compromise their morals because that’s just the way it is. Detective Renee Montoya is a vengeful lesbian that jumps to conclusions before she gets facts, and she has a stalker-like tendency to welcome herself into her ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Barbara Kean is a former junkie bisexual whose main purpose is to keep secrets from her fiancé and have him keep secrets from her, and Fish Moony is a conniving snake in the grass that thrives on sex and violence.
You’ll notice that there aren’t really any positive attributes in those character descriptions. Montoya is fighting to get rid of the corruption in the GCPD, which would be noble if the writers didn’t make the motivation for her actions a foolhardy attempt to win back an uninterested ex-lover by getting rid of her fiancé. Fish Moony is a woman of ambition in an underworld dominated by men, but she realizes that ambition by making girls seduce her and then having them beat each other for a place by her side. Fish’s plot is likely the start of a plan that involves her new female companion becoming Falcone’s latest girl, but the kick-off of this plot thread doesn’t inspire any confidence in its future.
While the rest of Gotham’s underworld players fight over Arkham, Fish is auditioning young women in her club, forcing the audience to endure tepid but mercifully short musical numbers and some very awkward seductions. The first audition is a lot more fun to watch because it leans toward humor rather than sexual provocation, and the more serious Jada Pinkett-Smith gets, the less entertaining her performance. The Fish plot builds to a big scene where the two girls have a catfight in high heels, and it all feels like material forced into the episode to titillate the audience with girl-on-girl action.
Barbara wants to know about Jim’s relationship to Oswald Cobblepot, and when he refuses to tell, she makes a move that finally makes me have some respect for her. After berating her fiancé about keeping secrets, Barbara comes clean about her relationship with Montoya, although she leaves out the fact that she was a junkie. By revealing her secret, Barbara makes a dramatic change to her relationship with Jim, finally introducing some legitimate relationship conflict beyond “What are you keeping from me?” She told him her secret and she expects him to tell her his, and when he still refuses, she gives him a choice: he either lets her in, or she’s out. Finally, some character conflict!
The Barbara plot isn’t especially riveting and it’s born from one of this show’s most unfortunate plot developments, but complicating the character relationships is a definite step in the right direction. Because the only way this show will survive is by committing to the characters. This isn’t a show about Batman, it’s a show about a cop trying to do the right thing in a city that is overrun by evil, and it needs to define Gordon’s personal relationships as fully as possible if it’s going to make a strong connection between the characters and the audience.
- Edward Nygma is so obnoxious on this show. Cory Michael Smith’s overacting pulls me out of any scene that he’s in, beating us over the head with an exaggerated characterization that screams, “I’m the Riddler!” It’s especially irritating because the personality quirks are the only things that define Nygma at this point, which is just laziness on the part of the writers.
- If you’re confused by Fox using a “Loved it” pull quote from The A.V. Club in its Gotham advertising, that quote doesn’t come from any actual writing on this site. It comes from our podcast “Mom On Pop” spotlighting the pop culture observations of Bonney Teti, the mother of senior editor John Teti. Fox is digging deep, but it is something that has been said at some point on something affiliated with our site.
- No Selina Kyle or Renee Montoya in this episode. Can’t say I’m disappointed. (For the record: Selina Kyle and Renee Montoya are two of my favorite DC Comics characters.)
- This show has a real problem with letting dramatic moments land fully. It likes to cut away quickly before events settle, and it diminishes their impact. One notable exception is Gladwell’s barrel burning sequence, which ends with a haunting zoomed-out shot of the barrel with the Arkham Asylum fence in the foreground. There’s no need to rush.
- If this show is just going to keep repeating the same Bruce Wayne storyline, I’m going to stop mentioning him.
- “Least you can sing.”
- “It was just a box of paper clips, I didn’t think anyone would mind!” HUMOR! YAY!
- Gordon: “You can’t be this lazy.” Bullock: “Lazy. Maybe I just work smarter than you. Ever consider that?” “Yeah. I considered it.” And he concluded that Bullock is indeed lazy because Bullock doesn’t like to do any work unless you force him too. He’s like a character from Brooklyn Nine-Nine.