by Gabriel Valdez
We’re three episodes into Gotham on Fox. I didn’t expect it to be good. I thought I’d watch a few episodes of something trying way too hard to be stylish and then I’d give up. It would forever fade from memory and every once in a while someone would ask, “Remember when they tried to make Gotham?” and we’d both laugh before forgetting about it again.
How wrong I was, and how glad I am to be that wrong. Gotham is the best new show on TV. It’s the best thing Fox has running and, if it keeps this up, it’s going to be the best show on TV, period.
It poses the story of how Gotham grew from a corrupt city to the noir ideal it is in every version of Batman. The first episode handles the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and the origins of a young Penguin and Catwoman are already well underway.
All the Gothams before this one have reflected in some way a fantastical city full of our darkest and deepest fears. Whether it’s the 60s modern art lampoon, Frank Miller’s echo of cyberpunk, the dark 90s cartoon that messed with my childhood, or Christopher Nolan’s path-to-a-third-world-country take, Gotham has always felt several steps away from reality, as much fantasy as noir.
This Gotham is no different in presentation, with lush backdrops, neon highlights, and early morning/late afternoon Blade Runner backlighting – my god, if I lived in Gotham, I’d make a fortune just manufacturing blinds. What the showrunners have recognized, however, is that there’s no need to exaggerate Gotham’s corruption anymore. Corporate monopolies in bed with organized crime, paying off the government through media buys while the cops beat confessions out of whomsoever’s unlucky enough to be standing by? That’s not noir fantasy anymore, that’s an evening watching the news.
The villains may be fantastic, but the internal struggles of characters like Jim Gordon and young Bruce Wayne? That’s the same frustration we see echoed across our news feeds as we read about the climate, cops shooting kids, water burning out of fracked cities’ pipes.
Though the first episode deals with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, by the end it’s painted a picture of how organized crime relies upon law & order to function most effectively. One isn’t possible without the other.
The second episode, “Selina Kyle,” involves villains snatching children off the street, but by the end of the episode – I’ll avoid major spoilers – it’s not what the villains planned for the children, but what the city does with them, that’s most haunting. They use the threat as justification for taking all the homeless youth off the street and effectively imprisoning them “for their safety.” The public goes along – keeping kids safe sounds good, but in the back of our heads, we’ve been taught streets with less poor people is safer for us. Regardless of whether that’s true or not, regardless of imprisoning children without due process…we go along with it. There’s enough in us to justify it.
This reminds me of the seizure of flooded, low-income property in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, evacuated homeowners only returning to the city to find the administration had changed the law to seize all they owned and shove out the poor. “To protect citizen’s property.” It reminds me of justifications of war to “make the world safer” and “spread democracy” and our first order of business being to sell off another country’s oil fields. It reminds me of Pennsylvania days ago cutting benefits to teachers and forcing them to pay for their classrooms’ textbooks, while it maintains its far more expensive $1.7 billion tax giveaway to Shell in order “to create jobs.”
All good messages. All just enough to make too many nod their heads and go along. Maybe we don’t like it, but…we’ll suffer it.
By Gotham‘s third episode, “The Balloonman,” a vigilante has already arrived on the scene. The point isn’t that he murders a Wall Street tycoon who bilked his investors, a corrupt cop, and a Cardinal who fooled around with children. The point is that his existence is a direct result of actions taken in the second episode.
Yeah, Gotham gets its style right, Jada Pinkett Smith is killing it as Fish Mooney, and Donal Logue gives the best portrayal of corrupt-because-he’s-lazy cop Harvey Bullock we’re ever going to get, but Gotham understands it no longer needs to embellish corruption. The heroes and villains may be supersized, but the reasons for these crimes, a government’s reaction to them…the similarities to our own world are too stark to ignore. You could call this The Shock Doctrine: The Series and it wouldn’t be inaccurate.
Let’s take Bullock for a minute. He’s true to the character I knew on the 90s cartoon. Driven by his gut, constantly complaining through mouthfuls of something greasy, willing to beat a suspect, always taking the easiest clue even when it clearly misleads…but when he’s reminded and encouraged, his heart is able to find the right place. Partnering him with Gordon (Ben McKenzie), the show’s ethical code since there isn’t a Batman yet, means that he’s always being reminded and encouraged.
It’s easier to identify with Bullock than with Gordon, though. Gordon is a boy scout. He’s straight-laced, tortured, and intense. Bullock’s the one who knows everybody worth knowing, who can kick his feet up and relax (even when he’s on the job), and who can make you laugh.
This contrast only helps hammer home Gotham‘s point all the more. Here we are, presented with a man who’s giving, involved, trying to do what’s right, and risking his neck for it. We identify with his lazy partner. It’s a genius move on Gotham showrunner Bruno Heller’s part to not just make Bullock the comic relief, but the beating heart of the show. We’re going to worry more if something happens to him than to Gordon.
It’s a critique on its audience, and on the broader values of American culture right now. We’re more like Bullock, it challenges, and we watch the Gordons get swallowed under every day.
Look, that’s not going to be racing through your mind as you watch. The show is a design triumph. It features actors just on the right side of hamming it up (some overacted moments in the pilot are drawn back quickly). The music is phenomenal, and weird in all the right places. The plots are solid, but more crucially, the pacing is superb – we get a stylish procedural every week, movement on three origin stories and a larger gang war arc, and there’s still usually time for an Alfred or Gordon monologue. Gotham might have the best pure pacing on TV.
(Compare that to The Strain, where a character can start sneezing and doesn’t finish until we’re reminded he exists five episodes later.)
Gotham – like a Batman movie – even offers opportunities for stately actors to come in and put the pedal to the metal as guest villains for an episode. Lili Taylor’s over-friendly knitter is a joy to behold in the second episode.
You won’t sit down to watch and think, Gordon and Bullock are an analogue for my own internal struggle between intervening and passively accepting. But they are, and you may think about it later, and that struggle – both in the show and in every one of us – that’s Gotham‘s most compelling facet. I want to come back every week not to see if Gotham gets saved, but if I do.
Gotham airs on Fox every Monday night at 8/7 central. You can find it on all the usual culprits – Netflix, Hulu, etc.