Tag Archives: Shock Doctrine

Why “Gotham” is So Damn Good

Gotham lead

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.

Gotham id ego superego

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.

Gotham Selina Kyle

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.

Gotham conscience

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.

Gotham ethics

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.

Top 10 — The Books That Stay With Me — Gabriel Valdez

One thing we noticed when putting together these lists is that Vanessa’s had seven women writers. Mine only has two. Cleopatra’s and Eden’s lists had three. Now, we’re working with a small sample size, but looking at the rough draft I did – where I listed about 20 books, I still only had three women (Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife just missing my top 10).

I didn’t actively avoid women writers. I just didn’t give it a second thought when I grew up reading so many books written by men. It’s worth considering how this trained me at a young age to look at art – even the best male writer will include different perspectives and prioritize different themes than women writers.

It’s very easy to limit our viewpoints without ever realizing it, especially when we’re young and haven’t even had our own viewpoint challenged. That’s one reason why, as readers and viewers, it’s crucial to always be expanding, challenging, and communicating about the way we look at art.

Here’s my top 10:

Books Watership Down

Watership Down
by Richard Adams

Even today, if I see the cover, I’ll feel chills up my spine, the urge to go hide under blankets. There’s nothing else like reading this so young as I did. The tale of a group of rabbits who set out to find a new home after their old one is destroyed, Watership Down joined White Fang and The Secret of NIMH as challenging works that introduced me to political and philosophical strife. Rabbits and wolves and mice taught me about conquest and military industrialism and social experimentation, that it wasn’t always us vs. them but that it was very often us vs. our government, and them vs. their government, and that we’re often thrust in the middle of false wars to keep administrations running.

Book Congo

Congo/Sphere/Eaters of the Dead
by Michael Crichton

All right, this is cheating, but everything I learned about pulp genre fiction came in a compilation my parents got me for Christmas one year. I didn’t really look at Eaters of the Dead, but Congo – about an adventurous archaeological expedition in Africa – was an action movie in a book. It even found an inexplicable reason to have a gorilla go along for the ride, though for the life of me I can’t remember why.

Sphere, on the other hand, regarding the exploration of a mysterious alien artifact under the ocean, was the most complex science-fiction novel I’d read up to that point. They were gateway novels – Congo led me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pulp writers, while Sphere led me to start reading Golden Age science-fiction – the big idea stuff from the 60s and 70s.

Books Chronicles of a Death Foretold

Chronicles of a Death Foretold
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

At a point, I realized I should read something written by the author I was named after. To fully define the effect Gabriel Garcia Marquez has had on my life, I’d need a full article. Luckily, I already wrote one.

Books The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman

The entire His Dark Materials trilogy is stunning, but it was the first – The Golden Compass – that captured me so completely. Known as Northern Lights outside North America, it was the beauty of Pullman’s prose, describing in all of its detail a Victorianesque fantasy world, that made me change the way I wrote. I realized it wasn’t just the words themselves, but some magical atmosphere that resulted from their rhythm, from the intersection of their sounds, that made the kind of writer I wanted to be.

Books Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

And so I sought out the master of that rhythm, the man who wrote about sacrificing accuracy in your description for the tone of the sentence as a whole, the one who came up with alliterative phrases that overpowered your senses. I read everything he wrote – his famous horror stories, his comedies, his detective stories, his poems, his essays on writing, and with this came an awareness of other writers of dark fantasy – Sharon Shinn, Clive Barker, Graham Joyce, Neil Gaiman – and how they’d used the lessons Poe taught in their own work.

Books Neuromancer

Neuromancer
by William Gibson

My introduction to cyberpunk, an 80s science-fiction genre that posed a world dominated by disturbing attachment to technology, racial divides, military-industrial oligarchies, and aristocratic corporation-states. The work of William Gibson has continued to pose an eerily accurate portrayal of the direction our world is taking, less in its action scenes but more in its mortifying concepts of corporate personhood and human inconsequence. Neuromancer is the definitive introduction to cyberpunk, an enigmatic head trip of mood, tone, and international corporate politics.

Books The Word for World is Forest

The Word for World is Forest
by Ursula K. Le Guin

The 1972 novel with which James Cameron’s Avatar holds a strange number of similarities. I’d read Le Guin before, but never had she written a tale so brutal, stark, and unforgiving. The tale of an indigenous race of aliens who are ghettoized and exterminated in order to retrieve a valuable resource, I would later find it was a direct response to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Even without that context, you could tell it was housed squarely in the United States’ historical genocide of indigenous Americans.

I hadn’t expected three of us this week to include an Ursula K. Le Guin novel on our lists, yet alone three different ones (Vanessa chose The Dispossessed, and Eden chose The Left Hand of Darkness). If you’re at all a fan of science-fiction, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of her novels and dive in.

Books Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein wrote some good novels and Heinlein wrote some great novels. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is his best novel. The story of a penal colony on the moon that revolts against Earth and declares itself a nation, it forced me to look at how cultures develop alternative lifestyles to those typically found in Western nations, and why terrorism, revolution, and rebellion are sometimes interchangeable concepts.

Books Pedro Paramo

Pedro Paramo
by Juan Rulfo

During an independent study in college, I was directed toward Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. This was the novel that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez toward magical realism. I started with one translation, not liking it much, before I switched to my girlfriend’s translation, which maintained a more Spanish attitude of thought. It was yet another novel that communicated its messages more in tone than in finite detail.

Books Shock Doctrine

The Shock Doctrine
by Naomi Klein

I’m a little surprised that all four of us chose a Naomi Klein book. We didn’t communicate about it beforehand, but while Vanessa, Cleopatra, and Eden all went with her seminal expose on manufactured identity and brand loyalty No Logo, it was her history of how administrations use disaster and war to overhaul governments that most haunted me.

She compares these restructurings to torture – the idea of torture is not so much to punish or to elicit information. It is instead to force a reset in perceived reality on the part of the victim. You don’t change the victim, you just retrain them to look at the world the way you want them to see it. From early American experiment in torture MK-Ultra, she follows a line of conservative academic thought that posed that torture and overhauling the reality of victims can actually be performed not just on individual victims, but on nations.

She follows the journalist thread from how the CIA practiced social experiments in third-world countries to small-scale implementations up to the seizure of African-American property and the overhaul of New Orleans’ school system after Hurricane Katrina. She finally introduces the ultimate experiment in disaster capitalism – the Bush-Cheney administration and its wholesale overhaul of American government and military structures after 9/11.

The Shock Doctrine is the most revealing look at 21st Century Western government you’ll ever find, and Noami Klein is the single most important non-fiction writer working today. If you take nothing else away from our book lists this week, please remember her name, and look up what she’s written.

– Gabriel Valdez