Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Too Much TV: GOTHAM (2014-present)

Ever since DC Comics consciously remade its fictional universe -- make that a multiverse -- following the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries (1985-6), superhero comics have been in a state of almost perpetual revision. Between full-scale reboots, after which nothing from the printed past may be taken for granted, there are periodic retcons in which the past is revised selectively without disrupting the regular monthly continuity. In the long run it all blends together and a kind of folklore evolves. Bruno Heller's Gotham is a work of folklore in progress. Unlike Arrow, in which Greg Berlanti effectively worked with a blank slate given the relative obscurity of his protagonist, and made his own Green Arrow mythos almost from whole cloth, Gotham is consciously rewriting a history with which most viewers by now are at least somewhat familiar. Heller and his writers are practicing a form of revisionism common in comics that's essentially retroactive. When a character like Batman has been published for more than 75 years, mythos accumulates haphazardly until the present bears little resemblance to the earliest stories. In the post-Crisis era comics readers (and writers) are encouraged to think of the entire published canon as one epic story -- at least until the continuity is rebooted -- when previously, throughout the "Golden Age" and much of the "Silver Age," last month's story rarely had anything to do with next month's story. Looking back on this chaos, the modern imagination dreams of imposing order and, more importantly, dramatic unity all the way back to the very beginning. Hence Gotham.

The three most important supporting characters in Batman's mythos, as it's evolved over all those years, are (in no particular order) Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred, Commissioner Gordon of the Gotham City police department, and Selina Kyle, an arch-enemy in her role as Catwoman but also for many readers the love of Batman's life. We can guess their importance to Batman, as DC now measures it, by their prominence on Gotham. Only one of these characters, Gordon, was present in the first Batman story, which was not an origin story. In his original form, the Commissioner was an elderly, clueless placeholder whom Bruce Wayne pumped for information about crimes that had been kept out of the news, and it was a big joke at the end of that first 1939 episode that Gordon considered Wayne something of a bore while we learned in the last panel that the "bored playboy" was the Batman who cracked the Case of the Chemical Syndicate. Neil Hamilton's portrayal on the beloved/infamous 1966 TV series and Pat Hingle's performance in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movie cycle (1989-97) approximate this original version. Comics gradually moved past that, making Jim Gordon more of a confidant of Batman than a crony of Bruce Wayne and more like a peer as a detective and crimefighter, to the point that comics writers now seem ignorant of what a commissioner of police actually does while imagining Gordon as a hands-on detective-in-chief. As Gordon became a more rounded character -- his role as Batgirl's father contributed to this as well -- his connection with Batman and Bruce Wayne was grounded further back in the character's history. In Frank Miller's post-Crisis reboot story Batman: Year One (1987, now irrelevant after the "New 52" reboot of 2011), Gordon is a veteran cop and incorruptible troublemaker transferred to Gotham as a lieutenant just as Bruce Wayne is going on his first tentative crimefighting patrols. Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) takes a bigger leap backward. Now Gordon (Gary Oldman in a definitive rendering) is present virtually at the creation, already in Gotham and comforting little Bruce on the night the boy's parents were murdered.

This is where Heller places his Gordon (Ben McKenzie), Gotham's protagonist, but in his own breathtaking bit of retrospective revisionism, he has little Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) actually witness the shooting of the Waynes. Selina first appeared in comics in 1940 and didn't even get her name until 1951, and it wasn't until the late 1970s that she was aggressively promoted as The One for Batman, a campaign (against some intense competition) that climaxed with the improbable happy ending of Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. The logic of retrospective revisionism (retrovisionism?) seems to require the the hero's great love and the hero's great friend (note that this is Jim Gordon and not Dick Grayson or any other Robin) be part of the hero's story from as early a point as seems plausible. In Gotham little Selina has actually lived in Wayne Manor for a short period already, placed there by Gordon as much in the hope of reforming the precocious street thief as in securing her cooperation with the Wayne murder investigation. She has already met cute with little Bruce (David Mazouz) and kissed him, but she's also already dumped him and lied to him about what she did or didn't see that terrible night. Oh well: everyone knows this relationship will take a lot of time.

As for Alfred, Batman's butler was one of the first characters to be retconned. Appearing originally as a roly-poly, clean-shaven man, Alfred quickly morphed into a copy of William Austin, the tall, pencil-mustached actor who played him in the infamous/beloved 1943 Batman serial. Whatever he looked like, Alfred Pennyworth joined the Wayne household well after Bruce began his costumed career, but like Gordon (and like Selina now) he was rooted deeper in Bruce's past. Batman: Year One is the key text here as well; Miller established that Alfred had served Bruce's parents, and Nolan and Heller followed his lead. In the post-Crisis era Alfred also evolved from the fussy British stereotype of early stories, or the Gielgud to Batman's Dudley Moore in Miller's Dark Knight Returns, into a more effective helper in Batman's work by virtue of a shadowy military background increasingly emphasized in comics, Nolan's movies, and Heller's show. No live-action Alfred since Austin (and his successor in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin) has tried to look like Austin, and Heller's (Sean Pertwee) is no exception. Pertwee is as far as we've gone from the traditional Jeevesian or Arthur Treacherish figure; his Alfred wasn't bred for butlering and Heller presents him essentially as a substitute father figure for little Bruce, who really has two when you count Gordon. As a military man, Gotham's Alfred is Bruce's first teacher in the fighting arts, if not the only one if the show doesn't let Master Wayne leave to go on his teenaged wanderings around the world.

Gotham is set about a decade before Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, but is presumably set in our present day. It's an island unto itself in DC's evolving multimedia multiverse, unrelated to Berlanti's current shows on the CW and his forthcoming Supergirl show on CBS, and not a prequel to the Nolan films or the new cinematic universe of next year's Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It has two main purposes: to foreshadow Batman's career and to establish Jim Gordon as a long-suffering lone battler (more or less) against relentless crime and intractible corruption whose collaboration with a masked vigilante will be understandable by the end. The show actually has three separate casts of characters: the embryo versions of Batman and his antagonists, ranging from Selina's ragamuffin friend, the future Poison Ivy, to the precocious but socially awkward polce forensic scientist Ed Nygma; the Gotham police force, all of whom are established comics characters, most notably Gordon's inconsistently cynical partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue); and the Gotham underworld whose conflicts give the show most of its short-term momentum. Crossing the line between two sets of characters is Oswald Kapelput (Robin Lord Taylor), a verbally pretentious but physically awkward hanger-on destined to become The Penguin, who in comics has evolved from a tuxedoed bandit with an umbrella gimmick into a more conventional crimelord with many of the grotesque traits of Danny DeVito's incarnation in Burton's Batman Returns. By comparison Taylor is a boyishly slight figure who compensates for his unimposing appearance with bursts of brutality. During the first season Oswald, a second-generation immigrant whose mother (Carol Kane) may as well have been Simka from Taxi, has been jockeying for position amid a three-way power struggle involving Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni, both canonical gangsters, and Heller's major addition to the Gotham mythos, Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), Falcone's ambitious protege and Oswald's onetime mentor. Having no destiny we know of from comics, Fish is the show's wild card and one of its most hated characters. That may be partly because she's a stranger to the Gotham of comics, but it's more likely because Pinkett's performance embodies the show's split personality. Fish is capable of a gangster's raw violence, but she also indulges in flights of melodrama or just plain camp that Heller's writers (prominently including Ben Edlund, the creator of The Tick) use to identify Gotham as part of a comic-book world. The contrast in tone between this excess of eccentricity and the procedural formulae of Gordon's scenes is jarring, as if Heller hasn't decided if the show is one thing or another or hasn't figured out how it can be both seamlessly.

It doesn't help that Gotham tries to be a third thing, a "CW style" soap opera focused on Gordon's fragile relationship with Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), the heiress who is the future commissioner's canonical first wife and Batgirl's mom. Barbara is Fish Mooney's main rival for the show's most-hated character because she brings nothing to it but soap opera. An addict from an unhappy home, Barbara bounces between Gordon and another cop, her old flame Renee Montoya (the dreaded gay agenda!!!) while Gordon seeks a safe harbor with Arkham Asylum medico Lesie Thompkins, whose canonical role as Bruce Wayne's first responder Gotham's Jim has usurped. Gordon's troubled love life is foisted on us, it seems, more as a matter of duty than a matter of inspiration. Meanwhile, Heller keeps some extra plotlines simmering on the backburners, including a link between the Wayne murders and dirty dealings at the family megacorporation and the malign influence of the vivisectionist Dr. Dohlmacher, who kidnaps the children of Gotham and the passengers of ships at sea (including a fugitive Fish Mooney) to harvest body parts for medical and other purposes.

Gotham has been fascinating and disappointing from the beginning. The major disappointment has been the stupidity of its writing, from its inane mystery plots to Gordon's leadenly earnest dialogue. It has several compensating features, especially the acting of Taylor as Penguin and Logue as the show's most complex cop, as well as Cory Michael Smith as a strangely likable and plainly fragile Ed Nygma, while the fact that Heller is playing a long game encourages patience as his world unfolds. But my overall attitude toward the show is fascinated pessimism. Heller seems to be painting himself into a corner of a huge room by giving us a main character, Gordon, who seems doomed to years of failure, not to mention personal unhappiness, before Bruce finally suits up to save the day. Gordon must fail to stem the tide of crime or else who needs a Batman? Whatever victories he scores hardly can inspire hope, or else who needs a Batman? The show's own argument may be that Gordon's tenacity against all odds inspires Batman, but will that be enough for us? Gotham promises us a decade of muddling through at best, while leaving us asking such questions as: how can Bruce and Selina fail to recognize each other as adults, no matter what costumes they wear? Whether Gotham will be worth watching over the long haul depends almost entirely on whether Ben McKenzie is worth watching. Fortunately, his acting is better than his dialogue and Gordon has grown on me during the season. The question for the future, since Gotham will have at least a second season, is what we want to see Gordon do, perhaps more than what we want to see Gotham City become. One is inescapably linked to the other.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

Heller & Berlanti have one common trait, and that is indulging in creating their own revisionist history. Cherry-picking various bits & pieces from more than 75 years of Bat-history has its pros & cons.

For one, I'm interested in seeing if DC will follow the lead and put the comics' Penguin on a diet, in order to give him a more slender appearance, to correlate with the youthful menace embodied by Robin Lord Taylor, who deserves to be nominated for an Emmy, along with Ben McKenzie & Donal Logue. Penguin was created in the Golden Age with the cigarette holder firmly placed in his mouth thanks to FDR. A slimmer, trimmer Penguin, just as devious, would make him a hot commodity in the books again.

I wasn't on board with Barbara working both sides of the street any more than I was with Greg Rucka's decision to turn Renee into a lesbian more than a decade ago. Renee is one of two (at least) characters from the Bat-toons of the 90's who crossed over to the main DCU (Harley Quinn, of course, being the other), and in the early appearances in the books she had a crush on Batman. Why throw that away?

Of course, I cannot help but chuckle at the future Riddler being a forensic scientist, kind of like Barry Allen over on Flash, but without powers. This is good stuff.

Placing the future Catwoman at the scene of the Wayne murders says to me that Heller & Danny Cannon would rather play with the on-again-off-again romance between Bruce & Selina that began as adults, and reset it so that they'd meet as kids. Why do I have this notion that if they get about, say, 3-4 years deep into the series, that they're in high school together? (Bruce would help get Selina into a private school, and....!)

Watch. By this time next year, Fish will be in the comics. It will surprise no one.