Gotham Episode 1.5 Recap: Viper

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Viper was not exactly a turn around for Gotham; I am still very much on the fence about the show overall. I am still very much waiting for the story arc or the villain of the week that gets me excited. But at least some of the features I don’t like in the show were toned down.

First the visuals. I confess I’m lost. An early scene where a junkie musician enters a convenience store (pictured above) is shot through what looks like a green filter. There are little color pops in each scene. The bananas –or the “Special” sign–create a splash of yellow that keeps things from looking too color coordinated, but rather than creating contrast these complementary colors end up distracting. Or maybe it is just that the average scenes are so visually uninteresting that these color pops pull your eyes to them because they are restless looking for something striking. How can the sets simultaneously look so expensive and so very, very dull?

In Fish Mooney’s club, the dominant color is red. In the Penguin’s restaurant there is a strange lack of deep focus that makes you only able to look at the foregrounded characters. (Take a look over Gordon’s shoulder towards the kitchen in the scene where he is being interrogated by the mafioso.) Wayne Manor has a yellow hue that makes it look hazy–except for the blue notebook that Bruce asks Alfred to hand him.

Moving on, I am also struggling to get to know these characters on their own terms. Oh, I know most of them as iterations of established types, but even when watching a character I’ve scene dozens of times before (like say when I watch a new production of King Lear or Hamlet) I want to see how the performer interprets the character. This means making some choices, not just creating a pastiche of previous portraits. Is Bullock corrupt or just lazy? I don’t know. In one scene he chastises Gordon for interrupting lunch to pursue a crime; in the next, he criticizes his partner for taking “personal” time why they are trying to work a case. Young Bruce is smart enough to make connections the police are missing, and he uses his advantage to…tell the people he is investigating that he is investigating them?

Speaking of the murdered Waynes, is there a hint of suspicion in Bruce that his parents might have been corrupt? Or just blind? Would hat not cause him to have some suspicions about Alfred? I’ve always found Alfred to be one of the great untapped characters in the Batman universe, and I would have to assume the enormous amount of trust the adult Bruce places in his family servant was nurtured and not just natural. The second Alfred-Bruce scene was probably the episode’s best because it didn’t feel the need to have Alfred repeat his objections as a shorthand to expositing what the action meant for the audience. (Compare that with, say, Fish’s bedroom exposition to her boy-toy. I get that monologuing is a convention of the comic book genre, but must every character describe what they are doing while they are doing it?) Oh, and “my mother used to sing that [aria] to me every night?” Really? Who sings arias as a lullaby? Like we wouldn’t have understood there was a personal connection driving Falcone’s pick up without that line?

And yet I did like Bruce’s revealing, “I don’t want revenge; I want to understand how it all works.” I think Bruce is too young, and it would be too idealistic, to have him eschew any vengeful motives unless he had something to replace them with. Here that something is curiosity. When we are hurting, nothing beats a distraction. And yet, paradoxically, there is a hint of intellectualization about the whole endeavor. No matter how many years he devotes, there will be some things he never understands. The elder Bruce could, perhaps, suppress vengeance, but to do so habitually requires the building of, well, habits. I’ve always thought of Batman as being more of an Analytical rather than Structural thinker. Young Bruce’s desire to understand “how it all works” was the first time I’ve seen the child as the father of the man. Pattern recognition is such an important component of the Anaytical thinker, and it is nice to see Bruce not only recognize patterns (the whole city is corrupt) but also question how the parts of the pattern interact (what was Wayne’s role in it?).

Overall, Gotham (both the city and the show) is still a little too static. Patterns are okay, but there needs to be variations within them. I liked, for instance, that Gordon teased out the clues (such as they were) and was able to capture the bad guy without being saved by Bullock (again). The police force can be corrupt, but it needs to function. There needs to be some minimal functioning, even in Gotham, to avoid anarchy. To that end, it was encouraging that we did feel the need to advance the Barbara story line. The show signaled that we don’t have to touch every base every show.

Does the show need fixing? Or is it good enough? Was Venom a step forward, a step back, or just another step in place?

 

Gotham Episode 1.4 Recap: Arkham

The Video-Game player in me perked way up when I learned this week’s episode was titled “Arkham.” One of the most well-reviewed franchises in games of the last decade, Arkham Asylum/City/Origins and the to be released Arkham Knight have done much to bring a whole new generation of people into the world of Batman. I was incredibly interested to see how Gotham would portray this institution as well if any of the franchise’s canon would be brought into the show or at least used as an Easter-Egg. While not much of that happened (aside from a reference to “Arkham City” on a map) the episode did not leave me disappointed.

As always, let’s get the negative out of the way:

Bad

-I can’t quite put my finger on it but the Gordon/Barbara/Montoya story line just really brings the show to a halt. In all honesty, it doesn’t have much of anything to do with the lesbian angle to Barbara and Montoya as much as the fact that relationship issues just do not seem in place in a show like this. If anything, I think it would have been better for Gordon and Barbara to already be married and for the show to explore how a marriage deals with the life Gordon must lead as a man trying to be an honest cop in a crazy city.

-I’ll get to Cobblepot a bit more later, but for now I’ll just say that it’s becoming a bit hard to believe he can commit so many murders that never come back to him. He’s now poisoned three people with food from the restaurant (presumably) that he works at. Maybe Oswald is assuming that Gordon wouldn’t want any attention brought to him as a suspect but the rest of the universe within this show still operates and someone is going to stumble upon those three guys in that apartment right?

-I wanted to celebrate the fact that Barbara and Fish Mooney both seemed to get out of their respective purgatories of the apartment and the night club, but each scene featuring them out of their usual element almost seemed forced as those scenes could have happened in the apartment and nightclub anyway. The idea in moving the characters around, environment-wise, is to give them specific things to do that require them to be at those places. At this point, it just comes across as weak writing.

-I liked Gladwell as the villain of the week, if only because a hit-man is a plausible character in a world like this, but his weapon of choice had me thinking more about how creepy and sinister Anton Chigurh was than about Gladwell himself.

Good

-I haven’t read a ton about this, yet anyway, but I enjoyed how ferocious Ben Mackenzie was as Gordon in the first scene with Cobblepot. The yelling/growling was very Batman like and while this might seem odd to people I think it make sense. Gordon will come to have a unique relationship with Batman, that begins as suspicious, if not hostile, turn into one of trust and support. I’ve always thought that while Gordon stuck to working through the law to serve people, he sees something in Batman that reminds him of his younger self as well as some representation of who he wished he could have been or become.

-So far, Oswald Cobblepot is working circles around everyone else. When he says he can see things a way others can’t he is actually right. The reveal at the end of the episode shows how adept Oswald’s mind can be at playing parties against one another for his own purpose.

-I’m really enjoying what Gotham is doing with young Bruce Wayne. I get that some people’s main point against the show is that it is Batman without Batman. However, I think that complaint just fails to understand what this show is all together. As much as Gotham City is changing and the power players are making their plays, a young boy is grieving the death of his parents and also changing into a person who hates what the city is, hates injustice and is trying to figure out what can be done about it all. The exchange at the end of the episode between Bruce and Gordon was spot on:

Bruce: So do you really think Gotham is worth saving?

Gordon: I think it’s worth trying…

This idea is so central to the heart of Batman that it really cannot be overstated. Batman/Superman #87 has the following exchange, which is one of my favorite pages in all comics and I believe demonstrates Batman’s philosophy quite well:

Credit DC Comics

I know that Batman has been portrayed as someone who thinks he can eradicate crime in Gotham, but I think the best characterization is that Bruce knows he can’t, but that he’s going to try anyway. Seeing the genesis of this idea in his mind is really neat and I thought it was well done. I think more moments like this are the key to this show gaining any kind of longevity, not that they have to involve Bruce and Gordon but that we begin to see the motivation for characters at a deeper level. As much as I complained to anyone who would listen about Lost, I truly did enjoy the back-stories presented just as much as the mystery.

Things seem to be heating up on Gotham and if these events are given great background this show could begin to find a more appreciative audience in die-hard comic fans as well as fans of great television in general.

Gotham Episode 1.3 Recap: The Balloonman

Through most of the first half of Episode 1.3, I found myself impatient. Every scene and interaction seemed the same. It felt pretty early in the series’ run for the episode’s themes to be so stale and predictable. I get that in the first couple of episodes of a series a fair amount of repetition is necessary to accommodate the late arrivers,  but Gotham seemed particularly static. I even commented to those watching with me that for the second week in a row Oswald Cobblepot killed somebody and then ate a sandwich.

Part of what I realized during a commercial break was that too many of the scenes were not just not just narratively repetitious but visually and aurally static. Too many scenes were the same length. Everyone at the Gotham City Police Department snaps and snarls. Even Alfred (Sean Petwee), an historic model of aplomb, is louder and more shrill than what we are used to. I don’t mind that character interpretation so much–it is one of the fewer fresh takes on familiar characters–but it does contribute to a pervasive quality of loudness that makes it harder for me to settle in and get comfortable with these characters.

That’s perhaps why I found myself drawn to a few scenes with as yet minor characters. Pretty much any scene with Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) in it was a welcome relief. Even if the confrontation between Barb and Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) trotted out some well worn tropes–love triangle, recovering addict–it played more sad than mad. So, too, oddly, did the confrontation between Falcone (John Doman) and Fish Mooney. Perhaps my judgment is infused with residual good will from The Wire, but Doman is such a pleasure to watch. Most professional actors would know not to bluster in that role, but Doman doesn’t even give Falcone’s speech much edge, even when he is talking about punishing “whoever” attacked his paramour. Neither is he overly, artificially nonchalant. He’s not trying to convince Fish he doesn’t care, he actually feels indifferent towards her threat. One doesn’t try to intimidate a fly, one just brushes it aside.

So there were some quiet moments, but I would like a bit more variety in the length and tone of scenes. Or the look, for that matter. Just how many scenes do we need at Gordon’s or at Wayne Manor that are shot in front of a fireplace? Will there be any humor or oases of warmth? (The domestic scenes are visually warmer but still filled with conflicted emotions.) The most overt attempt at humor was a horrible misfire: a a Balloonman victim falling out of the sky and landing on a random pedestrian. It’s hard to get us to buy into the heroic nature of Gordon’s quest to save Gotham from despair when the show itself dehumanizes the civilian population or treats it (outside of Barbara) with such contempt. (This was a thematic issue that hindered Nolan’s The Dark Knight as well.)

I am still wondering, too, whether the prequel will come up with story lines that can develop or move forward rather than simply wait for Batman to grow up. Many superhero movies are villain origin stories, but there is a difference between the villain’s arc taking up the first hour of a movie and it taking up the first few years of a series.

But…take a breath. This is episode three. Oswald appearing on Gordon’s doorstep at least assures us that we will be spared weeks of Barbara wondering if Gordon really did kill him and Gordon wondering if Barbara believes him.

Did you have a favorite scene in Episode 1.3? Are any characters beginning to emerge from the ensemble as favorites?

 

Gotham Episode 1.2 Recap: Selina Kyle

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I don’t really consider myself to be that contrarian, subversive or counter-cultural but apparently when dealing with Gotham I feel like quite the outlier. After last week’s debut episode, I found myself excited for a show that many have already dubbed doomed to fail. One post over at io9 particularly caught my eye as it asked, “If Jim Gordon succeeds in dealing with Gotham’s criminals, why does the city need Batman?” The underlying answer is supposed to reveal that Gotham has foundational weaknesses it can never overcome. However, when thinking about this show, I guess I just don’t get that assessment..

When watching “Pilot” last week and “Selina Kyle” this week, I found myself completely dialed in. Sure, there are aspects that might cause an eye roll here and there (Is Jada Pinkett Smith purposefully doing her best Eartha Kitt impression or is that her genuine acting choice?) but for the most part I have thoroughly enjoyed what Gotham already is and what it is hopefully going to become.

“Selina Kyle” built up “Pilot” without feeling the need to spend all its time directly addressing everything that happened previously. Oswald is now outside of Gotham City, waiting to be able to make his return while causing some havoc of his own on some locals. Fish Mooney is feeling the heat of her attempt at pushing out the Falcone family and Jim Gordon is still trying to adjust to a city that doesn’t seem to want a good cop. Still, “Selina Kyle” is a smart episode, it begins a villain-of-the-week formula that the show will need to have legs, while at the same time focusing on character moments like we saw with young Selina showing of her “Cat” like reflexes and feisty behavior as a survivor. I’ve mentioned comparing the show to Smallville, but another apt comparison is to its fellow DC Comics show Arrow. In Arrow, we are given large back stories for many characters throughout a season while at the same time treated to villains we meet and see dispatched within the hour. After all, isn’t that part of the fun of any show based on a comic book? I enjoyed this episode am an interested to see where things head next week, which is the same way I felt during Smallville‘s early run as well as Arrow in its first few seasons. One would assume that is a good sign for Gotham.

The bigger issue, goes back to what I mentioned at the top of this recap, is Gotham fated to be a failure? I think that viewpoint is missing the entire point of the show, and really the larger thrust of Batman altogether. Jim Gordon doesn’t have to be a complete failure or success in the course of this show. Rather, he has to be both a success and a failure. Bruce Wayne has to see this one good cop doing all he can for Gotham City. He has to see Jim Gordon make a difference so that he knows that one person CAN make a difference. He also has to see the limitations of Jim Gordon, specifically the future police commissioner working within the conventional system. He has to have a reason to leave home, travel the world and prepare himself to eventually be Batman, and this whole series will give him that reason. Meanwhile, all the characters we meet along the way help create the environment for Bruce to see that and will (for the most part) be waiting for him when he returns. A well developed world in a work of fiction, isn’t that what people want? I know I do and in my opinion, that is what makes Gotham so intriguing and what should make it destined for success. If you need any other reason for hope check out the newest trailer released for the show previewing whats ahead this season.

What do you think? Is there an inherent problem Gotham has? If so, how do they work through it?

Gotham Episode 1.1 Recap: Pilot

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If the central task of a television series’ pilot is to convince the viewer to come back for the second episode, the premiere episode of Gotham was a success. More Smallville than Agents of Shield, the examination of the early days of Batman’s universe was bolstered by its ability to depict major characters from series. Thus I didn’t feel any of the bait-and-switch disappointment I did after the first episode of the Marvel based series. (Full disclosure, I haven’t watched Agents after the first two episodes.)

Two challenges faced writer Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome), and his script met both admirably. There were a lot of characters to introduce, and many of the basic facts of the plot would be well known to viewers. Each iteration of an ongoing comic book series adds its own tweaks, but doing so is a delicate balance of preserving a mythology that the fan base is passionate about while defamiliarizing it enough to allow them (and new fans) to see it afresh.

At first it appeared that Gotham had messed with the origin story by suggesting the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne were perpetrated by Max Pepper, father of (the soon to be Poison) Ivy Pepper, but that turned out to be a red herring. There were hints that Carmine Falcome (John Doman) ordered the murders, but he claimed to have his own reasons for framing Pepper that did not include personally needing a fall guy. The mob angle was an interesting way to shroud the crime in greater mystery, but I hope it doesn’t pan out. There has always been something Romantic with a capital “R” about the notion that the catalyzing event in Batman’s life was a more-or-less random act of violence. The other major wrinkle to the murder was having it witnessed by Selina Kyle. Not sure how I feel about that.

While I am on the subject of Selina, the age difference between Bruce Wayne (who will be Batman) and some of the people who will evolve into Batman villains (Cobblepot, Nygma, and, especially Kyle) could be problematic. Let’s not make Bruce-Selina into Anakin-Padme please!

The art design was an interesting mash up of periods that paid homage to Batman’s timeless qualities. The clothes and street settings retained a noirish, thirties feel, the cars looked out of the seventies, and references were made to cell phones. I think that giving Gotham a contemporary setting rather than trying to make it a (particular) period piece was a wise move.

I also appreciated Ben McKenzie (boy he looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as Gordon. If I had one major concern going into the pilot it was that I have never found Gordon’s character as interesting as some of the Batman scribes apparently do. In his introductory scene, Gordon disarms a gunman holding a hostage, and I thought “here we go, another attempt to make him a police version of Batman.” But he gets in two more fights in the episode and loses both of them, getting saved once by Bullock and once by Falcone.

The one character that I was not quite on board with was Harvey Bullock. I don’t recall Bullock being a corrupt cop, though this is apparently consistent with most iterations of his character. One could argue that we don’t have anyone’s word but his own about the extent of his corruption, but his “easy call” speech to Gordon felt pretty definitive.

A (final) word about Gordon’s fake execution of Oswald Cobblepot. The fact that Oswald killed a civilian immediately after emerging from the water reinforces the strongest parallel between Gordon (in the present) and Batman (in the future). Both experience the accumulation of guilt and rage over their inability, no matter how effective they are at stopping individual crimes, of making Gotham a safe place. One of the more interesting tensions in the Batman universe has always been between the rejection of capital punishment (more broadly symbolized in the eschewing of guns) and the recognition that some people are beyond rehabilitation. Gordon refused to kill in order to protect himself, his partner, and his family. That this decision comes at a cost–and that the cost is not always born by the people who make the decision–was reinforced by the immediate death of the fisherman.

What did you think of the Gotham pilot? Will you continue to tune in for other episodes?