I have mentioned once or twice in this space that I have been surprised that CW’s The Flash has been better than Gotham so far this season. Everything is relative, though. According to one site, Gotham‘s last episode garnered a 2.4 rating and a 7 share (among the coveted 18-49 demographic), bringing in just over 6.5 million viewers. By contrast, The Flash‘s last episode had a 1.4 rating and 5 share, tempting just over 3.5 million viewers. To be fair, The Flash was going up against The World Series. Even so, the scarlet speedster finished below The Voice and NCIS (both in the 18-49 bracket and overall), while Gotham beat 2 Broke Girls and Dancing With the Stars among younger viewers, even though it lagged behind those two in total viewers.
Still, more popular doesn’t always correlate with better. I thought about The Flash a couple of times during Monday night’s episode of Gotham, titled “The Penguin’s Umbrella.” In the pilot episode of The Flash, Barry Allen is traumatized that his first foray into crime stopping is unable to prevent a death. He is ready to quit. By contrast, the body count is rising pretty quickly in Gotham–violence is the lazy writer’s shorthand–and it is a little disturbing and disappointing how inured we are supposed to be to it.
When one mob enforcer breaks into Gordon’s apartment and threatens Barbara, Jim shoots first. Okay, fine. But later when Jim is shooting things out with uber-hitman Victor Zsazs in a parking garage, a female officer happens to wander into the fray right as Zsazs is going to find a wounded Gordon. Her cry is enough of a distraction for Jim to get away–he is eventually rescued by Montoya and Allen–but she gets finished off, execution style, while pleading for her life. It’s a pretty horrific and gratuitous scene, its reason for being seemingly to show what a bad guy Victor is and to allow him to cut a scar into his arm where he tallies each kill in blood. Later, Barbara will be used as a hostage yet again, this time by Falcone. Okay, I get it, she’s a civilian and the female officer was on the job, but Gordon’s lack of even an acknowledgement that someone did, in fact, die, so that he could escape with his life was troubling.
Later Oswald Cobblepot gets to turn the tables on a loudmouth mafioso who threatens to kill him. Here again the purpose of the scene is to show something about the principle character; in this case we finally get a glimpse of Oswald’s tactical intelligence. But he picks a particularly slow and painful method of execution, stabbing the man while his former associates physically restrain him. Mooney hits Oswald for calling him “Fish” and Harvey slugs Gordon for lying about killing Oswald but then figures as long as he is going to die, he might as well back Jim’s play in an attempt to arrest Falcone and the mayor.
Plot wise there is simply not a lot happening. The battle lines are being drawn for the eventual mob war that we can only assume Oswald will eventually win. Gordon introduces Montoya and Allen to Bruce, vouching for their character and assuring him they will take the case of his parents’ murder if anything happens to him. We also found out that Oswald formed an alliance with Falcone and bet his life that Gordon wouldn’t actually kill him. I am not usually a big fan of the narrative device of revisiting a previous story to add information that was withhold from the audience the first time around. (Famously grating examples of this technique would be Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow and whichever of the Harry Potter books it was that revealed that Hermione and Dumbledore could time travel.) When a heretofore assumed to be reliable narrative point of view turns out to have been misleading or deceptive, it makes me wonder why I should trust anything the camera is telling me. While not as bad as having a character wake up and say that the last episode (or season) was all a dream, this device still signals to some viewers (or at least this viewer) that the writer has either changed his mind or is making stuff up as he goes along.
But it’s not just the attitude towards violence or multi-episode arcs versus villain of the week pacing that keeps Gotham lagging behind The Flash. Truthfully, The Flash‘s Barry Allen is more sympathetic by leaps and bounds than anyone in Gotham, Gordon and Bruce included. Our show desperately needs an anchor…or at least a center. If Robin Lord Taylor is going to be your breakout star, then you are going to need to find some way to make the Penguin sympathetic besides having Jada Pinkett Smith slap him around every other episode. Shows like The Wire and The Sopranos focused on the criminal characters either in part or almost entirely and still managed to make us feel something for those characters even as we despised their actions. Until Gotham does the same, until it finds another note to play besides Gotham-is-a-cesspool-and-only-the-strong-survive, I fear we risk larger and larger body counts to keep our attention.