Ostensibly a police procedural set in Gotham City before the appearance of Batman, Gotham is a frustratingly difficult series to enjoy or recommend, with a scattershot approach to storytelling that makes trying to keep on top of things pointless, and drifting so far from the source it’s a wonder the showrunners didn’t just make the fully-fledged Batman series they so obviously wanted to. But, credit where credit’s due; there’s a lot here to like despite the flaws.
I like that Gotham City actually looks like Gotham City, instead of the mundane Chicago-Pittsburgh hybrid of the Christopher Nolan films. The Gotham City of Gotham is the city as it should be, a warped, broken vision of New York, grimy and gothic and overbearing, and, much like the Gotham City of Batman: The Animated Series (the canonical Batman as far as I’m concerned), not set in any particular period, allowing for ‘80s fashions and contemporary apartments alongside ‘30s art-deco architecture. Gotham City is its own place, in its own time, a character as important as any other, and the series does great work with it.
The sound design has a similarly anything-goes mentality, with an eclectic soundtrack that takes in Echo and the Bunnymen, Nouvelle Vague, Bing Crosby, Morcheeba, Billy Joel. Mitch Miller’s I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover playing over a frantic Riddler trying to find his way out of Arkham Asylum was a particularly fun moment in a show that sometimes forgets to be having fun at all. The score is just as enjoyable; a particular standout for me is Penguin’s theme, Penguin’s Umbrella, that plays whenever his character is on the rise. It’s a discordant, waddling piece with a neat Mafioso flourish, and it fits perfectly with Robin Taylor’s gloriously unhinged performance.
Taylor’s Penguin isn’t the only bit of strong casting the show can boast of. Cory Michael Smith’s Riddler is exceptional, as is Jada Pinkett Smith’s gangland lieutenant Fish Mooney, a character created for the show who brings Eartha Kitt-style sex appeal to the series. There’s also great supporting work from John Doman, Carol Kane, Paul Reubens, David Zayas and Chris Chalk to name but a few. Not everyone is at their best: Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon never rises above being fine, but then he’s burdened by being the one character who has to seem normal at all costs. David Mazouz as young Bruce Wayne is ironically the least interesting, blandest character of the whole series, but my personal worst is Sean Pertwee as Alfred, whose strained cockney “Cor blimey, Master Bruce, this is a right pickle and no mistake!“ schtick wears out within seconds. Pertwee is a great actor, but he’s really squandered here.
So Gotham looks great, sounds great, and has some solid casting here and there. Worlds away from Nolan’s blandly-plausible vision, Gotham is gruesome and weird and funny in ways that Batman comics, games and screen adaptations seem to have lost in recent years.
All of this is why it’s so frustrating that the show feels so weak. It has so much going for it, yet none of it comes together as a coherent whole. There’s no consistency of tone, no sense that the showrunners have a plan for the series, or even a particular target audience in mind. Storylines spring up from nowhere and are cut down just as quickly, with a parade of classic villains wheeled on, given an origin story that lasts for an episode or two, and briskly wheeled off again. Different stories crash awkwardly together, characters go through three or four personalities per series, loyalties and alliances shift not just between episodes but sometimes during them.
The speed at which everything happens means the show is so thick with villains it just feels weird Batman isn’t there as well, practically the only comic character not present. Not only are there teenage versions of Catwoman and Poison Ivy, and the new-for-the-show Mooney, there’s Penguin, Riddler, Hugo Strange, Mr. Freeze, Carmine Falcone, Azrael, Victor Zsasz and Sal Maroni, and this is just me picking out only the most well known. Most of these characters could easily sustain at least half a season, but the show is so quick to establish recognisable characters, so determined to thrust them under the noses of the audience and scream LOOK, IT’S THE RIDDLER, DON’T YOU GET IT? that there’s no breathing room. This is not a slow-burning, character-driven show. It’s a weekly pulp comic that assumes the audience is, at most, a hyperactive teenage boy.
With a clearer, tighter focus, and a more relaxed pace, the show could be brilliant. As it is, Gotham wastes its potential; the genuinely great aspects of it are continually brought down by its weaknesses. Weirdly, that may be the most Batman-like aspect of the whole series; just as Batman and The Joker can’t exist without each other, perhaps Gotham can’t have its chaotic set design, its record-store-obsessive soundtrack and its flamboyant characterisation without its car-crash plotting and general aimlessness. I’ll watch on, regardless; it’s the best, worst show around right now, and I find I can’t help myself.