Aimed at giving the caped crusader the Smallville-esque treatment, the Gotham series follows Jim Gordon’s (Ben McKenzie) early days in the Gotham Police Department as he investigates the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
Despite a promising pilot episode, the first season of Gotham quickly fell off track in terms of quality — not to mention far short of the potential its source material bestows. It’s never been outright terrible, but the series’ habit of repeating its critical storytelling missteps is wearing out the patience and enthusiasm of many viewers. What’s more, the pattern bears a frustrating similarity to the growing pains that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. went through in its first season.
Like Gotham, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dealt with a lot of skepticism and criticism both when it was first announced and throughout much of its first season, although some of this concern was mitigated by the involvement of Joss and Jed Whedon. Like Gotham, early episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. saw the series limp from the monster-of-the-week format to dry, mythology episodes.
It wasn’t until the series’ mid-season tie-in with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in a story arc marketed as “Uprising”, that it began to pull itself together. Though often cited as the major catalyst for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s recovery, “Uprising” was just the first step in an on-going process of transformation that the show is still undergoing today. This plotline gave the writers behind the show a chance to reconfigure things in response to criticism, stripping away the elements of the show that didn’t work. The writers’ move here ultimately led to a shuffling up of the status quo in a way that delighted long-term fans and renewed interest in those who had left it behind. Put another way, “Uprising” was the moment when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. found a way to make the backdrop of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe as interesting as the foreground that its big screen counterparts inhabit.
When compared with early Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. missteps, it is apparent that Gotham suffers a similar failure to launch. It’s hard to care about the trials and tribulations of James Gordon when we are constantly reminded that his story is just setting the stage for Batman. By existing as a prequel to Batman’s own narrative, the writing team behind the show regularly traps itself in the unenviable position of being unable to make the audience care. With the exception of characters like Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), Gotham’s cast is trapped in the backdrop of its own story. This problem even extends to Gordon’s own notably flat romantic subplots. If the characters of Gotham are all but assured to avoid any real hardship until Batman emerges, how can we care about anything that happens before then?
Gotham needs to break free of the constraints attached to being “The Story Before Batman” and build a compelling narrative arc of its own. Deliberately or not, it constantly feels like the show is pulling dramatic punches and utilizing narrative shortcuts to avoid dealing with any lasting consequences for the decisions its characters make. Screentime wasted on setting up dominos for a vigilante who will never make it into the show should instead be used to generate a new take on the Batman mythos. The showrunners need to stop holding back and show the audience all the wicked stuff that Batman never had to deal with. Gotham could explain how Gordon goes from the lone honest cop in GCPD to the fearless commissioner. It could lay out how these villains infest, evolve, and overwhelm the gangster paradise of Gotham, making it the borderline-dystopia it becomes in the Batman mythos. And, of course, the show could detail how Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) grows up to become the symbol that will confront them — perhaps in a fifth or sixth season, if Gotham lasts that long. Every minute that Gotham spends foreshadowing Bruce Wayne’s future is a minute it is ignoring the brilliant potential of its present. If the show doesn’t break from these limitations, it’s hard to see it surviving for more than another season or two.
Superhero shows used to be a niche, limited by budgets and the costs of special effects, but the astronomical success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has trickled down to the company’s television efforts and brought with it no lack of competitors. Though Gotham doesn’t technically feature any superheroes (yet), there’s a lot of could learn from its contemporaries — Arrow and The Flash — when it comes to nailing down an identity for itself. Gotham wants to build on the gritty realism of Christopher Nolan’s films whilst also paying tribute to the more cartoonish efforts of the directors before him. Unfortunately, the fun, campy absurdity that Gotham deals out in spades is entirely incompatible with the brand of drama they use to frame certain subplots. The show needs to let go of the idea that it could be the next Sopranos and stop trying to tie these conflicting tones together in lieu of embracing an identity of its own.
This goes hand in hand with Gotham’s other big fault: the speed with which the show has saturated itself with (in)famous faces from DC’s roster. It feels like the team behind Gotham are at a point where they desperately want to have their “Winter Soldier Moment” and are throwing every twist, turn, and guest star at audiences to try and reach it sooner rather than later. Though this is an understandable approach, it is also disconcerting because each villain that Gotham picks up and immediately throws away is a potentially thrilling multi-episode story arc wasted. The only villain that Gotham has had any success with at this point has been the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), and that’s because they not only struck gold with their casting, but also gave him the prolonged screentime to develop properly. Gotham isn’t a place where supervillains play the role of antagonistic guest stars to the struggle between Gordon and the Mob, but rather one where they grow and eventually overshadow both. Gotham should do better to reflect this.
Despite this tendency, Gotham also seems remarkably skittish when it comes to leaving viewers with loose ends. Heavy serialization is a risk, but it’s a risk that could come with major narrative payoffs, something that both Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season and Gotham’s own comic book roots stand as evidence of.
Gotham’s cinematography, set design, and at least half of its cast have been some of the best on network television lately (Hannibal excepted). If the writer’s room can work through the macro problems the series faces, it could very well find itself reaching that “Winter Soldier Moment” sooner than expected. Gotham has the potential to become something worth watching and talking about, something that can do justice to its source material. Now, the writers only need listen to their audience.