The city of Gotham has long been one of the most important characters in Batman’s story; she is a living entity, infected with the sickness of crime and corruption. The quest to cure her is this masked vigilante’s primary aim. In the first season of Fox’s series that dons this city’s name, it is therefore a relief that Gotham is portrayed with the depth, richness, and grit that this complex character deserves. Gotham is more than just a tale of the boy who would become the Dark Knight or the foes he would one day battle; it is an exploration of the kind of place that would spawn villainy in the first place and demand a certain kind of superhero in response.
That kind of place is one that breeds insanity and chaos, one where the corruption is so widespread and reaches so high that the people of Gotham have lost all hope. The show opens at the moment when the final beacons of that hope, Thomas and Martha Wayne, are extinguished, leading the various would-be rulers over the city to a frantic scramble for power to fill the vacuum left behind. In a city where the id is free to roam and authorities have little authority to quell the chaos, to aspire to power necessitates a ruthlessness that can spiral out of control. Gotham is a city destined for anarchy, filled with desperate people precariously balancing on the edge of sanity.
For some of these people, toppling over that edge will mean becoming deranged criminals with peculiar fixations, such as riddles or horticulture. Before being terrorized by such brazen and hyperbolic supervillains as the Riddler, Poison Ivy, the Joker, or the Penguin, however, Gotham needed to become the kind of place where such outrageous characters would exist in the first place, beginning with more the believable villains of organized crime. Reminiscent of 1930s Chicago, Gotham depicts a city controlled by mobsters in suits and ties who have government officials and law enforcement officers on the payroll. Yet it also feels somewhat outside of time, with incongruent fashion, technology, and architecture that eschew any particular era. These anachronisms serve to create a general feeling of the past, a shared memory, rather than a clear point in time, producing a sense of timelessness.
Filmed in its real-world counterpart, New York City, Gotham represents the historical seedy underbelly of the big city, and the sets designed for the show enhance the realism and depth of the complex character of Gotham City. These substantial and highly detailed sets are impressive, to say the least, making Gotham feel like a real city. The GCPD, for example, is an expansive structure with gothic architecture and a cavernous, arched ceiling inspired by the idea of a grand train station. The set is not only filled with a variety of features and textures that create visual interest, it also feels authentic, like it is an established institution, and we aren’t entering this world at the beginning of the story; instead, there is a long and torrid history with which to contend. The great deal of thought and intention behind the design of this and other important locations across Gotham give the city a historical depth, complexity, and realism that lead one to believe it’s a place that actually exists.
As many viewers may expect and crave of any prequel to such a well-known and beloved story as Batman’s, Gotham is chock-full of familiar albeit younger faces, perhaps to the point of an overcrowding of characters that prevents as in-depth individual attention to each as would be wanted. Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), the man who would become the Penguin, is arguably the most highlighted recognizable figure, but pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), rising political star Harvey Dent (Nicholas D’Agosto), and already riddle-obsessed Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) also figure prominently.
Additionally, there are brief encounters with many other pre-villains, including the Joker (Cameron Monaghan), the Scarecrow, the Ogre (Milo Ventimiglia), and the Dollmaker (Colm Feore), leading to a strikingly large cast and many characters who seem to be thrown in simply to remind viewers with a wink that this will all lead to the Batman they know and love. This, unfortunately, often forces Gotham to stand in the shadow of the many other iterations of the story that exist rather than letting this narrative stand in its own right.
Even so, the characters that do receive the attention they deserve are vibrant and compelling enough to maintain viewer interest in this part of their story. Surprisingly, it’s a character that audiences would not already know who most effectively sustains Gotham, despite not having existed in that world prior to this series. Fish Mooney, beguilingly portrayed by the stunning Jada Pinkett Smith, is a seductive yet menacing mobster with secret plans to overthrow the head of the Falcone crime family. Her strength as a woman of power in a man’s world reveals her to be capable of the ruthlessness and manipulation required to survive in Gotham, and she turns out to be one of the most provocative characters of the series, in more ways than one.
Young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), on the other hand, while similarly as brooding and moody as his adult counterpart, is quite bland and one-dimensional at this point in his story. His great intellect does drives him to investigate his parents’ murders and the corruption within the company they left behind, and his encounters with the world-wise Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) force him to come to terms with his privilege in the face of the destitution of Gotham, showing young Bruce slowly maturing into the man he will become.
These insights into the psychological and emotional struggles of a recently orphaned boy help tell the story of how someone could even be set on the path toward donning a bat costume to fight crime in the first place, something that it seems only a crazy person would do. Essential to Bruce’s orientation on the path toward heroism as opposed to one that might lead him toward madness, crime, or even villainy, like so many of his fellow citizens of Gotham, is the guidance and support he receives.
Bruce is mentored by the wise and cultivated butler Alfred Pennyworth, whose firm, “tough love” approach, mysterious dexterity with a weapon, and apt and perceptive advice are portrayed deftly by Sean Pertwee. But in this version of the caped crusader’s backstory, he also encounters James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), the rookie detective assigned to the Waynes’ case, and who vows to help Bruce no matter the cost.
In contrast to Alfred’s emphasis on self-reliance and a kind of cynicism about the good of humanity, Jim is fiercely and perhaps foolishly optimistic. As a war-weary veteran, however, his idealism is tempered by reality as well as his experienced and therefore jaded partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). Contributing to the complexity of this character, the purity of Gordon’s old-fashioned heroic integrity and dedication to the good of society is progressively sullied by the city he is trying and failing to clean up, paving the way for a different kind of hero. Together, Alfred and Jim represent two core philosophies that help to construct Batman as the hero Gotham deserves, one who can and must get his hands dirty.
However, Batman’s villains have always been the most interesting thing about him, so although delving into Bruce Wayne’s inner turmoil and growing drive to cure Gotham after the trauma of witnessing his parents’ violent deaths does give the character more depth and resonance, what’s really fascinating about Gotham is its exploration of the characters that would later become villains and how they are set on their paths.
One of the most compelling characters, is Cobblepot, whom we follow as he rises through the ranks of Gotham’s underworld, from a sniveling crony to a powerful manipulator of the city’s crime bosses. In one of the most unique and resonant interpretations of the character of the Penguin, as the season progresses, we see Cobblepot’s humanity gradually overpowered by his ambition, and while we empathize with this misfit as he is ridiculed, belittled, and consistently underestimated, we find ourselves wishing we didn’t when glimpses of the animal inside him remind us of the villain he is becoming.
Fans of Batman may have been cautiously excited about the prospect of a TV series exploring the roots of this iconic hero, but the first season of Gotham seems to have met if not exceeded expectations. In particular, it succeeds by focusing on the city itself and the process of how it creates these familiar and beloved characters.
The DVD bonus features, while somewhat redundant, help give insight into the creators’ intentionality and attention to detail in creating this vibrant yet gritty city, confirming the great care with which this addition to the Batman mythos is being undertaken. While it does fall into the self-serving and self-indulgent trap of a kind of “name-dropping” by referencing more of those popular characters than necessary and detracting somewhat from the rich characters of its own storyline, overall, Gotham’s first season is a largely successful exploration of the city that birthed such iconic villains and gave rise to the Dark Knight.