Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Gotham Season 1

Superhero origin stories typically span the first installment in a movie franchise, or the odd episode or a few of a TV series. Gotham, like fellow DC Comics property Smallville, makes the origin-story concept the whole point of the series. You know, I know, and everybody knows (disclaimer: unless they don't) that a TV series set in Gotham City, featuring a boy named Bruce Wayne and a rookie homicide detective named Jim Gordon, is pretty much a Batman origin story. Gritty realism it is not. Over-the-top villainy, systemic corruption, urban decay, disillusionment, the good guys' eternal temptation to cross over to the dark side, the blurring of the line between justice and revenge, mentally screwy mobsters, a landscape of steel girders and concrete shrouded in a corrosive haze ... isn't it just great? The only things missing are supervillains and superheroes, but we'll get them, you bet, and most likely in that order.

Everything begins when billionaire couple Thomas and Martha Wayne are sent to their reward by a masked gunman, leaving their little boy Bruce (David Mazouz) alive and traumatized, with no one to care for him except his tough, ex-Royal Marines butler Alfred (Sean Pertwee), with a little help from white-knight cop Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and a street urchin named Selina (Camren Bicondova), who occasionally goes by the nickname Cat (hint, hint), while Bruce comes to suspect that shadowy forces within Wayne Enterprises (which he technically owns) is behind his parents' deaths and everything else hinky going on in Gotham. Gordon, meantime, has a slovenly partner named Bullock (Donal Logue), a basically honest but pragmatic police captain named Essen (Zabryna Guevara), a brittle fiancee named Barbara (Erin Richards), a subsequent love interest in a medical examiner named Lee (Morena Baccarin), and a strange rapport with a low-level gangster named Oswald "Penguin" Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), whose infatuation with Gordon suggests that the Penguin might be a little gay.

Penguin, now, works for a mid-level gangster named Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), who has a thick-necked henchman named Butch (Drew Powell) and works for a high-level gangster named Don Falcone (John Doman), who has a blood feud with a rival gangster named Sal Maroni (David Zayas). Filling out the first season's principal cast are a nerdy, functionally unbalanced CSI guy named Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), the filing clerk love of his life Kristin Kringle (Chelsea Spack), a weaponized lounge singer named Liza (Makenzie Leigh), another street urchin named Ivy (Clare Foley), a vaguely creepy assistant DA named Harvey Dent (Nicholas D'Agosto), Richard Kind as the crooked mayor, Peter Scolari as the crooked police commissioner, Carol Kane as Penguin's disturbingly saintly mother, Anthony Carrigan as the crazy-eyed bald killer Victor Zsasz, Cameron Monaghan as a teenaged psychopath who looks like a good candidate to grow up to be the Joker someday (I mean, somebody has to), plus a couple of people I won't mention even though they are listed as regular cast members because they pretty much disappear after the first handful of episodes. It's funny how series involving a complex weave of character arcs sometimes strays from the plan, eh?

It would be fun to see more of these characters. And if you know a bit about Gotham City, you probably also know what some of the people I've already mentioned are going to become - like Poison Ivy, the Riddler, etc. For the time being, they're pretty much just cops, gangsters and the occasional psychopath thrown in for texture, and what's going on is an operatic shifting of alliances as a prelude to an apocalyptic gang war. Ensuring that the bedfellows are as strange as can be is Arkham Asylum, a dingy old relic that really shouldn't still be running, and that at different times serves as a bang-board to bend the trajectory of several characters. Keeping track of who is (supposedly) working for or against whom requires constant mental agility. But there's no point in feeling confused, because at every moment some fiendish plot is about to go off with a grisly pop, sending allegiances flying and moving the game of controlling Gotham's underworld to a new level.

I almost hesitate to bitch about this, but you know me: The DVD cases seasons of these shows come in, nowadays, are complete rubbish. Several of the last sets of TV-on-DVD I have reviewed came in flimsy boxes with hinged panels whose hinges had snapped when I first opened them, or that had one or more panels that could no longer hold a DVD in place because some small piece of plastic in the area that is supposed to grip the disk had given up the battle, or that had a scratched-up disk that got all skippy and freezy on me. Season 1 of this show was one of a couple DVD sets that I have taken back to the store for replacement because a disk was unplayable. I've actually kept at least one TV-on-DVD set that had a mildly skippy disk just because the nuisance of having to do this outweighed the small amount of the show that was unwatchable. I just wish this product was made better.

As for the series itself, I'm into it. I don't know why, but I am. A lot of it probably has to do with the terrific acting. For example, you like and sympathize with Butch, Nygma, Penguin, and Falcone even though they are repeatedly shown to be vicious, stone-cold killers. You are fascinated with Fish Mooney, even though her evil sends chills down your spine. And you enjoy being momentarily chilled by Maroni, Barbara, Zsasz (but boy, is that name hard to type), not to mention some of the guest villains, like Lili Taylor and Frank Whaley (a couple of child-snatching minions), Todd Stashwick (a businessman whose hiring practices are murderous), Christopher Heyerdahl (the eloquently named Electrocutioner), Allyce Beasley (an Arkham nurse who turns out to be, in fact, a patient), Dish Mihok (a crooked narcotics cop), Julian Sands (a serial killer who preys on people with phobias), Mark Margolis (a blind fortune-teller), Jeffrey Combs (an ill-fated henchman to the Dollmaker), Colm Feore (the Dollmaker, a doctor who abducts people and uses them for spare parts), and Milo Ventimiglia (the serial killer deservedly known as the Ogre who messes with Barbara's head). All of these actors are familiar faces to me, if not to you, and I think they do some of their creepiest work in their brief roles this season. Dan Hedaya also puts in a guest turn, but unfortunately not as a creep; what a waste of good talent.

Another big selling point for Gotham is the look, the atmosphere: pervasive gloom, grungy grandeur, machine-age Gothic with a hallucinogenic twist. There is a timelessness about it, with a few hints that the setting is present-day (such as cell phones and computers, though they aren't used much). The cars seen in the streets of Gotham City are mint-condition models from 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Hairstyles, styles of clothing and decor, decorative accents of buildings, office equipment, the horn-rimmed eyeglasses, the jazz-age musical numbers at Fish's club, the clunkiness of the technological marvels, even the occasional splashes of futurism like the Ogre's apartment, all suggest the world as depicted in the comics of decades ago. The artistic design is seriously classy, even when it's being blown up or invaded by low-class thugs.

And the Number Three thing, now that I realize that what I am writing about is the Three Things That Made It For Me, is the psychology of the characters and of Gotham City as one collective thinking, feeling beast. It is a world at war with itself, from the cosmic level right down to each individual soul. Case in point: Jim Gordon. Another key example: Penguin. Oh my goodness, what a good example. I'm sorry, Bruce Wayne, but you haven't suffered enough to cast a shadow on either of these two characters. The nice thing about Brucie, if I may be so familiar, is that he is really such a peaceful, centered young chap. He is like a Zen bodhisattva floating through a maelstrom of murder, deceit, jealousy and betrayal. And greed, lust for power, lose-lose scenarios, agonies of conscience, love-hate, sexual confusion, self-loathing and many other such magical materials for creating carnage that doesn't quit.

Goodness, yes. I'm rubbing my hands together like an evil member of the inner councils of Wayne Enterprises, salivating to see what horrid specter emerges next from the collective conscience of Gotham City. It would have to be worse than anything seen yet for the series to keep getting better. Knowing the human condition like no one in the Marvel Universe evidently does, it seems inevitable that Season 2 will mine just that wonderful awfulness out of the cesspool of story possibilities that Gotham is. And knowing that all of this is going into who Gordon, Penguin and Bruce turn out to be, years later, is exactly what makes a Batman show without Batman in it (yet) a satisfying entertainment experience.

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