My grad school classes are held at Steiner Studios, a fully functioning film and television studio lot. More specifically, my classroom is directly above the Gotham City Police Department set, and right next to the costume department. Basically, it’s the coolest thing ever. Only two episodes have aired of Gotham so far, and so far, I’m really enjoying it. I do have some concerns though, about its longevity.
My classmate David pointed me to an article on i09 last week, asking my opinion. The article basically quotes a bunch of internet comments about why people are hesitant about the show. I actually disagree with all of them, but this will serve as context for the rest of my critique, so let’s start here.
“We can’t have Jim Gordon solving all of Batman’s foe’s crimes, decades before Batman can solve them. It defeats the purpose of Batman. By the time Batman comes around, Gordon will have compiled massive cases on the entire rogues gallery. All he needs is a DA brave enough in the form of Harvey Dent, to bring the cases to trial. At that point, Bruce Wayne would better serve Gotham through political and monetary support of the non-corrupt components of the city. “
First of all, I’d like to bring everyone’s attention to this After Hours sketch which made this argument WAY before Mr. “JackRabbitSlim323.” Yeah, I think that in most real-world terms, Batman probably isn’t the most responsible construct a rich captain of industry should invest time and sooo much money into. So, yeah. Batman kind of defeats the purpose Batman right out of the gate. However, towards the end of the video above, Soren makes the point that I would like to apply to my defense of Gotham the show.
“Look at the f$%@ing score. How many times has Batman saved Gotham from total annihilation? He’s stopped nukes, killer penguins, global freeze rays. Without Batman, Gotham is a crater.”
I want you all to stop and think for a second. Does local PD deal with any of the things Soren listed above? I can’t remember the last time a mad scientist with a propensity for bad ice puns tried to freeze the world and it was a normal old cop who stepped in. That’s the point of Batman and Jim Gordon’s symbiosis: Batman deals with the supervillainy types (all of whom have supervillainy names, like Mr. Freeze, the Penguin, the Joker, etc etc) while Jim Gordon takes on the normal level corruption, you know, like a regular police officer in a crazy corrupt town. Back to the i09 article:
“The story of Gotham starts with Batman because Gotham needs Batman. If you create a Gotham that can get along okay without Batman (which is pretty vital if the intent is not to have the heroes fail at every turn), then it can’t possibly be a prequel leading up to the eventual debut of Batman, because with every positive resolution to a conflict on the show, Batman will be needed a little less.”
What, so Gotham didn’t exist before Batman? It just sprang up into existence as soon as Bruce Wayne spent an insane amount of money on a silly bat-themed costume? SOMETHING has to be going on post-Wayne-murders, and that something has to make Jim Gordon impressive enough to become police commissioner, even if he doesn’t solve ALL of the city’s problems, because, as previously argued, Jim Gordon deals with criminals with actual names, not secret identities.
Take the Riddler for example; if the wacky ME does turn to crime in the course of the series and Gordon solves his riddles and catches him, then he doesn’t need Batman for that. But if the wacky ME doesn’t turn to crime in the course of the show, the implication for this version of Batman is even worse. If the Riddler pops up after Batman makes his debut, even though he’d been a law-abiding citizen this whole time, then it justifies and confirms the argument some cynical people have that the existence of Batman is what catalyzes the existence of his supervillains. So in that scenario, it would actually better for Gotham City if Batman didn’t exist.
Refer to the After Hours video again. HOWEVER. I think Mr. Rookiebatman (who the above two quotes are attributed to) lives up to his name, because he doesn’t recognize more than two explanations. He thinks that Gotham will either fail because Gordon will prove he doesn’t need Batman or it will fail because it will set up a scenario that basically blames Batman for the existence of supervillains. Rookie move. There’s actually a third scenario, which seems pretty clear from where I’m sitting (in a French creperie/cafe): Gotham is about a city on the verge of a major change- specifically, the change from a bunch of normal gang corruption (which Jim Gordon will deal with) to a city overrun with comically-named supervillains (which primes the pump for Batman to emerge). As we’ve already discussed, the people Batman deals with for the most part are not your average criminals- they’re suited exactly for Batman and his vigilante ways. Far as I can tell, Gotham the show will serve as a fuller origin story for those villains as well as a fleshing-out of why Jim Gordon is so awesome (at doing his actual job description and not also the job description of a superhero). Jim Gordon is just a man. A great man, maybe, but he’s no costumed crusader. That’s not his role, nor should it be. So I’m not worried about Gotham setting up Batman himself badly.
What I am worried about is the basic story mechanics of the show, Batman himself notwithstanding. A big concern of mine is Jim Gordon’s new partner on the police force, Harvey Bullock. I don’t get him. I don’t get any of his motivations and because of that I’m having a hard time buying a lot of the plot so far. Let me lay it out for you: ol’ Harvey is the very definition of a corrupt cop. He’s literally allied with known bad guys (and isn’t shy about telling people), he does the minimal amount of work on cases (usually because if he digs any deeper he’ll uncover the unsavory behavior of his powerful, dangerous friends), and he’s constantly on Jim’s case for wanting to do things by the book.
Harvey has also jogged along on both of Jim’s cases so far, one about Batman’s parents’ murder, and one about a bunch of child snatchers, both times during which he says things or does things that indicate he might be an ok guy. It seems like the writers are deciding on Harvey’s motivations and perspective based on what Jim Gordon needs at that moment. If he needs conflict, they make Harvey obstinate and corrupt. If Jim needs help on a case, they make Harvey horrified at the lengths some criminals will go (about the child snatchers, he literally asked “who would do such a thing?” completely seriously). If Jim is in danger, they let Harvey have his back. But none of this makes Harvey an actual character, because they still haven’t answered the central question: why?
Why is Harvey so corrupt? If it’s out of fear, he definitely wouldn’t put up with Jim making all this trouble, and there would also be some semblance of guilt. If it’s out of being just a generally bad dude, then why does he help Jim investigate? His reaction to the child snatchers implied that he draws the line SOMEWHERE. And if Harvey’s corruption is out of apathy and comfort, then WHY, again, does he help Jim investigate? It’s not like their police chief is particularly concerned with the well-being of Gotham’s citizens; as long as the lot of them THINK good things are around the corner, she’s perfectly happy. So WHY? Literally what is Harvey’s motivation for anything he does? Without that, without even a hint or a theory, it’s hard to believe him as a character.
Furthermore, Harvey brings up my other concern with Gotham: Jim’s lack of allies. Once Batman comes around, the two pal around together and support each other. But Jim is completely without allies, which seems like it will be difficult to move forward with. Without at least a couple allies, this is going to be a depressing couple of seasons, leaving the audience with a strong sense of nihilism.
Bruno Heller, the developer of Gotham, also created the Mentalist, a phenomenal show that I love very dearly (though am not quite caught up with). I have a lot of faith in Mr. Heller, then, and so I’d like to offer one grad student’s unsolicited suggestions to make this show all it could be:
1. Make Harvey more than just a plot device. Let me understand why he does or does not choose to pursue particular cases. Where is his line in the sand, as far as morality goes? Without knowing where he stands, it’s hard for me to assign any reason to his actions, and so he becomes nothing more than a scraggly face on my screen. Even if the answer to these questions is some variety of “Harvey Bullock is an awful person,” I need to know.
2. Give Jim an ally with agency. Barbara is all well and good, but she’s just a hot rich girl at the end of the day, and she’s so far detached from the events of the show that even her lending support once in a while doesn’t really do much for me. The lone good man trope might work for a movie, but for a show, it becomes less and less believable that Jim Gordon would be able to continue under his current conditions. Maybe you’re gonna try and use those two Major Crimes detectives for this purpose, maybe you’re gonna introduce someone new soon. Either way, Jim needs SOME light at the end of the tunnel, and it can’t be a ten year old boy who “tests” himself by holding his hand over candles. You set up this show without a Batman, now live with it.
3. Context. Yes, Gotham’s a city we all know and love, but how well do we actually know it? Give me a fuller landscape of the ins and outs, show me the unique pressures that newbie Jim has working against him, in terms that add dimensions, not more potential conflict plot points. I want to understand not just WHO exactly Jim is up against, but WHY he’s up against them in the first place. It’s lazy writing to just say “this person is mean and likes power, therefore they are my antagonist.” I’m gonna need more than that, and soon.
And who knows. Maybe the show is right on the cusp of working out these things, and I’m speaking too soon. In any case, I’m going to keep watching, because I do love me some Batman, and I do love me a good cop show. But I can’t promise I won’t be critical. Because as the long-forgotten slogan of this site says, life’s more fun under critical analysis.