Adrift in time and morality – some thoughts on Gotham

Posted: October 20, 2014 in watching
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I love it when a story does darkness well. Watching the first episode of Gotham, the new sort-of-prequel-to-Batman TV show, I was struck by how well executed that darkness was. It shows a city of dark alleys, grey skies, smoking factories and police corruption. A take on Batman where even the usually civilised Alfred has the grim air of an ex-army sergeant. In both look and content, this is a dark show, and one of the darkest facets is its morality.


James Gordon – I’d look grumpy too if I lived in Gotham

It’s hardly surprising that the guy running the show, Bruno Heller, is showing a city where institutions are corrupt and decisions are pragmatic rather than idealistic. This is the man who gave us Rome, a show all about the fall of that city’s republic and its transformation through war and murder into an empire. His characters can embody principles – James Gordon, the central character in Gotham, certainly does – but institutions do not embody principles, their functions are not ideal or eternal. The roles of police, politicians, even criminals are negotiated out of power relationships, the people changed by the institutions and the institutions by the people. It’s realistic, in a cynical sort of way.

I love this exploration of social institutions through story telling. We take so many of the organisations and power structures around us for granted, and TV shows in particular tend to present them in an unquestioned, unchanging light. But everything change over time, that’s how history happens, that’s what I like to see.

The ridiculously names, and yet ridiculously cool, Fish Mooney

This doesn’t mean that there’s no right or wrong, but it encourages us to challenge our assumptions about how society works.

If this cynical take on society sets the show adrift on a sea of moral uncertainty, then this is nicely matched by its aesthetics. Not just because Gotham is a visually grim place, but because its style doesn’t fit any particular point in time. It’s an ambiguity that fits the original comics, in which most of the characters have aged little if at all through over 70 years in print. That means that Batman’s timeline makes little sense, and we’re still expected to read stories from the 1960s as a near-contemporary part of his life, despite al the changes in technology, style and social expectations.

The Gotham city of Gotham, instead of ducking that problem by picking a timeframe, plays with it with relish. There’s hardly any digital technology on display, and the computer monitors in the police precinct appear to be bulky monochrome affairs, yet characters carry cellphones. I don’t know much about fashion, but I’d have been hard pressed to pin down a decade from what I saw. The cars, the diners, the booze bottles and performers in the nightclubs, they all contribute to an air of uncertainty over when this is taking place.

So we’re in when, exactly?

And yet that creates a distinctive sense of place and time in itself. Like steampunk and other retro-futurist genres, it mashes real and imagined period elements together to create its own aesthetic, one in which the city’s issues with powerful, institutionalised crime make perfect sense. One that you might expect to corrupt characters or to drive them mad.

Gotham holds out promise to become something fascinating. On the basis of one episode I can’t tell whether it will achieve that, but I am really intrigued.

  1. Dylan Hearn says:

    I have to say, I was really disappointed. I understand this is a comic book world so not to expect realism, but the dialogue was really badly written, the pacing all over the shop and the character reveals were like being bashed around the head by a man holding a baseball bat who “looks like a Penguin” (or the young girl who happens to feed milk to cats, or the guy cracking Jokes on stage etc. etc.). I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at, laugh with or just cringe.

    • Subtle it wasn’t, but that often comes with the exaggerated world of superhero stories. I do agree with you on the pacing – the episode seemed to amble around introducing a bunch of stuff rather than having much momentum of its own – but I’ll forgive them some of that while they find their feet and get the story started.

      There was one scene that really bugged me, which was when Gordon went back and told Bruce Wayne that they hadn’t caught his parents’ killer and that he’d be fighting police corruption. This is the biggest set of secrets in the whole show, one Gordon’s lying about to everybody else. Why tell the kid who is going to be most traumatised by it, least able to act on it, and potentially quite unreliable in keeping quiet about it? If the writers needed Wayne to know so badly, why not build a dynamic between Gordon and Alfred and then have Bruce overhear Gordon telling Alfred about it? That might at least have made a little more sense.

      Like I say, I’m holding out hope rather than certainty for the potential in this show.

      • glenatron says:

        As someone who will never get around to watching this, I’m going to imagine it is specifically a prequel to the old 1960s Batman TV series. I look forward to some very gritty and morally ambiguous “BIFF” and “POW” bubbles appearing during fight scenes in future episodes. I mean, that makes sense, right? These are silly comedy bad guys being chased around by a man in – frankly somewhat poor – bat fancy dress. Actually when I put it in those terms it starts to look a little like a Mighty Boosh plotline that they dismissed for being too ridiculous. If one tried to make something serious about that it would be laughable, right?

        • If I let laughable concepts get in the way of enjoying stories then I’d hardly read any superhero comics.

          Hm, when I read those words on the page they aren’t the sterling defence they felt like in my head.

          • glenatron says:

            I hardly read any superhero comics. This also means that to me “Guardians Of The Galaxy” is no more obscure than “Iron Man” or “Thor” – they’re basically all totally new as far as I’m concerned.

            One thing I have gradually grasped from them, more or less by osmosis, is that they seem to be very close to a lot of mythology. If one considers the antics of any of the “big family” indoeuropean pantheons as being effectively superhero adventures, they fit very well, even down to the “reset the universe” concepts where generations roll over.

            • I’m pretty sure there’s a whole body of writing, some of it academic, on that very subject. Comics writer Grant Morrison in particular makes much of the connections between comics writing, superheroes, religion and magic. I’m never quite sure how seriously he means some of it, but it’s resulted in some interesting work.

    • Having now watched the second episode, the dialogue isn’t getting any more sophisticated, which is annoying. I’m still holding out hopes that, like Agents of SHIELD, something that starts out OK will grow into something awesome, but I fear you might be proved right in the long run on this show Dylan.

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