Gotham: The Complete First Season: More Fun to Watch Than to Live In
Review by KC Carlson
I’ve been involved in comic books, both personally and professionally, for close to 50 years now. One of the more interesting trends in that field is the effort involved in “tidying up the backstory” for many of comics’ longest running characters. Notable runs of comics over the years haven’t always been about the “here and now” adventures of the best-known characters but were actually looking backwards to those eras where comics weren’t quite so sophisticated (and detailed) as they are today —- and frankly, those areas are ripe for expanded, detailed, and very often revealing stories.
Batman has always been front and center in these types of projects — not surprising, since his first “origin story” was a mere two pages long and covered about 20 years of storyline in fewer than 20 panels. A very young Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents by an unknown gunman/robber, and the next thing we see is a bat crashing through the window, sacrificing his life to inspire one of the the greatest fictional adventurers ever. Then we see him palling around with Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon, fighting crime and busting bad guys and deranged scientists/occultists (which is all we had — besides Nazis — until comics creators created super-villains).
Which, in the case of Batman, leaves us with two very huge gaps of unaccounted backstory: What happened to Bruce Wayne between the ages of (say) 8 years old and becoming a rich young man who somehow attracts suicidal flying rodents? And what happened between that incident and Bruce donning a Bat-suit and hanging out with Gordon?
That latter era has been very well tapped by DC Comics and notable creators, including Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Jeph Loeb, and Tim Sale, filling in the gaps of Batman’s early history and (especially the latter two) exploring Gotham’s criminal underworld beyond the insane costumed criminals Batman would come to specialize in. Later, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, and others would take a closer look at how the current day (in the comics) GCPD worked in conjunction with Batman in their much-lauded Gotham Central series. Much of their work there has been retro-fitted into what Gotham (the TV series) is evolving into.
So that covers Batman’s early years. But what about the time between the murders of the Waynes and young Bruce Wayne’s journey from frightened, yet determined, orphan to Dark Knight of Gotham?
That’s what Gotham is all about. Fittingly, the first thing we see in Episode One is the murder of the Waynes — witnessed by not only child Bruce, but in this version of events, also by the young and already street-wise Selina Kyle, better known later as Catwoman. And that’s the point where things start to diverge wildly from the “accepted” comic book canon, which initially caused some comic book hardcore “purists” some discomfort with the series. (“Tampering with the timeline”, some have said, feeling that first appearances should remain first appearances.) Well, I say that you better just get used to that, because three major villains-to-be are part of the regular cast of this series (Catwoman. The Penguin, and The Riddler) with several others either name-checked or making brief appearances (including Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Scarecrow, Victor Zsasz, and others that probably shouldn’t be speculated about… yet).
All About the Characters
Out of the 13 characters listed as regulars for this first season, 12 of them come directly from the comics. The exception — Fish Mooney, played by Jada Pinkett Smith with scene-stealing glee — was one of the show’s most talked-about characters, for both good and bad, depending on the forum where she was discussed. The other break-out performance of the show is Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin.
Cobblepot’s antics (not always of his own making) lead to him being the most “connected” character in the series. Most of the the characters exist in their own little world (or underworld), but Cobblepot is everywhere, running scams on fellow crime-lords as well as the GCPD. He has an unusual relationship with the show’s lead, Ben McKenzie as the young Detective James Gordon.
McKenzie was also one of the leads in the critically loved yet ratings-challenged Southland, where he also played a police officer, a raw rookie. It’s kind of odd seeing him on Gotham without occasionally thinking he’s now playing a slightly older, more jaded (yet more determined) version of the Southland character, promoted to detective from street cop.
Gordon’s detective partner on the show is Harvey Bullock, one of the most beloved supporting characters in comic books, co-created by one of the most beloved creators in comics, Archie Goodwin. (His other creator, Howard Chaykin, isn’t quite as beloved (yet), but will be eventually.) Bullock is brilliantly portrayed by Donal Logue, a character actor of much resume, including the films The Tao of Steve, Sneakers, Blade, and over 40 others. His TV work includes X-Files, ER, and VH1’s “I Love the…” series, and he was “Jimmy the Cab Driver” in a series of memorable MTV promos in the ‘90s. He was also the lead in Grounded for Life, which ran for four seasons and 90+ episodes — on two different networks! Gotham is the first live-action appearance of Harvey Bullock in media, and based on this first season, Logue may become the definitive Bullock. His partnership/ chemistry with Gordon/McKenzie is really something to watch.
Gotham’s episodes themselves are quite dense, involving dozens of characters and overlapping plots, so it definitely is a show that demands your attention frequently — and almost always gets it. I can’t say that the show was designed for binge-watching, but it is most effective watching that way. I was both mystified and horrified to realize that a character that I thought was only a one-shot on the series actually had an ongoing presence throughout the season. Plus, re-watching the series allowed me to concentrate on the details of the ongoing war between rival gangs much more easily that it was watching the show week by week.
The Details of the Discs
All 22 episodes of the series (episode 1 is the extended version shown on FOX) are included on four Blu-ray discs. There are six episodes each on the first three discs, with the remaining four episodes and all of the Special Features (except the deleted scenes) on the fourth disc. There are almost two hours of special features in the set, including several “documentaries” which were obviously created to help “sell” the show to a network (FOX, as it ultimately played out).
I’d recommend starting with the first and best feature. “Gotham Invented” is a three-part doc that runs over 30 minutes and incorporates
- “Building Our Gotham” (13:19) explains the premise and universe of the show, as well as clarifying the “mashed-up” periods of history that define this fictional Gotham (much different that the one typically depicted in the comics)
- “Paving the Way for the Caped Crusader” (6:56) focuses on the “before Batman” aspects of the show, its centerpiece, and
- “Fractured Villains of Gotham” (11:13) oddly glosses over the main “villains” of the series (already covered earlier) to focus mostly on the Red Hood and the Ogre, two villains introduced this season that seemingly may play a larger role later.
“Gotham: Designing the Fiction” (20:01) is also a much-watch, as I was fascinated with the level of detail that was put into designing this much-beloved “dangerous, sexy, dirty” fictional city. They reveal that the basics of Gotham are based on the not-so-nice years of the real New York City (of the 70s and 80s), before the Big Apple was mostly cleaned up. And it’s easy to see why the crew really enjoy shooting directly in NYC (despite the logistical situations of doing so, including frequent night shoots), because “Gotham” is as much an important “character” in the series as is Jim Gordon or Bruce Wayne. The camerawork in this show is exceptional, and the GCPD main set is amazingly detailed, beautiful, and multi-functional. Here’s a short clip talking about the city:
Most of the rest of the the special features endlessly recycle the same clips over and over and are easily skippable. (Most of them were created for various “media kits” for selling and promoting the series.) “DC Comics Night at Comic Con 2014” (29:31) is fun but very crowded, as it covers not only Gotham, but also The Flash, Constantine, and Arrow. The stage is loaded with cast members, so not every person there gets to speak, and the ones that do, generally only get one question each.
The Gag Reel (4:55) is perfunctory at best, consisting mostly of blown lines. And the deleted scenes, spread out over three of the four discs, are almost all very short and not really essential viewing.
My favorite thing about the Blu-ray set was that the set “booklet” was actually designed as an episode guide, including creator credits, airdates, and representative photos that help instantly identify the episode. I applaud this extra effort, as in some sets, you’re lucky to even get a simple list of episode titles.
It took me a long time to warm up to this series in its week-to-week TV presentation (truth-be-told, I mostly “saved up” episodes on the DVR to watch story arcs “complete”). Shows like Gotham, which are rich in continuity detail and depth, greatly benefit from binge-watching, and therefore, well-produced season sets like this are especially welcome to the newest breed of serialized TV watchers, who not just watch, but study what they’re seeing on-screen. Gotham is a show that greatly benefits from this presentation.
Gotham: The Complete First Season is now available on both Blu-ray and a six-disc DVD set. It’s presented in 16×9 widescreen format. Season two of Gotham begins on September 21 on FOX TV. (The studio provided a review copy.)