Continuing my look at challenges and opportunities facing geek TV shows, we move on to one that I spoke out against in the past, yet now find myself weirdly excited to watch.
I am more excited to watch Gotham, the Batman show without Batman, than I am to watch the new Kevin Smith movie. I don’t even recognize myself. And yet everything I’m hearing says that the pilot nails it. I did not see that coming.
So apparently Gotham is lurching from “show I’m going to watch every week but hate myself for it” to “show I might authentically enjoy.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some pitfalls ahead. And not just over the fact that Bruce Wayne is only 12 in season one, although they continue to get a little mocked for that. But let’s talk specifics.
Challenge: We all know where this is going
The biggest challenge with prequel stories is that there aren’t a lot of surprises to be had. We know Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader. We know the tenuous peace between man and ape can’t last in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, because it isn’t called Dawn of the Planet of Apes and Humans Getting Along in Harmony.
So we know, going in, what’s going to happen here. Oswald Cobblepot will graduate from henchman to sadistic criminal overlord. Edward Nygma will become the Riddler. Jim Gordon will be appointed Commissioner. And eventually, Bruce Wayne will be Batman.
The challenge, then, is making the road to these inevitable destinations worth watching for however many years you run. And this is no simple matter. Let’s consider Smallville, you and I.
Smallville had no plan. Year after year they’d have hints and allusions to Clark’s greater destiny. Year after year Lex Luthor slipped a little further into darkness. But without a clear end date in mind, they had no idea how long they had to stretch this out. When should Lex cross the line from Clark’s best friend to his greatest enemy? When should Clark get into journalism? What season arcs can we have that SEEM to advance these plots but don’t? Or at least, only advance things in a way that we can undo with a Red Kryptonite episode?
Eventually, they started pulling the triggers on the big moments because they were in their seventh season and had nowhere else to go. Also, Lex and Lana didn’t renew their contracts.
And this meant that by the last two seasons, what we had was a Superman show that was just afraid of saying “Superman.” Clark worked at the Daily Planet, with Lois Lane, who he was dating, while fighting crime on the side in a costume with a code name. It’s just that his costume was more of a red leather jacket and his code name was “the Blur” because he moved too fast to be clearly photographed, only leaving a red-blue blur in the image (later just red). They were Lois and Clark with less camp and better villains, but still asked us to believe that there were still steps left between Clark and becoming Superman.
And this is the problem you face, Gotham. At one point are you just doing whatever you can to keep the balls in the air? Six to five and pick ’em, if Gotham lasts long enough, Gordon’s going to lose his badge. Suspended, demoted, something, the corruption in the GCPD will overwhelm him, and we won’t really care because we know it can’t last. At one point, Bruce Wayne will reconsider his plan. Maybe when he starts liking girls. But that too can’t last, because there’s Batmanning to be done.
But therein lies your opportunity.
Opportunity: Gotham is an epic tragedy
There is one area in which knowing the outcome doesn’t hold you back, and that is in proper, deep, Shakespearean tragedy. We know from the prologue that Romeo and Juliet aren’t going to grow old together (or at all); Troy is going to fall by the end of the Iliad; and as I said before, we know that Caesar, leader of the apes, will be betrayed and his peace with the humans will crumble. This doesn’t have to rob these moments of their power.
James Gordon is fighting to save Gotham, a city collapsing into crime and corruption, while trying to pull young Bruce Wayne back from the brink of darkness. And the thing is, he can’t. Sure, he will be Commissioner, he will begin to at least reduce the corruption of the GCPD, and he might even put Fish Mooney behind bars (although I doubt it. Five bucks says she meets an umbrella-related end at the hands of her lackey Oswald Cobblepot), but he can’t save the city. Because if one good cop could save Gotham, Gotham wouldn’t need a Batman. And it will. In the end, it will.
So Gordon will ultimately fail, or at least be only partially successful, in his efforts to redeem Gotham, but his failure to “save” Bruce Wayne will accomplish what he couldn’t: creating the man who will be able to stand up to the Riddler, the Penguin, the Joker, and the rest.
And there’s still fun to be had. Who does Gordon convert? Who will his allies be? And how does he manage to rise above the corrupt heads of the department? There’s definitely narrative meat on those bones.
Plus, can I just say this, Gotham? In the right hands, Edward Nygma is fascinating. Read any Scott Snyder story featuring the Riddler. So be those hands. Show us that the Riddler is more than Jim Carrey overacting in green tights.
You had my curiosity, Gotham. Now you have my attention. Don’t waste it.
Tomorrow, my favourite super-hero show gets a spin-off. What do I want from the Flash?