08 March 2016

TV Review | Gotham developed by Bruno Heller

When Frank Miller rebooted the Batman comic book in 1987 with his seminal Year One story arc, he did more than just set the standard – and the style – for almost every iteration of the Dark Knight that would follow. An inspired shift of emphasis allowed us to witness the coming of the Batman through the eyes of a young and disenchanted Jim Gordon; a terrifying, “dark deco” reinvention of Gotham made the city every bit as crucial a character to the legend as the corrupt officials and career criminals that it harbours. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was unashamedly grounded in the style and the spirit of Year One, and as a result it’s generally considered to be the apex of the whole franchise – a critical and commercial success that may never be bettered on the silver screen. Rather than try, DC have turned over the reins to Bruno Heller so that he may stretch Miller’s conceit to its natural limits in a television series built upon everything that made Year One such an influential piece of work, and more besides. Imagine Batman Begins, only twenty-six-hours long and counting instead of two hours twenty. What we have here is total immersion television: the king of comic-book television for the box-set-binge age.

Yet Gotham is more than another comic-book show. In conceiving it, Heller cherry-picked the best features of several popular genres and skilfully combined them to create a whole that’s not merely more than the sum of its parts, but something transcendent. Gotham’s comic-book heart is couched in the guise of the time-tested police procedural. However, rather than investigate run-of-the-mill murderers, homicide detectives Bullock and Gordon pursue nascent supervillains and budding monsters, unravelling corruption and conspiracies as they go. There are flavours of influential shows as sundry as The X-Files and The Sopranos, with all the thrills and chills thereto, yet Gotham stands very much alone, defined as much by its unique style as its substance.

A beautiful programme to look at, the steely blues of Gotham engender an ageless, graphic-novel feel as dense as the fog that darkens its alleys. Forties’ architecture, seventies’ cars, eighties’ music, nineties’ computers, noughties’ mobile phones… the city’s abundant anachronisms don’t beggar belief, but help the viewer to suspend it. Gotham City is its own world, in its own time, and this sense of splendid isolation only serves to heighten the stakes as the first moves are made in the war for control of it – or, perhaps, the war to save it.

What initially drew me to Gotham was the promise of exploring the back stories of Bruce Wayne and his DC Universe enemies and allies in a level of detail never before attempted, but what held there was Detective Jim Gordon. As the show’s central figure, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s its most fascinating character, but given the company that he keeps, it really is. Ben McKenzie, who’s no stranger to the turf, having played Batman in the 2011 animated adaptation of Year One, imbues his interpretation of Gordon with an unyielding sense of honour and justice. He won’t be bought, he won’t be sold, and he won’t be coerced. He’s the viewers’ champion throughout; even the city’s champion. Surrounded by shades of grey and obsidian black, Gordon is a clean-cut, glaring bright white - and Gotham’s the story of how the fates conspire to have him dirty his hands and become the man who will embrace a vigilante.

Gordon’s GCPD partner, the oafish Harvey Bullock, is initially cast as Gordon’s opposite. Compromised and weathered, Donal Logue’s character represents everything that Gordon sees as being wrong with Gotham City; he embodies all the wrongs that Gordon is looking to right. But, as the season progresses, we see that Bullock is actually a time-delayed reflection of Gordon – he was once a white knight too, until the city knocked all the heroism out of him. It’s to Gordon’s credit that, just as the city begins to change him for the worse, he stirs the latent valour in his bedraggled partner. The dynamic calls to mind Life on Mars’ Gene Hunt and Sam Tyler – each man brings the other closer to balance.

The narrative catalyst for the first season is the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which almost immediately introduces our newly-minted Detective Gordon to the teenage Bruce Wayne. With Heller following Bruce’s story from such a young age, I was surprised at how often and how heavily plots turn around the orphaned billionaire. Anyone concerned about Gotham “doing a Phantom Menace” shouldn’t be – Bruce is brilliantly, often disturbingly, drawn by the scripts, and fifteen-year-old David Mazouz brings an unsettling intensity to the part that calls to mind Christian Bale’s definitive turn in the Dark Knight movies. At the same time, though, here we get to see an aspect to Bruce that, inevitably, both Year One and Batman Begins skipped over: the vulnerability and doubt between boy and man. Much of the time, particularly towards the end of the season, you find it hard to remember that Bruce is just a kid, he’s so redolent of his future self. Indeed, the “World’s Greatest Detective” moniker has never fit better than it does here. But then, in an instant, he’ll made a fool of himself over Selina Kyle’s laissez-faire advances, or fall foul of a school bully, and he’s just a frightened little orphan boy again. It’s a gripping, layered portrayal - and utterly, utterly credible.

“You’re a war dog, Alfie. You’re a cold-blooded, lethal war dog, is what you are.”

A great deal of the credit for Mazouz’s success here is attributable to the show-stealing actor that he has to play off: Sean Pertwee (ID, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Elementary). The son of the late third Doctor plays an Alfred Pennyworth that’s unlike any other interpretation that I’ve seen on screen, and not just because of his comparative youth. Taking a lead from the Alfred depicted in Earth One, Pertwee’s ex-SAS, hard-as-nails but twice as caring butler is more surrogate father than he is confidante and manservant. Pertwee vests the part with a stylish sense of dry humour; his fifty-something Alfred is always sharp-witted and never ruffled, and he’s equally adept at smooth-talking and arse-kicking when it comes to dealing with the city’s underworld. In short, he’s fucking cool, and if I were to single out one character for especial effusive praise, it would be my fellow countryman.

The villain’s origin stories don’t disappoint either, which is particularly exciting when you consider that by the end of the first season only the surface has been scratched. Heavily nurtured by the first season is Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot – the once and future Penguin whose rise, it seems, predated that of the Caped Crusader quite considerably. Introduced as “umbrella boy” to a mid-tier mobster, Gotham’s first year follows the evil mastermind as he expertly engineers a gang war that will see him claim the mantle of “King of Gotham” when all his enemies wipe each other out. As was the case with Christopher Nolan’s supervillains, Gotham’s production team have excelled in creating a character that, whilst heightened, is grounded in reality. He’s not a misshapen, sewer-dwelling monstrosity as Tim Burton and Danny DeVito would have you believe; he’s a wounded, vicious and supremely intelligent young man whose ambition is tempered by patience. Taylor’s performance is so dazzling at times that you almost forget that he’s an antagonist; Gotham City is such a dark place that a scoundrel like the Penguin, an underdog of a baddie with a little bit of charm and almost plausible veneer of empathy, can become any episode’s anti-hero. To me, this is the key to Gotham’s appeal: its ability to engender sympathy for the Devil, and to beg questions of heroes.

Whilst the focus of the show’s first season may be the Penguin’s Machiavellian rise to prominence, other big Batman-era players are introduced too – some in familiar guises, some not. Cory Michael Smith’s riddling Ed Nygma steals almost every scene that he’s in, and though Camren Bicondova lacks Catwoman’s traditional appeal, she more than makes up for this through her fascinating mentor / student relationship with the young Bruce Wayne and her hard, impenetrable fa├žade. Meanwhile, Nicholas D’Agosto (Heroes, Masters of Sex) is excellent as bold attorney Harvey Dent, whose personality issues, it seems, pre-date the scarring of half his face. The street-dwelling Ivy Pepper is also a recurring character, albeit an understated one, while the episode “Viper” subtly sets up the coming of Bane and the “The Scarecrow” more explicitly introduces its eponymous villain. Perhaps most promisingly of all, though, “The Blind Fortune Teller” stars a pale, deranged maniac with a frenzied laugh that’ll give you goosebumps. It’s as if he’s channelling Heath Ledger.

Yet the first season isn’t so much about the up-and-coming Batman-era villains, but the old guard of mobsters who hold Gotham City in their fat and psychopathic fists. Opposing mafia bosses Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni are marvellously conceived and realised, particularly the former whose gentle demeanour belies his startling ruthlessness. As the season progresses, John Doman makes Falcone almost likeable – as Gordon puts it, he’s the city’s “least worst option”, but it actually cuts a little deeper than that. Maroni is ambitious, cruel and cowardly; this version of Falcone is an old-school, “honour among thieves” sort of crook with a strong sense of respect, and even romance. He genuinely believes that what he does is for the greater good of Gotham, and what I find fascinating is that it probably is - at least for now.

The real underworld standout though is Fish Mooney, Gotham’s answer to Harley Quinn. Custom-created for the series, Fish’s season-long battle with her erstwhile “umbrella boy” is probably the first year’s most compelling storyline. Initially portrayed as a seductive but lethal “under-boss”, as Fish’s fortunes change, so does the audience’s attitude towards her. Thanks to some very clever writing and a precise, nuanced performance from Jada Pinkett Smith (The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions), Fish turns from loathed adversary into champion of the oppressed – a woman who garners viewers’ respect, if not their allegiance.

On the other side of femme fatale divide, the lovelife of Jim Gordon is not without its surprises. Erin Richards’ empty beauty, Barbara Kean, quickly becomes a much more riveting character than she initially appears, the production team bringing in animated series stalwart Renee Montoya as a love rival for our hero, before breaking totally new ground towards the season’s end when another former Heroes star makes a chilling appearance. Stargate SG•1 star Morena Baccarin also impresses as the gung-ho Arkham Asylum doctor, Leslie Thompkins. Barbara’s opposite in every possible way, Lie challenges the straight-laced Jim’s apparent double standards as frequently as she does Gotham’s criminally insane. I don’t know about Jim, but I’m in love.

And so, though the age of the comic-book movie is undoubtedly far from over, we now seem to be enjoying the golden age of comic-book telly. Arrow, Agents of SHIELD, The Flash, and now Gotham – a comic-book show with more than a twist; one that has the potential to run until David Mazouz is big enough to don a cape and cowl, and indeed beyond.

The first season of Gotham is available to download in 1080p HD from iTunes for £29.99. A Blu-ray is also available boasting similar bonus material. Today’s cheapest retailer is the Hive, which is selling the four-disc set for £17.29 including free delivery. You can keep up to date with the ongoing second season of Gotham with an iTunes series pass (£34.99 for 1080p HD).