Dark City, by Tyler Smith
I’ve been looking forward to a live action Batman TV series ever since I first saw how wonderfully the character could be serialized on Batman: The Animated Series. Then, upon watching the Christopher Nolan trilogy, I found myself hoping even more that somebody would attempt to dramatize the characters and events of Gotham City, confident that people were now ready to entertain the notion of a darker, grittier live action series.
When I finally saw the announcement and initial trailer for Gotham, I was excited, but suspicious. This wasn’t going to be a standard interpretation of Batman. Instead, this was going to be an origin story. Not just of Batman, but of Gordon, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and everybody else. This sort of thing had been done before, to middling artistic success, with Smallville, a snow that even fans acknowledge went on for about four seasons too long. After a while, people started to grow tired of the show and just wanted to get to Metropolis. This is a fairly valid complaint; there’s only so long you can tease viewers with the promise of something, only to keep pulling it away.
Is this what we would get with Gotham? Would it be the origin stories of a bunch of supporting characters, but with nothing particularly interesting to do with a young Bruce Wayne? And, now that I think about it, are we comfortable with Bruce Wayne as a kid? We saw how well that worked with the Star Wars prequels; were we really willing to risk such a fate for one of the most popular characters in American culture?
My final concern had to do with the problem of a pre-Batman Gotham City. As fun as it could potentially be to see where everything started, there was also the possibility that Gordon and the rest of the police department could come off as too corrupt, with Gordon specifically coming off as incompetent. After all, this is a city that would eventually come to need Batman. For that to happen, things would have to be so bad- with criminals having so much power- that the police just throw up their hands and almost give up, clearing the way for somebody else to emerge, outside the law. Were we as viewers really prepared to watch Gordon try his hardest to have integrity, only to come up short week after week? Even his small victories would be short-lived, as the inherent corruption of the city would swallow them up. There was a high potential for this show to start spinning its wheels within a few episodes of its first season.
Upon seeing the pilot episode at San Diego Comic-Con, I am pleased to say that most, if not all, of my fears were pushed aside. If the rest of the season is as strong as the pilot- which, admittedly, could wind up not being the case- then we have nothing to worry about. On the contrary, the show’s ability to juggle various characters, not giving us too much of any one person, gives us a glimpse of what we can look forward to. We don’t have to worry about all the characters arriving at their predetermined destinations by the end of the first season. Some will develop more than others, which is as it should be. This is truly an ensemble show, almost like Deadwood or The Wire. Each character has a part to play in the larger story of how Batman came to be, which gives each scene a vitality and excitement. We know all the pertinent information already; we just don’t know how or when it will come into play here, and the not knowing gives the show a crackling energy of anticipation.
The cast was uniformly memorable, each in his or her own way. As there always needs to be in work like this, there are varying degrees of realism. Certain police officers and criminals are required to be more down-to-earth. These people are pragmatists, trying to figure out how to best take care of themselves and those they care about. But, then, we see a certain instability in other characters, like Oswald Cobblepot and Edward Nygma. This is appropriate, of course, because we know what is in store for these characters. We have to see the small seeds of the larger than life personalities that these people will become. As such, these characters are played as just a little… off. Thankfully, no actor ever overplays his hand, dipping into an overly-stylish performance. The result is a tapestry of Gotham inhabitants that is colorful, flawed, and always intriguing.
Perhaps the best part of the show for me was in its visual style. Between Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, and Christopher Nolan (to say nothing of the animated series), the world of Batman has really run the gamut as far as visual flare. We’ve had the German Expressionistic influence of Burton, the Art Deco of the animated series, the garish color of Schumacher, and the brutal realism of Nolan. It would have been easy for the makers of the show to simply adopt one of these already-existing styles and make it their own, but they don’t. Instead, they borrow from each one, eventually arriving at a Gotham City that stands on its own two feet. We get the dirty, grungy realism, mixed with dark, menacing shadow, with a heavy dose of moody color. The city looks dangerous, yet beautiful at the same time.
The ultimate result of the decisions being made by the creators of this show is that we really feel like we’re being transported to another place. It’s a place where everybody has a story, and contributes to the larger fabric of the city. There are good people and bad people, nice neighborhoods and tough neighborhoods. It has a strong sense of history, but with an eye on the future. In other words, just like Metropolis, Gotham City has always been a stand-in for other notable American cities. New York, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles. In these cities, anything can happen; triumph and tragedy can occur simultaneously. These are places where one can go to reinvent oneself; perhaps as a hero, perhaps as a villain.
Gotham captures the essence of what the Batman stories have always been about, and I can’t be more excited to see how far they are willing to go in the telling of these unique, melancholy, and inspirational tales.