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Down and Out in Gotham

I have a weakness for Batman. I won’t claim to be a super-fan who can name every story-line in every issue from every variation of the character, but I have been enamoured with the Dark Knight since Frank Millar’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns. Batman represents, to me, the best example of the anti-hero in modern literature (and yes, comic books can be literature).

So, when I heard that Fox was going to produce and air a Batman television show without Batman, I was intrigued. I have been watching Gotham since the premier and while the first couple of episodes were shaky, I am convinced that this is one of the best new television shows by a main stream network in a long, long time.

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Created and produced by Bruno Heller, the show is a slick and dark with everything from the sets to the clothing suggesting the civic decay and corruption of the once great metropolis Gotham. This is to be expected. For those who don’t recognize the name, Heller is one of the co-creators and producers of HBO’s superb Rome. That production brought the ancient world of the Roman Republic to life in ways that Scott’s Gladiatordidn’t. Heller has captured lightning in a bottle again with his tale of Gotham before the rise of Batman.

The series opens, of course, with the death of the Waynes before the eyes of their son Bruce. This time, though, what appears to be a random mugging becomes an intricate conspiracy that unfolds through each of the following episodes. And, most interesting, the show does not revolve around young Bruce, but James Gordon in his early days as a detective in the notoriously corrupt Gotham PD.

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Revolving around Gordon as the show does, a strong lead had to be cast. I am not at all familiar with Ben McKenzie or any of his previous roles, but the choice was well made. McKenzie grasps the difficult character with both hands and performs well indeed. Nearly every scene with him, his internal conflict between a barely repressed violence and the desire to follow the law, between the desire to do good and the necessity of bending the rules in a corrupt police force, is evident.

David Mazouz (another actor I’ve never heard of) plays the young Bruce Wayne and does masterfully with the role. The intensity of his loss, his burgeoning genius and indomitable will are clear. For such a young actor, Mazouz has talent enough to be the scion of the Wayne family who becomes the Dark Knight.

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Another recurring role is Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot. Taylor captures the slimy obsequiousness and incipient psychotic murderousness of the little weasel who becomes the Penguin. Taylor’s features and body type fit the role so well, you will believe he really is the Penguin, and you will almost love to see him succeed in his rise to criminal mastermind.

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Jada Pinket Smith does well as the scheming Fish Mooney (a character invented for the show), one of Carmine Falcone’s under-bosses. Every look is full of malice and calculation.

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But the real star of the show is Donal Logue who portrays the corrupt and brutish Harvey Bullock. Logue (familiar to fans of Vikings and Sons of Anarchy will recognize him immediately. He inhabits his role as the seasoned, not un-skilled, senior detective Gordon is partnered with. While Batman fans know him as the most corrupt of the Gotham PD, as his backstory unfolds, the viewer gains no little sympathy for the character as his fall mirrors Gordon’s rise. Bullock is written as what Gordon could have become if Gordon did not successfully cling to the path of righteousness in a police department in the pocket of big business and the mob. Logue is what really keeps me tuning in every week.

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Gotham is not without it’s flaws, however. Some of the roles are a bit miscast, or at the least, ill conceived. Sean Pertwee has the accent, the look and the gravitas to pull off the long suffering Alfred Pennyworth but his character is not the paternal butler we are accustomed to. He is more brash, more angry, less assured of his place. It’s a bit jarring but there are a few small scenes between he and Mazouz where Pertwee emotes the depth of his loss and difficulty in accepting his unsure role as guardian. It remains to be seen what Pertwee and the writers can do with the role and the writing seems as confused and unsure as the character itself.

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The writers and producers seem determined to stuff every easter egg into the show as un-subtly as they can. The role of Edward Nygma is overplayed and uninteresting. A young Selena Kyle is at the same time under-used. Barbara Kean is annoyingly needy and seems completely unaware that marriage to a cop necessarily means not knowing everything your spouse does. All the supporting actors haven’t quite settled into the roles yet and tend to over-act, particularly Cory Michael Smith as (for no reason that makes any sense except to squeeze the character in) GCPD’s crime scene expert Nygma.

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Ultimately, however, the show begins succeeding at captivating the audience around the fourth or fifth episode. Should it survive it’s first season, I am certain will be a definite hit and an excellent addition to the Batman mythos.

MS

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