When Gotham premiered on FOX in September 2014, the general consensus was that it would be Batman’s answer to Smallville: an origin series that took Bruce Wayne from young orphan to Caped Crusader. The Superman prequel had been born amidst a sea of teen dramas like Felicity and Dawson’s Creek, over a decade before something like The CW’s Arrowverse would redefine how we approached live action superheroes on TV. A kind of slow-burning series filled with adolescent angst and filled with nods towards the fantastical aspect of Batman’s wider world seemed not just natural but inevitable.
But Gotham didn’t do that. Not even a little bit.
Gotham was a weird show. And considering that we’re in line for more series based on Batman characters (two spinoffs of The Batman film, one based around Colin Farrell’s Penguin and the other dealing with Gotham’s Police Department, are planned for HBO Max), it’s ripe for revisiting. Because while Smallville was a constant balancing act between its comic book expectations and teen drama reality, expanding its landscapes at a rate that was comforting to newcomers of the universe, Gotham had a habit of throwing all of its chips down with every new hand. Go Gotham or go home.
The pilot is a perfect example of its chaotic ethos: It not only manages to introduce Thomas, Martha and Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, Selina Kyle, Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, Carmine Falcone, Renee Montoya, Crispus Allen, Edward Nygma, Ivy Pepper, Sarah Essen, Barbara Kean, and Oswald Cobblepot, but it also makes a major villain out of Fish Mooney, an original character played by Jada Pinkett Smith in a performance that threatens to devour everything around her. It’s both an exercise in rampant world-building and an attempt to give its (hopefully) Batman-literate audience their money’s worth. Every other scene is crafted to elicit the reaction of “Ooooh, I know THAT guy.”
When it comes to live-action Batman efforts, there is a pretty singular approach. Most of them are limited by the fact that they are movies with a planned start and finish. Whatever plotline and villain scheme that’s born at the beginning has to be wrapped up by the end. It’s why Batman films tend to cycle through a villain or two in each movie, wiping out the old set by the time the credits roll. Crafting a universe that feels like the comics requires copious multi-film contracts, promises of sequels, and an extensively planned narrative. Even Christopher Nolan, who directed arguably the most fan-friendly Batman adaptations thus far, was content to work on each film as if it would be the last one.
With over 20 episodes per season for most of its run (its last was an abridged 12), Gotham had room to play around and make a total mess, throwing the city’s residents at you like it was working through a checklist on Wikipedia. Whatever gritty tone was planned at the beginning was quickly tossed out the window. Episode 2’s villains were child traffickers. By Episode 3, the bad guy was a man who tied people to balloons and just kinda watched them fly away. The heavy focus on relatively down-to-earth mob antics in the first season was quickly abandoned. Gotham was on an unstoppable path to becoming a bizarre collage of assorted pieces of Batman history.
This freewheeling experience culminates in its presentation of the Joker, one that it initially tackles with hesitant reverence (a minor part of Season 1 was teasing cameos from characters who MIGHT become the Joker). The show would eventually introduce Jerome, a maniacal criminal who runs through a Greatest Hits Collection of Joker antics without ever being called “the Joker,” including the fairly recent, notorious “face removal” arc. He dies and is later revived, only to die again and reveal that he isn’t actually the Joker. He has a twin brother, Jeremiah, and some exposure to poisonous gas turns him into The Joker Who’s Never Actually Called The Joker. This brother eventually gets pasty skin and a penchant for purple suits and the series ends with a promise of his fascination with Batman, teasing their eternal duel after a whole lifetime’s worth of wild storytelling.
It was a mad method that fans would passionately latch onto, with a whole community emerging from a spectrum that ranged from fanshippers and guilty pleasure watchers. The hopes that this would be a Batman series that stuck to some kind of iconic structure in regards to building its Dark Knight toward the eventual donning of the cape and cowl were long gone by the time Gotham aired its “Ten Years Later” finale. Instead, whether they were writing fanfiction about the pairing of the Penguin and the Riddler, or throwing out theories as to what ludicrous tangent the series would go on next, the show spawned a community all its own, something far more comparable to the hardcore fans of, say, Supernatural, than prior DC Comics adaptations.
Gotham is not a great show. While the world it creates is certainly meant to replicate the sense of crowded life one finds in a Batman comic, it suffers from a tonal incoherency that’s hard to ignore. In wrangling everything together, it sacrifices emotional grounding so we never become too attached to anyone or anything. It’s why Penguin and the Riddler became the most popular characters instead of Bruce, Selina, or Jim Gordon, as they’re by far the most fun to watch and don’t have to play tug of war with the self-aware material.
As the Batman franchise prepares for rapid expansion with The Batman, its HBO Max spinoffs, the new Caped Crusader cartoon, the return of Michael Keaton’s incarnation in The Flash and Batgirl, and likely many others, it seems we’ve quickly moved on from Gotham despite it only ending a short while ago. But it’s worth a revisit despite its flaws, offering a journey that blazed through Batman’s legacy at breakneck speed and rapid fire enthusiasm. Batman’s origin story is well known to pretty much everyone at this point, but Gotham proved that it didn’t need to be boring.
Gotham is now streaming on Netflix.
Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.
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