Thursday, 14 September 2017


Batman prequel Gotham returns on 21 September 2017. Here's why the first three series were such a rewarding watch.

Dangerous nightlife... (Image copyright: Primrose Hill Productions)

I love Gotham. When you initially think about it, it shouldn’t work: a prequel to Batman starring one of the saga’s less colourful supporting cast, Jim Gordon, as a rookie cop – long before he was promoted to Commissioner – while Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne is still a boy. On the face of it, that’s like making a prologue to Doctor Who starring the blokey but dull Sergeant Benton, or a prequel to The Prisoner starring the silent, diminutive Butler.

One of the show’s attractions is that Gotham itself is pitched as a lawless town in the vein of 1930s Chicago, full of territorial gangsters and corrupt public officials, ready for taming by the future Dark Knight. The retro approach informs the production style too, so that the city exists in its own timeless space, where modern elements (such as mobile phones and rocket launchers) sit alongside vintage ones (like the 1930s-style uniforms of the beat cops and the d├ęcor of Wayne Manor).

Ben McKenzie (who also voiced the caped crusader in the animated version of Batman: Year One) portrays ex-soldier Gordon as dependable and resolute, “the last honest man in a city full of crooked people.” He does, however, have his problems: finding a way to enforce the law in an almost ridiculously corrupted city – most of the Gotham Police Department are on the take, including the Commissioner – and trying to maintain his romantic relationship with the damaged socialite Barbara Kean (the Welsh but-you’d-never-know-it-because-of-her-authentic-American-accent, actress Erin Richards).

Gordon’s stoic, uncompromising moral stance during the first series, together with his partnership with the cynical Harvey Bullock (bewhiskered, rumpled Donal Logue), quickly develops into a double act, anchoring the series firmly as a police procedural in style. Things start to get more interesting when villains like the Penguin appear, and Gotham slowly mutates into a nightmare film noir able to accommodate outlandish and operatic villains.

(Image: Primrose Hill Productions)
The evolution of the characters of Penguin and The Riddler is emblematic of the way Gotham as a whole develops. The former, Oswald Cobblepot (a preening and highly strung Robin Lord Taylor, left), begins life in the series as a sycophantic thug in the pay of club owner and criminal Fish Mooney (sensual and lethal Jada Pinkett Smith), initially the kind of low life that would have been at home in The Wire. When first seen, Edward Nygma, the future Riddler, is a socially inept forensics officer for Gotham PD, interested in puzzles and full of unrequited love for records keeper Kristen Kringle (Chelsea Spack).

As the series progresses, Cobblepot earns the nickname Penguin because of his crippled walk, the result of a beating administered by Mooney, and murders his way to the top of Gotham’s underworld to the point where, by the end of the third series, the flamboyant, vintage dresser is part of an “army of freaks” with the hypnotic Poison Ivy (Maggie Geha) and the sci-fi, comic strip villains Mr Freeze and Firefly. By this time, Nygma has degenerated to murder, firstly stabbing Kristen’s bullying boyfriend then, in a fit of rage, strangling Kristen herself. Driven completely insane when a jealous Penguin kills a woman who is the perfect double of Kristen, Nygma becomes the green-suited Riddler and starts a very public battle of wits with Gordon and the police department.

By the time the Riddler has Bullock tied to a chair and suspended over a stairwell, threatening to drop him if the answers to his puzzles are wrong, you can see how far Gotham has moved from its original, slightly more conservative basis. It’s to the credit of the series’ writers, directors and actors that you’re so bound up in the evolution of the characters that you don’t notice.

For long term fans of the DC Comics, it’s interesting how the characters are handled. Bearing in mind the ‘police procedural’ foundations of the show, it’s almost as if the thinking of the writers was to make super villains as realistic as possible; writer/producer Bruno Heller admitted “I don't really know how to write about people with super powers” and that “in all those superhero stories I've seen, I always love them until they get into the costume.”

(Image copyrightPrimrose Hill Productions)
Because of this approach, threats like The Riddler, the Penguin, Mr Freeze and the Joker (left) are given credible back stories and motivation. The latter’s introduction is deceptively low key when he's first introduced as Jerome Valeska, the bewildered son of a promiscuous circus performer. Once it’s revealed Jerome killed his mother, his mask drops and the actor, Cameron Monagahan, reveals a truly stunning combination of Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson’s interpretations of the Joker, also drawing on the facial expressions of Batman’s nemesis in the graphic novel The Killing Joke.

The Joker is only in one episode in the first series, and he doesn’t adopt his famous title, something that doesn’t happen in Series Two or Three either. With this character in particular – arguably the most famous villain in the Batman canon – the production team have a lot fun wrong-footing the expectations of the audience. If you haven’t seen Gotham yet, I won’t spoil things, but there are some great twists in store.

The thread that binds all of this together is, as in the comics, the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and Gotham starts at that exact point. As the (very) young proto-Batman, David Mazouz has a pleasing maturity and intensity beyond a lot of child actors. He’s complemented by the sassy Camren Bicondova as the teenage street thief Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman. As one’s a criminal and one’s from Gotham’s rich privileged class, the sparks fly between them from almost their first meeting, tantalising those in the audience who know that the grown-up Batman and Catrwoman will have an on-off, The Taming of the Shrew-style relationship.

Keeping them in order is the unsung hero of Gotham, Sean Pertwee as “Master Bruce”’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth. As well as a liking for immaculate three-piece suits, he dispenses cockney slang and worldly advice to Bruce in equal parts; he also has a shady past in the Special Air Service and, consequently, is as skilled in throwing a punch as he is with firearms. The part is an absolute gift for the charismatic Pertwee, who can dominate a scene simply by standing still and folding his arms behind his back.

A glance at the DVD cover of Gotham Series 2 reveals a rather crammed montage of all the show’s many and varied characters. It’s almost Dickensian in its complexity, and that, in the end, is the nub of Gotham’s appeal: following the journeys of so many fascinating, amusing, flawed and grotesque personalities in – as the name of the series implies – a kind of gothic soap opera.

With a lot of violence, obviously.

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