“What if we made a TV show about Batman, and Batman never showed up?” The superhero TV show subgenre’s started to resemble a gaggle of prospectors dashing over to the West in search of gold – right now we’ve got The Flash airing, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and this. Our Batman show without Batman.
What that little description ultimately means is it’s a police procedural, focusing on Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD, with a different case every week and a few arcs happening quietly in the back. That’s fine – in terms of comics that tried the same, Gotham Central did that to great effect – but this one’s also a prequel, set just after Thomas and Martha Wayne took that fateful short walk down a long alley.
There’s a few problems inherent with that concept, most of which come down to the fact that we already know what happens in the end, but we’re not going to GET to the end for a very long time (Smallville, another superhero-origin show about Superman, took ten seasons). It also means that the majority of Batman’s villains – one of the greatest strengths of the franchise – can’t be used, though so far they’ve not done too bad a job coming up with replacements.
The show thus far’s tried to walk a Burton-esque line between gritty darkness and comic-book camp, so after an episode where a man tied people to balloons and let them float to their deaths, now we get a turf war between gangs. The infamous Arkham Asylum and its surrounding lands are up for grabs, as part of the late Waynes’ “Arkham City” project (a nice reference to the Rocksteady games). With Falcone and Maroni making moves, and a hitman with a poison-tipped metal tube on the loose, it’s up to Gordon and his partner Harvey Bullock to try and restore order. Or at least a lower level of chaos.
We haven’t seen too much of Gordon’s character yet beyond a general resistance to being evil (though, like everyone else in Gotham, he’s learning to keep secrets). Thus far, tethered to the more interesting Bullock he’s done a serviceable job as protagonist, but hopefully he manages to sprout a personality as the series goes on.
On the dark side, one of the villains who HAS made it in is the Penguin. After getting exiled from Gotham in the first episode, on pain of death from one of Gotham’s gangs if he ever got caught there again, his plan now seems to be “go back to Gotham, go join another gang, do all the stuff I was doing before and just kind of hope nobody notices. And occasionally kill people for shoes”. And annoyingly, it seems to be working, without even any real signs that it might not. On the bright side, though, Robin Taylor (the Penguin’s actor) is putting out the best performances so far.
Little Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is halfway to Batman already – stoically hiding emotion, perching on rooftops, sneaking up behind people and showing signs of being a detective. Perhaps the World’s Greatest. It’s his storyline that seems to be accelerating the fastest, towards that superheroic endpoint we can never actually reach. This week he just repeats his plot from the last episode, talking to Alfred (played interestingly by Sean Pertwee) and sifting through the case files of his parents’ murder.
Overall, this week’s Gotham stays on the level of the other three episodes so far – watchably average. Like its namesake city, things could get better or things could get worse – I’m holding out hope for the latter, but I suppose we’ll see.