TV Discussion: Gotham (“Pilot”)

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At this point, there’s probably not much more that I can add to the reviews of Gotham, the new television series on Fox. Created by Bruno Heller (formerly of Rome and The Mentalist) and starring Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon, Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock, and young David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne, the pilot episode was seen by over 8 million people at last report, with at least that many different opinions being expressed through various social media.

For what it’s worth, I found it enjoyable, thanks to its emphasis on keeping a specific tone through both the visuals, plot, and acting. It’s effectively grungy and retro, while not necessarily literally “dark” per se in palette, as befitting a modern urban noir. You could, conceivably, take away the presence and story of Bruce Wayne and still have an effective storytelling world. At least, in the sense that there’s not really anything quite matching it in tone or setting on TV today. By adding the comicbook elements, it’s trying to further distinguish itself in tone and setting, but in fact I found that to the one aspect that was a bit unsatisfying. A comicbook setting should have some kind of “magical realism” twist to its world, and we don’t have that in Gotham, at least, not yet. (Perhaps all we have so far is the ability of young Selina Kyle to acrobatically traverse a cityscape so “magically.”) For example, how weirdly poetic it would have been to have the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), escaping his death at the end of the episode and swimming the length of the river, to kill the fisherman and gobble up the *fish* instead of the sandwich? Suddenly, he’s even more weirdly a monster, less than human, and metaphorically shows his conflict with Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith).

But anyway. More interesting is that this series debuts the same week that NPR’s podcast, This American Life, features a show dedicated the theme of “Origins.” (It’s not superhero origins, though. I know. I was disappointed, too.) As the host Ira Glass explains, “We love them so much.” And it’s true. Pretty much every iteration of Batman has to include his origin story. There’s even a supercut making the YouTube rounds that includes Bruce’s parents getting shot in every movie/cartoon Batman has appeared in.

It’s not enough to have a Batman or to have Batman stories. We have to know *why* there’s a Batman, and how that Batman came to be. And, essentially, it’s the *same* story every time, but we want to keep hearing it, over and over. Why?

Well, on one hand, I’ve argued before that origin stories are, for lack of a better term, economical. They already have a definite beginning, middle, and end, and the beginning usually starts from a place that’s “recognizable” or “the world next door,” so there’s less exposition needed to bring an audience up to speed. So I guess I use the word economical to mean both for budgetary reasons and in the literary sense. That last sense, if you remember from English class, means that the plot contains only the stuff that’s necessary for the story– there’s nothing extra in terms of characters, plot details, or tangents, derailments.

There’s could be other reasons why we like origins, too. I’m sure there’s something about the inherent curiosity of humankind, the psychological drive that leads us to create mythological connections between what we see, what we feel, what we imagine. Sorry for those who are more existentially zen then the rest of us– you might be content to see a weirdly shaped rock and accept it, maybe even marvel at it, as simply a weirdly shaped rock. The rest of us, we wonder WHY it’s there and so weirdly shaped.

I think it’s because we do that for ourselves. We’re in too weird of a shape to simply accept it as itself, let alone marvel at it. We have to ask why, to obsess over our past, to find new ways to repeat its story over and over.

Just like we do with Batman and his story. Because Batman is, frankly, so very awesome. But he’s also pretty deranged and damaged, too. He’s the best of us, better than us, but also the weirdest of us. So his story is keenly tragic. If someone like Batman can take a tragedy like that and become “better” than us, it gives us hope that no matter our tragedy, we can can be better, too. And even if we’re weird, we can still be better, too. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

So in this modern mythology we’ve made for ourselves, Batman is the God of Dark Tragedy. He suffered his tragedy to overcome and show us how to beat it back for ourselves. He fights the insanity so we don’t have to, but if we need to, we can also call upon him to assume his power for ourselves (or at least, that’s how it worked for Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and etc. etc.)

Essentially, this is what Gotham will be about: finding out how we triumph over tragedy and darkness. The good news is that we already know it happens– there will someday be a Batman, after all. The point of the story is the process, not the result. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

“There will someday be a Batman, after all.” Quote of the week.

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