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No Jinx: 'Gotham' Remains Source of Strength in Sophomore Season
November 19, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments

“For some men, love is a source of strength. But for you and I, it will always be our most crippling weakness.”

    — Nygma, aka The Riddler, in Gotham

They say imitation is the sincerest form of TV — just look at all those sequels, prequels and spinoff-offs! — but that alone doesn’t explain how Gotham is so good, or how it has managed to stay that way.

The desolate wasteland is littered with the remains of once shiny, bright new network dramas that burst brightly on arrival, only to burn out by their second season. In an age of easy distractions and shortened attention spans, it’s become increasingly difficult for new network dramas to break through the clutter.

Having tapped into something in the zeitgeist, It’s even more difficult to maintain quality control beyond that starry-eyed first season when everything seems possible, and everyone associated with a first-year hit show — from the creators, producers and cast on down to the technicians, grips and makeup artists  — is intoxicated by sudden success.

And then the reality — and grind — of 16-hour days, six-day workweeks and the pressure to crank out 22 hours or more of engaging, brilliant TV over an eight-month shooting period begins to sink in.

The writers may have it the toughest. Even the best dramas have one or two clinkers in any given season, and whether an episode succeeds or fails is often down to the story first. That’s the advantage of cable, and how even an entertainment-for-entertainment’s-sake thrill-ride like The Walking Dead manages to keep the bar high, season after season. Fewer episodes means more time to get the small details right, which is why networks are now leaning toward fewer episodes, longer winter breaks and more limited series like 24: Live Another Day and the upcoming X-Files and Prison Break resurrections.

In an increasingly cost-conscious business world, the networks can’t be faulted for taking the path of least resistance with some of their more expensive dramas. Spin-offs and new adaptations of old, oft-repeated ideas are a safer bet than trying something new out of the box.

That’s what makes Gotham so remarkable. Pop-culture needed another take on the Batman mythology about as much as TV needs another CSI or NCIS spin-off. As is The CW didn’t already have the superhero market cornered with Arrow and The Flash, along came ABC with Agents of SHIELD and now CBS with Supergirl.

There’s certainly a market — and money to be made — from even more comic-book TV adaptations as Comic-Con proves every summer. Ratings and quality don’t always live in the same universe, though. If they did, NCIS would have been thumping Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland and Game of Thrones for the past 10 years, and counting, and CSI would have more Peabodys than The Wire.

Gotham has managed to pull off something unique as it sets the table for its fall-season finale, on  Nov. 30. (Gotham will return with new episodes on Feb. 29.)

It has held its own in the ratings, even though it’s pitted directly opposite The Voice, TV’s most engaging, popular reality-competition program, on Monday nights.

It has managed to remain as quirky, engaging and creatively audacious in its second season as it was in its first, when mature, right-thinking adults could scarcely believe they had been seduced into watching a serious, modern-day riff on a campy, kids’ tale from the 1960s.

And yet . . . . Gotham is unmistakably set in the Batman world, with all the familiar villains — The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman (Selina Kyle, right and top photo) — emerging in admittedly unfamiliar ways. The city of Gotham itself has been done to death, and yet there’s something undeniably fresh, intriguing  and even original about Gotham’s dark, moody cityscape of depressing, dirty glass-and-steel towers, moody skies and perpetually rainy, oil-slicked alleys. Gotham is out Tim Burton-ing Tim Burton. It’s as if Christopher Nolan suddenly walked away from the big screen and began working for HBO, without realizing it’s Fox in disguise.

Gotham’s secret isn’t its creative set design, editing tricks or mind-bending effects, of course, though they help. It’s about story, and in UK writer-producer Bruno Heller, Gotham got lucky. Heller took historical epics and big-budget dramas with HBO and BBC’s Rome, from 2005-’07 — budgets don’t get much bigger than Rome, or didn’t, until Game of Thrones came along — and then pulled a sharp creative u-turn with a procedural drama, The Mentailst, for arguably the most staid, conventional, play-it-safe broadcast network on TV today, in CBS.

Gotham is a comic-book thriller for the Hugo Boss and Louis Vuitton set, stylish to a fault and designed to a new-wave beat. The premise, in which good people are tempted to do bad things to rein in evil, is both universal and timely. The stories are complex, and the characterization multi-played. Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin, can be capricious and cruel, but he’s driven by the death of his mother, who doted on him hand and foot. Cory Michael Smith’s Edward Nygma, aka The Riddler (left) may be a deranged, psychotic murderer, but at heart he’s a frustrated lab geek struggling with unrequited love. Donal Logue’s hero-sidekick Harvey Bullock might seem scheming and duplicitous, but he’s simply using what he’s learned on the streets to survive in a venal world where everyone’s hiding behind a mask. In a happy accident of casting, relative unknown Camren Bicondova is heartbreaking in the role of Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman, a homeless teen who’s loyal to a fault — to her friends — and morally grounded, caught in a struggle to survive against forces she can barely understand.

Gotham is animated by age-old fears. It’s solemn, but never pedestrian. It’s chic, but doesn’t show off. Everyone is hiding a secret, except perhaps Ben McKenzie’s straight-arrow cop Jim Gordon. As the stories go on, though, there are growing signs that he will be the one most tempted to cross over to the dark side, in his never-ending quest against evil. Gotham is relentless in its pursuit of a sense of growing unease. The comic-book trappings have an odd realism to them, as if this could actually be happening.

Gotham might not be Emmy material, but it’s certainly trying. It’s easily among network TV’s best dramas. It may be based on a tried-and-true comic-book, but in style and execution it feels as quirky, fresh and original as other, more  prestigious dramas like Jane the Virgin and The Good Wife.

Gotham’s fall finale promises “a battle of the villains,” judging from Fox’s pre-episode press notes, in which Jim Gordon (McKenzie, right) is forced to forge new alliances with old enemies to solve a potentially deadly kidnapping.

“Not everyone makes it out alive,” the promos warn. That can describe just about any episode, of course, but this one promises something extra, Walking Dead-style, to convince fans to come back in February.

Gotham may not be the finest drama on TV right now, but it’s certainly one of TV’s most consistent and pleasant surprises.

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on board
Bravo to some excellent casting, namely the lead and leader, Ben McKenzie. He has always brought his characters to life, from his break in The O.C. to the critically acclaimed Southland. Nothing flashy and campy, but all about keeping it real with nuances and subtleties. He always reels our family right in and takes us along for the ride. It's a tough job not to have the over-the-top traits and colorful, wicked props of the villains, but he rocks it.

Glad to see the team and the show getting some well-earned notice and praise.
Nov 28, 2015   |  Reply
Yes to everything written here. I have been saying for a few seasons that Walking Dead hasn't had a bad season let alone show and Gotham is becoming just as fascinating to watch. Batman was the 1st superhero I liked (Nygma favorite villain) so I was concerned about this show but quickly became a fan. Salina aka kittengirl is my favorite character. Robin Lloyd Taylor and Cory Michael Smith deserve Emmys
Nov 19, 2015   |  Reply
Bob Lamm
Glad someone loves GOTHAM. I could match this long piece by writing paragraph after paragraph about what's disappointing about this mediocre show, but I'll keep my dissent to these two sentences.
Nov 19, 2015   |  Reply
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