mr freeze

Growing Up Gotham

Predicating an entire show on the younger versions of well-known characters is a risky gambit. It can feel like exploiting pre-existing goodwill, and it sometimes it is exactly that. It works when those characters are given the space to breathe (Bruce and Selina are given that space by necessity, as we know roughly where they end up), but space isn’t Gotham’s forte. The show goes through its brand-name villains like Kleenex, which is an especially egregious sin given the terrific roster of guest stars it’s brought on (James Frain, Nathan Darrow, BD Wong, Tommy Flanagan, to name a few). Throwing recognizable baddies like Mr. Freeze and Clayface into the mix seems to be the show’s way of scrambling to keep Bat-fans watching. Origin stories get twisted or simply discarded in ways that don’t always make sense, especially when it comes to the fact that it’s Gordon who’s battling them all. Who is Batman going to be facing down by the time he comes of age?

The rate of turnover also makes it difficult to make any emotional investment. Because Gotham is a prequel, we know that there’s only so much that can happen given Gordon’s guaranteed survival. When each villain seems to last only two to three episodes, why should we bother worrying about anyone involved?

gotham season 3 riddler

Breaking Bad

Speaking of villains, the last big dynamic on the show is that between Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) and Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor). Both do superlative work with material that could easily fold in on itself under the weight of bad dialogue and unnecessary melodrama. Unfortunately, it’s a balance that’s precarious, as Nygma’s descent into supervillainy still feels like it’s only happening because he eventually has to be a supervillain rather than for any organic reason. That said, the plot between the two of them is the biggest diversion from canon and one that’s largely been carried off on the strength of their performances. The biggest through-line in the third season thus far has been Cobblepot’s gradual falling for Nygma, and it’s been the rare instance of Gotham striking out into new territory that’s had compelling results.

gotham season 3 gimmick

Gotta Have a Gimmick

All that aside, there’s one problem that’s plagued Gotham that’s much bigger than all the rest: from the very start, Gotham has had trouble committing to a tone. The animated series and the Burton movies were gloriously camp, accentuating the fantastical in a premise that is admittedly strange, and producing a sense of pathos out of unapologetic fun. (To wit, Batman: The Animated Series is often cited as one of the best animated series of all time, and images and lines from Batman and Batman Returns have entered into iconic popular culture.) The recent Nolan movies went in the other direction, putting every egg into realism’s basket and ushering in the age of “dark and gritty” superhero movies after an era of technicolor. Even The Dark Knight Rises, the least well-received entry in the trilogy, had undeniably striking beats, especially given the themes of inequity that seemed tailored to the current sociopolitical climate.

Gotham falls into an unfortunate middle. It veers camp, even recruiting Paul Reubens to semi-reprise his role from Tim Burton’s films as the Cobblepot patriarch, but its desire to be taken seriously means that it counterbalances its wilder instincts with violence and angst that doesn’t quite mesh. Take, for example, the introduction of Mr. Freeze (Nathan Darrow). One of his test subjects melts in what is easily one of the most gruesome sequences in the show, and it’s in direct juxtaposition with the broad acting of the catty pharmacy clerk he deals with just moments afterward. They might as well be on different shows. The pity here is that Gotham has proven it can do both elements well, just not in concert with each other. Three seasons in, it still hasn’t really found a balance; let’s hope that changes.

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