A Review of “Gotham”, the Pilot Episode

I haven’t watched television in a while…I suppose it’s the “off-season,” or whatever you want to call the summer hiatus in which most of us spend more time in movie theatres than in front of a television. As you know, I’m quite…sparing…about what programs I’ll actually invest my time to watch, so there were a small handful of shows the premieres of which I eagerly awaited. One of these was Gotham.

Sort of a no-brainer, because I’m a long-time fan of the Batman mythology, and because of my well-known superhero infatuation in general. For all of my interest in the show, I was suspect, however, that it would receive a similarly tragic treatment to what has been done to other DC Universe characters such as Green Arrow (and, judging by the trailers, the Flash) by the CW. I held my skeptical nature at bay, however, and was quite looking forward to the pilot episode’s arrival on Hulu.

What the show did well was capture the uniqueness that is Gotham City. From a visual standpoint specifically, this was quite impeccable. I was impressed with the sweeping city-scape shots that set the stage for what we were about to witness.

The pilot episode leads, of course, with the shooting of Bruce Wayne’s parents in front of him, the horrendous event that we know will fracture him for life and lead him to become the Dark Night Detective. This scene was actually shaking in its realism, possibly the most violent rendering that I’ve watched of Batman’s origin…not so gruesome as to be off-putting, but jarring enough to set up what the program has the best opportunity to do: be a gritty police drama set in an early Gotham City that is struggling for its soul. The scene in which a young detective Jim Gordon sits and talks with Bruce Wayne at the scene of his parents’ murders, while slightly bogged down with dialogue that could have been fleshed out a bit, is still a very elegant scene within the context of the mythology, and does an outstanding job of drawing the viewer in.

There has been good work lately in the comic literature with the early history of Jim Gordon rising through, and cleaning up, a corrupt police department, which is what Gotham is trying to bring to the screen. Cliche aside, it showed some promise, but the story of the investigation of the Wayne murders unfolded with some loose connections that caused the story to nearly unravel at times.

And speaking of unraveling…what were they thinking with the shots of Gordon’s foot pursuit? Sheesh…

The writing of this first episode was, quite honestly, loose and disconnected. There were campy lines, tossed in with a dis-jointed plot, and too many characters being interwoven in too many ways that will be difficult to reconcile later…at least in a way that stays true to an established Batman mythos.

I can imagine the difficulty that the producers are facing here: keeping long-time fans with knowledge of the literature and new fans that have come aboard in recent films balanced enough to keep returning to watch. Even if you’re a casual fan, though, the sheer number of Easter eggs packed into one episode is sort of overwhelming. Edward Nigma sort of works as a crime lab technician…sort of. It looks like Oswald Cobblepot will play a central role in this season, but as we watch the events that will make him the Penguin unfold, we’re left with more than a bit of cognitive dissonance: the upcoming criminal a cowardly narc, who is traumatized enough by one forced swim to stalk out of the water in a seeming nod to the first three Batman films that we prefer to believe never happened, and then cut someone’s throat for…a sandwich? At least he begins in a nightclub, and that much of the character is historically true. And the young Catwoman? What exactly are they attempting to accomplish by her slinking around Gotham, already costumed, and witnessing these formative events in Bruce Wayne’s life?

What’s masterful about Gotham City in the DC Universe is it’s dark, horrific penchant for violence mixed with an insanity lurking beneath the surface, an insanity that produces a seeming carnival of villains that are as laughably odd as they are terrifyingly lethal. This is the world that spawns a fragmented, tortured hero such as Batman…the only world that could. If Gotham is doing what it’s name indicates, and focusing on the city that the Batman sacrificially defends…a city that is a character in its own right throughout the mythology…then we could do with significantly fewer attempts at early depictions of villains. This is obviously to be the story of Jim Gordon, the everyday hero that inspires the hero that the Batman will be. What Gotham should be…the area in which its strength and potential lies…is a violent police drama that chronicles the secondary characters, such as Bullock and Montoya, who are introduced here (the latter a bit heavy-handedly), but, with the exception of Bullock, lost among a growing list of shallow character depictions. Gordon and Bullock are off to a great start. Hopefully, the writers will focus on developing them further, along with Montoya, and tell us the story of how Gotham became what it is by the time we first see the Batman.

Overall, I left this first episode disappointed. Of course, pilot episodes are notoriously difficult to pull off, and historically bad, so I think the program should definitely be given the benefit of two or three episodes before rendering a definite opinion. In all honesty, though, I’ll watch the second episode because I’m a Batman fan, not because the pilot gave me much for which to return. This was largely an exercise in unfocused storytelling and unrealized potential.

Transformations and Ponies

My Little Pony has gone through many transformations since it began

Our daughter has recently developed an affinity for My Little Pony. Which was sort of cool the first thousand times she watched it. Now, I tend to experience some neurosis whenever I hear the theme, but…such is parenthood.

I’ve met a lot of people who are into the My Little Pony culture, or Brony culture, as the case may be. It’s really interesting to hear them talk about this show that they love, a sort of specialized genre of geek…and I’m all about anything that’s geek (going through a bit of culture shock about the lack of it in the South, but that’s another post).
Whenever our daughter shows interest in watching something, Karen and I do our research. We’re very choosy about her screen time, and there’s a high bar of standards that something must pass to end up on her to-watch list (five programs have made it so far). So, we did our research into My Little Pony, also, because, while it’s been really cool to listen to people I’ve known discuss the show and it’s fan culture…there’s still those standards.
So, to the Interwebs we went.
I’m far from an expert, and I defer to anyone who is, but it’s really interesting to watch how the characters that comprise My Little Pony have changed in the years since they first released. In fact, the show as it exists today is quite different than it was at it’s debut, as is the toy line. The version that our daughter enjoys is not the most recent, which has a more anime flavor to it’s appearance and is still a bit frightening for a toddler, but rather a previous version with softer, friendlier ponies and very little-girl-friendly story lines about special wishes and dancing in the clouds. I love hearing her imagination run wild and watching her spin new tales based upon what she’s seen.

The Transformers have gone through many evolutions since they began

When I watched the first Transformers movie, I had a bit of an issue with Barricade, the Decepticon who assumes the guise of a police cruiser. My issue was that he hadn’t existed prior to this film incarnation. It’s no secret that I’m a purist, but my issue with Barricade was a knee-jerk reaction that I quickly released. I don’t hold the Transformers to the same standards that I do many other science fiction characters. The reason is that there was no canonical literature at their inception. They were a toy line first, and their literary and film history spun off of that. Many incarnations of the Transformers have existed (some less intriguing than others), and the evolution happens much more fluidly because all of the literature is adaptive. The same is true for My Little Pony. Partly due to licensing issues with the original copyright holders, and partly due to the natural fluidity as the creators allow conceptualized characters, rather than fully realized characters, to develop in front of us, the process in much less finalized. And, for perhaps exactly that reason, the process doesn’t really annoy purist geeks such as myself.

The process actually smacks quite a bit of improvisational theatre to me. I never really excelled at that particular discipline (I liked to be well-rehearsed), but I certainly appreciated it. And, while I don’t have the history with My Little Pony to appreciate it’s characters’ development, I’m sure that, as our daughter gets older, I will have.

I just hope that I can get that theme song out of my head…

Photo Attribution (in order): 

Joriel Jiminez under Creative Commons

Legos, Feminism, and Why We Need Wonder Woman

Lego Wonder Woman

While I grew up profoundly geeky, immersed in Dr. Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars and the like, with my mother, my father was a technician and a builder. He skillfully brought shapes to life from wood in his small, self-built shop behind our home. When I was young, my parents bought me a small play toolkit with a rubber hammer, saws, and screwdrivers. I followed Dad around the place fixing things. It’s really cool, because those have been passed down to our daughter now, and she loves them as much as I did.

All that play at building and fixing things notwithstanding though, I never played with Legos…at least, not that I recall. I certainly don’t have any floating around in my old childhood toy collections. I’m not sure why…most of my geek friends adore their Lego memories and love the Lego movies (none of which I’ve ever bothered to see), but it just wasn’t an element of my childhood.

Several years ago now, I married a lovely woman who is a geek, as well as a feminist. She has Lego memories. During a slow weekend morning a couple of days ago, she was talking with me about Lego’s new Research Institute set of female characters. The set is a response, depending upon how literally you read Lego’s official statement, to either what their fans wanted or to critiques that they were painting female characters in stereotypically weak roles. In any case, this set (which has apparently sold out, and was unfortunately, as I understand it, a limited edition) seemed to be a step in the right direction, portraying female figures as scientists, astronomers, geologists, and the like, giving young girls aspirations of respected professions in which one uses one’s mind, rather than previous incarnations which went shopping and sat in hair salons.

There has been criticism, as Karen and I discussed, from some circles that, even in the Research Institute, there are inconsistencies with the real world (a chemist would never wear makeup to work), and she found that troubling, because the gender stereotypes persist, even if in a small way.

Having a daughter (who, at the risk of bragging, is particularly intelligent), and wanting our daughter to have strong female characters to view as role models, I’ve become more sensitive about these sorts of things myself lately (by strict definition, Karen argues that I, too, am a feminist). Our daughter has picked up our love of books, and I think any of us can attest to the fact that fictional characters carry just as much impact as role models as do historical and contemporary people in our lives and cultures. A great deal of who I wanted to be as a man came from fictional characters as I grew up reading, many of them super heroes.

Of course, I took this moment to insert into mine and Karen’s discussion that this is why women and girls who love comics need to see strong portrayals of strong heroes such as Wonder Woman, or the Black Widow. DC Comics has in their universe the strongest female super hero in comics literature. Wonder Woman, especially with the masterful way in which she’s painted in the New 52, is a hero to whom girls can look to and aspire to be like, which is one of the primary functions that super hero characters fill in our literature. She’s not (when written well) over-sexualized. She’s a warrior who places her own well-being second in order fight for good and defend the weak.

Have I mentioned that it’s absolutely a crime that she hasn’t had her own film, and that she’s being introduced as a secondary character in an upcoming film? So wrong…

I see common ground between the two worlds. Apparently, there’s some suspicion floating around that Lego felt that a lot of strong female role models like the Research Institute wouldn’t be received well as ongoing items, which is why it was a limited edition. Certainly, I’ve read of comments by film-makers that a Wonder Woman film wouldn’t be received well by a wide-spread audience, and thus it hasn’t been made. I can’t speak for Lego fans, but as a comic fan, I can respond to the latter with a resounding, “huh???” Does DC Entertainment have any idea how many new readers Wonder Woman gained with the launch of the New 52? Certainly, there’s a great deal of the parenting public out there that want cool scientist toys for their daughters.

Our daughter shows inclinations toward many things: reading, athletics and kinesthetic learning, storytelling and imaginative play. As she reads and watches more, and she will eventually reach an age at which Karen and I curate what she reads and watches less and less, I want to know that there are strong female role models in the fictional characters that she experiences, because she will look up to them and they will impact what she feels that she is capable of doing (have I mentioned that she’s already liking superheroes?). The idea that a marketing department might use some statistic acquired after conducting some focus group to determine that there would be a poor return on investment (I hate that term) if they provided us with more exposure to such characters is not only obviously in error, but openly reprehensible enough that I have even less cause to think that marketing is necessary as a discipline.

These sorts of characters, whether in literature or in toys, are necessary, and they do good, and there should be as many of them as we can get. History, if it proves anything, proves that they will be well-received.

Photo Attribution: Julian Fong under Creative Commons