Or kid opportunities? Thusfar, Gotham isn’t tripping itself up.
Gotham is stylized, and it’s not apologizing for that fact. Unlike the noticeable aesthetic shifts1 between Sleepy Hollow‘s pilot and second episode, Gotham is holding steady. It’s more subtle than I might have expected, and it’s a good look and level for the show.
What’s keeping me a bit on edge now are the performances. For any series to work the leads, the supporting roles, the bit parts, and the directors – they need to understand what sort of show they’re on. That’s doubly important on a stylized series; acting that works on a procedural won’t work on Once Upon a Time and those performances won’t work here. Any such shows also shades towards an ensemble piece; a performance or two or three that ends up out of line with the rest will stand out. Worse, it can make great performances that are doing right by the concept seem cartoonish or false.
Take by way of example the early scene in this week’s Gotham where a bedraggled Oswald ‘Shut Up I’m Not A Penguin’ Cobblepot hitches a ride with a couple of frat boys. Unsurprisingly the pair mocks Cobblepot, directly and indirectly, with less-than-great results for their well-being. Most of the scene is Cobblepot (a seriously awesome Robin Lord Taylor) starting high and erudite and switching to quiet cold rage. It would have been so easy for either of the bros to tip a line, or worse be asked to blatantly call out Cobblepot’s excessive and out-of-place verbiage, but they don’t.
Perhaps that’s a small victory. The larger one Monday night is how Gotham navigated a minefield of its own creation. Kids are dangerous subject matter; there’s a tendency to go maudeline with their storylines, to rely on the viewer’s natural empathy as a substitute for emotional depth in the writing.2 They’re dangerous from a production standpoint as kid actors can be easily asked to do too much – they typically don’t have the training and certainly don’t have the life experience of their adult counterparts. They can act,3 they’re just riskier – especially when you’re trying to maintain a particular illusion via a particular style.
So then. This week’s elephant in the room is not The Penguin but the Kat – thirteen-year-old maybe-not-an-orphan Selina Kyle (who one day will be Catwoman) and a storyline involving all the street children of Gotham being targeted for some reason. It’s not important4 – what matters is the kids were not annoying. One talked ‘street’ but didn’t stick out, fitting the back-and-forth with Bullock and Gordon. The show showed a bunch of neglected ragamuffins, it didn’t tell us how to feel about them. And Camren Bicondova‘s Kat only wore thin in her next to last scene, briefly ringing the slightest bit false in between her early bravado and her closing line. I won’t spoil it because, as much jumping around as Gotham has done with story threads over just two episodes, it’s so far earning its cliffhangers, even if it sometimes telegraphs them as well.
I think I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop in the visually rich world Gotham has built. I’m worried that an overblown character or a dud of a line reading is going to take me out, make me scoff at characters who right now make me grin. I shouldn’t be worried – from the side characters (Drew Powell, Richard Kind) to the one-off’s (Wayne Duvall this time around; hopefully we see more of Carol Kane) the casting office and the directors are weaving things together instead of plastering them on a storyboard. The only point I need to raise – Lili Taylor and Frank Whaley were both spot on, but as soon as Whaley stepped on screen you knew he was the bad guy.5 With the emphasis on the various criminals throughout Gotham, every week on Gotham risks playing like an episode of SVU.
Gotham is far from perfect. My response to its first two weeks is more they haven’t messed it up than they got it awesome6 but that’s just a focus on critique. While Gotham isn’t doing much wrong, it’s also giving me enough reason to tune in each Monday. I hope it keeps it up.7
Next week – a discourse on plot, and whether one needs it in television these days.
- To say nothing of the downgrades in writing and, eventually, some of the acting. ↵
- Or at the very least, it’s hard to be as brutal with kids on a show like this without becoming Criminal Minds, and such nerfing of the (stylized) violence can really undercut the writing. ↵
- Did you see the Coen brothers’ True Grit? ↵
- Clearly the show is setting up some broader, long-term conspiracy and introducing character motivations left and right, but the actual reason for the kidnappings is somewhere between vague and non-existent. ↵
- Wisely the show didn’t disguise this, having the mayhem commence within about 15 seconds. ↵
- T-shirt idea! Just ‘I got it awesome.’ across the chest. Maybe a dude giving a thumbs up in there? Whatever, we’ll workshop it. ↵
- I really, really hope. Seriously, folks – there’s so little on my queue right now I can’t take another disappointment. ↵