A TV Entry – The Trouble With Prequels: Gotham Edition

Disclaimer – I’m not a fan of this show.  That said, I’m going to try to be fair in my criticism.

Originally this show was pitched as a police procedural with Jim Gordon before Batman appeared on the scene.  I liked that concept and I was interested in it.  Then the pilot starts with the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents (with a bonus appearance by L’il Catwoman).  That was when I realized this was not going to be a police procedural with Jim Gordon in his quest to try to keep some semblance of justice in a corrupt city.  The show was a prequel seriesOh dear.

Before I delve into that, there are a couple of other things about the show that don’t work for me.  One is the tonal whiplash between silly and serious.  The other is that I think the show is just too dark.  Yes, I know this is about Gotham City and that it is a wretched hive of scum and villainy.  I know it’s supposed to be dark but it comes across as dark for the sake of dark, which is one of my constant complaints of comic book based media.  For example, I would have no problem with L’il Catwoman scratching an attacker across the face and blinding him.  That’s appropriately dark.  But gouging his eyeballs out?  That’s just too much and not just from the gore factor but also because a scratch is a quick counter-attack but gouging would require a sustained counter-attack which does not seem to me to be in the character of Catwoman.  Also, chomper logic.  Why isn’t L’il Batman seeing a therapist?  Why isn’t L’il Batman in school?  I mean, there are a lot of schools and he is very rich so it’s not as though the school he was in is the only option.  How is L’il Poison Ivy going to become a botantist having at this point never attended school?  But I digress…

Prequels are very difficult to pull off for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve discussed before.  And herein lies the main problem I have with Gotham – it pretty much does everything a good prequel should not do.

As I’ve said before, the purpose of a prequel is answer this question – How did Character X become Y?  Y could refer to an emotional state, or a change of personality, or so on and so forth.  The trick of making this work is ensuring the prequel focuses on the right characters and also does not get bogged down with too many references to the original.  I will also add that a prequel must make sure the stakes are high which is also tricky because which characters survive and certain events are already foregone conclusions.

And here we have Gotham which is a prequel series (more or less) to Chris Nolan’s Batman movies.

1) The prequel(s) did not answer the right question(s).
2) The prequel(s) answered the wrong question(s).
3) The prequel(s) put in so many references to the main trilogy they became distracting and the universe became too constricted.
4) The events of the prequel(s) actually diminish one or more aspects of the original movie(s).
5) The prequel can’t generate drama because too many elements are already predestined by the original.

1) To me, the right question is, “How did Gotham City become such a cesspool of lawlessness and corruption that a costumed vigilante was its only hope for redemption?”  A related question to that is, “Why is Gotham City so full of weirdos?”  Because it is.  Seriously.  These questions are kind of being answered, but are unfortunately not the focus.

2) To me, the wrong question is, “How did Character X become Y?”  I am danged tired of origin stories, especially ones that have been done well in different media.  I get how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman.  I don’t need to see a young Bruce moping around the mansion.  The original comic way back in the 1930s explained everything an audience needs to know about the psychology of L’il Bruce Wayne.  “Okay, so no more Bruce Wayne origins,” I pretend I hear you say, “but what about the rest of the canon characters?”  Oddly, for a show that seems to be banking on answering this question, it actually skims over the answer for the most part.

a) L’il Catwoman has already been nicknamed “Cat.”
b) L’il Batman is already a better detective than most of the GCPD.
c) Edward Nygma already talks in riddles.
d) Etc…

Basically, Character X is already Y, just a younger version of the character you pretty much already know.  That’s not interesting, and leads into the third problem with prequels…

3) And this is where Gotham really goes wrong.  This show is almost more than of a shout-out/Easter egg hunt than a coherent drama.  I understand that Gotham City is very large; it is an analogue of New York City.  I know from a logical standpoint that all the members of Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery could conceivably hail from Gotham City.  But everyone knowing each other?

a) Pre-Riddler works for the GCPD.
b) Pre-Joker (probably) is in the same circus as the Flying Graysons.
c) The circus with the Flying Graysons is in town.
d) L’il Catwoman witnesses the death of L’il Batman’s parents.
e) L’il Poison Ivy is found by L’il Catwoman and they room together.
f) Hey, look, Harvey Dent!
g) And look, L’il Scarecrow!
h) And so on and so forth…

I think the story would be better served with fewer canon characters or brought them in at a slower pace.  This is a lot of canon characters (and I didn’t cover all of them) and this is just the first season.  I also think the story would be better served to have some of the characters come from outside of Gotham.  It would provide more character (for lack of a better term) for the city, showing it as either a fallen beacon of hope, or a weak, corrupt place just ripe for being overtaken by the unscrupulous.  And what drama that may come from character development is being short-circuited by lazy writing.  At this point, the answer to, “How did Character X become Y?” seems to be “mommy/daddy issues.”

4) I give Gotham a pass for this one.  The mafia power struggles don’t undermine what happens in the “Batman” trilogy.  They actually provide a welcome back story when the show devotes enough time to explain what’s going on.

5) But where it builds up the story in some ways, the show is having a hard time creating dramatic stakes.  There’s so much that’s already pre-determined that many events are more a question of “when” and not “if.”  For example, with the mafia wars, of the bosses jockeying for power, we already know that Fish isn’t going to win, and odds are good she won’t make it out alive either.  Her role is interesting in that it builds up the mafia wars, but some dramatic tension is removed just because we the audience already know the ultimate outcome.  Jim Gordon isn’t going to clean up Gotham City or else there’s no need for Batman, so his struggles are ultimately futile.  Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya are going to become better cops than they are.

And that, really, is the problem with Gotham – there are too many defined characters with known destinies.  The characters aren’t really developed from who they started out as to who they will be; they’re just younger versions of the familiar characters.  The show needs room to grow and breathe and tell a story instead of constraining itself and relying on winks and nods to the final incarnations.  This, I think, could have been avoided if the show had kept its original premise.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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