9 Lessons the Gotham Central Comic Can Teach FOX-TV’s Gotham
1. Focus more on the cops, less on the perps.
Well, another season of Gotham has wrapped up and… honestly, gang, it’s not getting any better. There are flashes of fun stuff here and there — I don’t think we should even bother hiring anyone but Robin Lord Taylor to play the Penguin in all future Bat-projects, and B.D. Wong is clearly having a ball on his new all-scenery diet — but after two seasons I’m still struggling to find a reason to feel invested in the show. And it feels really weird for me to admit that, because I’m usually that nerd who’s into anything and everything Bat-related. But at the end of every Gotham episode I find myself thinking, “Well, that was a thing that happened.” I’m not even angry about it anymore, I’m just… numb. And after puzzling for a bit about why I was feeling this way, I’ve decided what the show needs is a big infusion of Gotham Central.
For those who haven’t read it, Gotham Central was an ongoing series published between 2002 and 2006. For 40 issues, Greg Ruka and Ed Brubaker (with assists from various pencilers, including original series artist Michael Lark) followed the cops in Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit as they investigated homicides and other serious crimes on Batman’s home turf. It was a brilliantly written (and award-winning) series, fleshing out even the most minor characters in the cast while presenting well-plotted procedurals that hold their own against the best cop shows on TV. That focus on characterization is something that’s sorely absent on Gotham; aside from Gordon and Bullock, every police officer is a stock character or a complete cipher, making a brief impression only when the script needs a dead cop, a corrupt cop, or both. Heck, Gordon and Bullock themselves are barely more than a collection of cop-show clichés – one is the last honest cop who Takes! It! Personally! on every case he works while the other is his streetwise, morally iffy buddy who’s always good for a wisecrack. Imagine how much more engaging the show would be if it focused more on the rank-and-file cops, showing us the kind of people who do this job in a city where the normal rules don’t apply.
2. Set it in the present day.
As anyone who watches the show knows, Gotham’s first episode starts with a bang (well, two) as we witness the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne. The show’s premise is that those murders were not just the start of Bruce Wayne’s Batman journey, but also the beginning of Gotham’s descent into the clown-filled den of chaos that Batman patrols every night. It’s an intriguing concept… in theory. In reality, it’s a problem. For starters, we know the whole point of the show is that Bruce is going to grow up to become Batman someday, so there’s zero reason to be worried every time his life is threatened by a crazed cultist or resurrected assassin. Ditto Gordon, Alfred, Selina and anyone else we know will still be around when Bruce becomes an adult. You also have the challenge of introducing characters from the Batman books 20 years before their time (“Well, we want to bring in Vicki Vale but she’s still a kid in this time period — to hell with it, let’s make up an Aunt Valerie who has the same reporter job”). Then there’s the… somewhat unlikely notion that most of Batman’s villains started their criminal careers at roughly the same time, and that they will still be around in a few decades to match wits with the Dark Knight when he comes of age. If we need to feature some villains to keep some viewers coming back, then sure, let’s give them what they want… but let’s at least be logical about it, and give them villains who are facing Batman in their prime. Having said that…
3. Keep Batman and the villains on the periphery.
Let me just say up front: David Mazouz is doing a fine job portraying a young Bruce Wayne. I’m not suggesting we move the show into the present as a way of replacing him in the cast. In fact, I’m suggesting we might not even need a Bruce Wayne at all — just an actor to show up in a Batman suit once in a while at the edges of the script. For my money, the show would be more effective — and have a lot more storytelling potential — if we kept the “big guns” off the main stage, and focused instead on the impact of their actions on the “normals” living in Gotham. This is the approach that Gotham Central takes: Batman appears every so often, but he’s never the main focus of the story, and his brief appearances only serve to further the plots involving the police officers charged with upholding the law in a city where the police have a giant Bat-signal to contact a masked vigilante. I think that’s an effective approach, as it forces us to see his actions (and the actions of his allies and enemies) from a more relatable perspective. That’s not to say we ban Batman and his costumed cohorts completely from the set — just that we use them sparingly, as a way of invoking the same mystique that Batman uses in his war on crime. Speaking of mystique…
4. Skip the origin stories.
One of the structural problems with Gotham is the unwieldy number of storylines: Gordon’s crusade, Wayne’s journey, Barbara’s insanity, Nygma’s (completely unexplained) descent into schizophrenic villainy, Penguin’s rise (and fall)(and rise again) as a criminal kingpin, the mystery of Indian Hill, the mystery behind why Thomas and Martha Wayne were killed, the mystery of secret societies plotting secret things, you name it. Sometimes this approach works, but you’ve got to put a lot of effort into finding the right balance between all the disparate pieces. The problem is the show is all set pieces and dramatic reveals, mostly because the large number of storylines makes it impossible to fully flesh out any one of them. It’s time to start cutting, and an easy place to start is to skip the origin stories. It’s a fair bet that most viewers tuning in to watch Gotham already know how guys like Mister Freeze or Penguin got their start — and if they don’t then we can easily insert a few judiciously selected flashback scenes to fill them in when the need arises. And let’s be honest: there’s really no point in the writers trying to top the origin stories that have already been told to perfection, like Paul Dini’s take on Mister Freeze from the Batman animated series.
5. Focus more on police work — actual police work.
Riddle me this: what’s it like being a police officer in a city where criminals leave riddles at crime scenes? How do you close a case when you live in a city where it’s easy for any murderer to pin the rap on Two-Face or Joker? How do you get a confession from suspects who talk only in rhyme or quote Lewis Carroll in the interrogation room? You don’t have to be a fan of CSI or Law and Order to know a police investigation is more about the journey than the destination. Take all the storytelling potential in a routine police investigation and apply it to a place like Gotham City. One of the larger story arcs in Gotham Central concerns a CSI technician who’s on the take, abusing his position to falsify evidence and make a quick buck off “collectables” he collects from crime scenes and delivers to people with collections of super-villain paraphernalia. Watching police officers work a case like that is a lot more interesting than waiting half a season for Bruce’s father’s computer to boot up.
6. Use the plots to explore deeper social issues.
One of the things that good cop shows do is explore issues of morality, and help us come to grips with our notions of good and evil. Is murder ever justified? Is there any point to treating the hopelessly insane? Are monsters born or made? Is there a better way to rehabilitate criminals than throwing them in prison? We use works of fiction all the time to explore social issues; think the original Star Trek and how it used its sci-fi setting to explore issues like racism and fascism. There’s every reason to believe a sharply written show based in the Batman universe and focused on the men and women in charge of maintaining order could do the same thing, and help viewers come to grips with some of the issues we’re facing here in the real world. We all know, as Alfred once said, there are people in our world who “just want to watch the world burn” — and I can’t fault anyone for looking around this planet and thinking we’re heading down the same insane path that Gotham took a long time ago. What if the show did for superhero fiction what guys like Roddenberry and Asimov once did with sci-fi: take a less-respected genre once seen as juvenile entertainment and turn it into something that has something to say about how we treat each other in the real world?
7. Enough with the conspiracies surrounding the Waynes’ murders.
The Waynes’ death obviously had a huge impact on Bruce’s life, and in the Batman franchise they’re often depicted as a turning point in the history of the city, in the same way that the Kitty Genovese murder caused many New Yorkers to see their city in a new, sinister light. Part of the reason why the crime looms so large over the city is because of its cruelty and complete randomness; they were mugged while leaving a theatre with their son, and there was no reason for them to die. It literally could have been anyone, and it just happened to be two of Gotham’s best and brightest. Gotham took that brilliantly simple concept and said, “Nah.” Instead, for the past two seasons it has teased out an elaborate conspiracy theory in which we find out the Waynes were targeted by sinister forces because of some big secret involving Wayne Enterprises. No spoilers here, but I think it goes without saying that turning their brutal murders into an elaborate whodunnit that young Bruce must solve completely robs his future self of the motive he’ll someday need to see all criminals pay for his parents’ murders.
8. Retire Barbara. Permanent-like.
God love her, Erin Richards is giving it her all, but this is the most thankless role on the show. She’s gone from doting fiancée to serial-killer target to insane murderer to coma victim to… well, back to insane murderer? I think? Regardless, there’s never been a point in the show in which Barbara has acted as anything other than an object for Gordon to fret about, or an obstacle for Gordon to overcome. No matter how you slice it, Gordon is the only reason for her character to exist, and that’s just not interesting. Almost all the other characters on the show, give or take a tweak, can be repurposed for a much more engrossing series, but every time I try to find a way to make her fit I come up with bupkis. So let’s start over, have Gordon move to Gotham as the single divorced dad of a young daughter, and let’s give Ms. Richards a juicier role, like a grown-up Poison Ivy or a certain Arkham psychiatrist with an unhealthy fixation on one of her more jovial patients. Richards has shown she can do the crazy; no need to let that talent go to waste.
9. Dammit, McKenzie, it’s time to grow a ‘stache.
I mean — come on, man. You’re not playing some penny-ante second-string cop from a nowhere burg like Central City or Coast City; you’re playing James frickin’ Gordon, the manliest man to sport a mustache who ever manned. And no, I don’t need a three-picture deal titled Jim Gordon: The Mustache Rises to hear the whole story of how he grew it. Just forget to shave for a while and show up on set. Hackman might have been able to get away with that bald-cap shit, but some things in the canon just can’t be messed with, dig?