You seem like a nice guy. But this is not a rant, or an analysis, for nice guys.
I have been ranting to everyone I know about Gotham. I've been in this state since this Monday evening, when I watched the sixth episode of Gotham. This episode was ... wacky. As every episode of the show has been.
So I'm trying to remember if this show was being promoted as being wacky months ago. I will take two quotes from an advertisement, from early May, for this show, which made me think that it wasn't going to be wacky.
Danny Cannon: "It's a cop show"
Claim: Danny Cannon, one of three executive producers for the show, and director of the first two episodes: "It is a good old-fashioned cop show in the most dangerous, vivid world imaginable."
Reality: Gotham is a show in which two of the main characters in the show are cops. They do cop things. But is it a "cop show"? Most of what audiences would call "cop shows" are, to Wikipedia this up a bit, police procedural shows.
The police procedural is a subgenre of detective fiction which attempts to convincingly depict the activities of a police force as they investigate crimes. While traditional detective novels usually concentrate on a single crime, police procedurals frequently depict investigations into several unrelated crimes in a single story.
Examples of things that fall into this category include tv shows which many people have thought are very very good, like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue and The Shield and The Wire. CSI and Law & Order, which ... might not be as good of television programming, but are definitely very popular, are also police procedurals. And there's even this one rather appropriate DC comic book series that has strayed into police procedural territory.
With superheroes having long dominated the comic book market, there have been some recent attempts to integrate elements of the police procedural into the universe of costumed crime-fighters. Gotham Central, for example, depicts a group of police detectives operating in Batman's Gotham City, and suggested that the caped crimefighter is disliked by many Gotham detectives for treading on their toes.
Gotham Central was a police procedural comic book attempting to portray Gotham City Police Department employees as people who have to deal with the crap that is living and working in Gotham City. If it got adapted into a television show, it would be a "cop show".
Gotham does sometimes have police procedural elements to its episodes. It's supposed main character is a police detective, and he solves crimes. And young Bruce Wayne is also (apparently with help from... sitting at home all day?) trying to solve a criminal conspiracy. Maybe these elements will become more pronounced as the show goes forward. But so far, this show is about as interested in being a police procedural show as Detective Harvey Bullock is in solving crimes (that are happening within earshot) if it's lunchtime.
Bruno Heller: "This is not a comic book world"
Claim: Bruno Heller, the creator of the show, writer of the first two episodes, and one of the other two executive producers: "This is not a comic book world, this is a real world, heightened. It's a mythic world, it's a dramatic world full of adventure and colour and sex and violence and fun."
Reality: Well. Okay. First I want to state that "comic book world" and "mythic world" might not mean different things, in spite of Mr. Heller sounding like he thinks they do. Saying as how Hercules is both a DC comic book character and a figure in myth, I kind of think "myth" and "comic book" are words that can be interchangeable there. Beowulf is a comic book character made before comic books were a thing. Deal with it, Grendel.
In the episode that aired right after the two that Mr. Heller wrote, a criminal used weather balloons to murder people. One of the things that weather balloons really suck at doing is lift heavy things, like people, into the air. They can lift 5 or 10 kilos of detailed scientific equipment totally on their own, no problem. But an adult human? No.
Two episodes after that one, a criminal distributed a vaporized chemical that made people into superstrong people through "epigenetics." One of the things that chemicals can't really do is alter how all the muscle proteins in your body work near-instantaneously. Well, okay, some do, but they do that by killing you, so that your muscle proteins no longer work because you're dead.
Weather balloons killing people, and breathable chemicals near-instantly affecting all the muscles in your body, aren't things that happen in a heightened version of the real world. They are things that happen in
mythic comic book worlds.
Why couldn't those two just have been honest?
There would have been nothing lost if this show had been promoted as a show that is set in a comic book world... because that's what the show is. Cannon and Heller know that their show exists because it is using comic book characters. That allows them to be really awful (so far) at putting backstory in for many of these characters, because audiences know who Bruce Wayne is, or, to be more honest, they know who Bruce Wayne will become.
Fish Mooney makes it very obvious, every time she is on screen, that she is a
mythic comic book character. Which is weird because, as an invented character for this show, she's not literally one. Unlike ... Cobblepot, and E. Nygma, and Alfred, and Bruce, and Gordon, and Bullock, and Selina, and Poison Ivy, and Falcone, and Maroni, who litrally are DC comic book characters, and whose main characterization, so far on the show, is almost entirely limited to "This character will become that comic book character you are familiar with."
The wannabe duality of Gotham
Almost everyone watching this show realizes that it is struggling to determine whether it is a "cop" show or a "comic book" show: whether it is gritty or wacky.
Well, Zoidberg, because it can't be both, because those two don't work well together. Audiences like to invest their attention into a program or book or whatever that has a consistent tone. This generally helps put human brains into a relaxed state, which also increases our willingness to suspend our disbelief, which works well with fiction.
When a form of media doesn't have a consistent tone, it's viewed as a form of betrayal. In media, a common form of betrayal is soundtrack dissonance: the audio and visual components of a film don't meld well, and sometimes evoke very very different moods. When audiences are given this dissonance, sometimes it's awesome, although, of course, your mileage may vary. Here's an example which people generally think works, from 1972's film adaptation of the stage musical Cabaret. Trigger warning: off-screen violence to pets. Oh, and, uh, Nazis.
But fictional usages of dissonance, or a related betrayal type of tonal shift, don't always work. When large, unexpected, poorly developed tonal shifts happen, audiences get annoyed, they turn off the offending music/tv show/movie/book/stage production/
myth comic book/video game, and they walk away to go find something that isn't annoying, like, walking their octopus.
In Gotham, these tonal shifts mainly occur between, rather than during, individual scenes. Gritty scene: Bruce Wayne is brooding away in his mansion, with no one caring if he dies because nobody loves him. The music tells you that this is sad and gritty. Wacky scene: Edward Nygma is obnoxiously hitting on a coworker and making her life and job miserable. The music in the scene tells you this is wacky fun.
Uh, well, that scene is supposed (?) to be wacky. But Gotham is advertised as being a prequel series: this is a show that will show you how "the Riddler becomes the Riddler". When Edward Nygma "grows up", he becomes a murderer. In this scene he's intellectually challenging one of his female coworkers. We in the audience know that his future self intellectually challenges people, and that people who fail these challenges often end up dead. These two things makes this "wacky" scene actually quite awful.
Gotham ... isn't trying very hard?
See, that Nygma scene would work as a mid-scene tonal shift or even one with soundtrack dissonance if Gotham trusted its viewers to be smart enough to get it. But tonal shifts and soundtrack dissonance sometimes really anger audiences, though. Gotham seems to not want to anger audiences.
It's... It's a show that's not trying very hard, and I don't like writing that but I don't want to be dishonest here. Gotham isn't trying very hard to be a cop show. Gotham isn't trying very hard to not be a comic book show. It has real, real, elements of strength to it. But it's not the show that it tried to promote itself as, and I think that's a realization that some of us viewers need to make.
Sometimes it's a lightly-gritty cop show. Sometimes its a totally-wacky comic book show. But most of the time it's trying to create its own new form of television, wherein things are simultaneously gritty and wacky. Gritwack.
I can't decide yet if gritwack is something I like or not, and if you've read this rant so far, I will gladly appreciate any of your feedback about whether gritwack is the new hotness.