Back in the good old days of 2013, a television show premiered with great fanfare and even greater expectations. Marvel's Agents of Shield sounded very much like a cash grab. The previous year, The Avengers earned over one billion dollars worldwide so it only seemed fitting Marvel Studios would try to conquer the small screen. For a moment, it seemed they did just that when the show premiered with an audience of over 10 million viewers. That wouldn't last. Subsequent episodes saw ratings drop by half for good reason: those first episodes were boring. Mission of the week scenarios and countless name drops ( "You remember that guy/girl from that movie you loved?" "Yeah we know them!" "Well, so do we!") just didn't make for good television. Early on, promised tie-ins with new releases like Thor: The Dark World were non-starters (they cleaned up the mess!) A cameo by Samuel Jackson was a blink and you'll miss him affair at the end of the second episode. Finally, the core SHIELD team, minus Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Melinda Mai (Ming-Na Wen) were so cookie-cutter pretty yet insufferably boring that an episode where one of them is put in danger barely elicits an emotional response. AoS seemed content to get by on association rather than tell a compelling story. Viewers weren't and tuned out.
Then, something happened. AoS wasn't trying to get by on its good looks after all. Rather, it's narrative was held hostage by the grander "It's All Connected" plan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there was intrigue about how the demise of SHIELD would play out on a show based on the very spy agency. The pretty boring people actually became interesting: agent Ward (Brett Dalton), the personality-less handsome boy scout was a homicidal maniac! Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), the too cute for words geniuses became torn (Simmons) and damaged (Fitz). What was once black and white became exceedingly gray. This was truest for Coulson, whose own motivations were called into question. While there's no excuse for the show to have what was essentially a wasted first half season, the show put it together in the later half into a coherent, fun story. The second season proved the show didn't even need the MCU ( in Age of Ultron, the Helicarrier Fury shows up in was a direct result of Coulson's actions.) The Inhumans, Mockingbird and a few more notable characters were introduced while killing off others which made for exciting television. The problem? The mediocre first have season's damage was done and the show struggled to get over 5 million viewers. This is really a shame, because the initial broken promises and expecting audiences to follow along while they figured things out have been resolved. Let's hope people have had a chance over the summer to catch up with Season two to tune in this season, because if ratings remain low, this might be its last.
The problem, besides not having a coherent story, the show's writers are limited to what they can do in a Batman universe that isn't connected.
After AoS righted the ship that was season one, the blueprint of what they were trying to accomplish was evident. The same cannot be said however for Gotham (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am one of the biggest Batman fans ever. I read Batman comics, play Batman games, I even have a little Batman shrine in my bedroom. I am more DC than Marvel, so if anything I'm biased to like anything DC.) When the show was announced as a prequel, it was uncertain how they would incorporate and make interesting characters in a world without Batman. The answer was they couldn't. The show, like the first half of AoS Season one, had no real direction and never knew what it wanted to say. Motivations and storylines would change from one week to the next; Muppet baby versions of known characters are introduced; original characters began as interesting but again would make no sense by season's end. The problem, besides not having a coherent story, the show's writers are limited to what they can do in a Batman universe that isn't connected. While AoS was hindered by its connectivity to the MCU, it initially still benefits from it. Likewise, DC's own Arrow and The Flash's shared universe only strengthens the narrative, (Barry Allen was introduced on Arrow before the premiere of his own show.) That universe, though not connected to the DCU, takes liberties with little known characters to create a satisfying story arc. With Gotham, there's but so much the writers can do. An example of this limitation occurred with Arrow, and their use of Deathstroke and the Suicide Squad. Even though they appeared first on the show, DC and Warner Brothers' grander plan has shut down those characters from appearing again which is a shame. It's safe to say that will never see Batman on Gotham which isn't a bad thing, but because of the constant winks and nudges its like a person personal trainer yelling at you to work harder while feasting on a piece of cake, it's insulting. With the second season ready to premiere, and the promise of the "villains rising" it looks to be more of the same Baby Ivy (stupid), Baby Cat (yawn), and Baby Joker (really?) The only way to right this ship is to change course. Here are some suggestions on what the writers can do to fix Gotham:
This is a show about Gotham, not Batman, and that isn't a bad thing. Then without Batman we don't need Bruce Wayne either. Like Peter Parker, we get it. Parents die, yada yada yada, superhero. With respect to David Mazouz, the young actor playing Bruce, he's done a great job but it's simply boring to watch the early years. Two options for the show are when Bruce is off training, follow Gordon as he tries to hold Gotham together before Batman's arrival. Or, make it a night on the beat (ala Gotham central) and have Ben McKenzie, who is really good as Gordon, play a detective who is living under the shadow of the Bat. That way, you can have Batman without ever seeing him. The theme of how hard it is for a cop torn between corruption and vigilantism makes for better storytelling, rather than shoehorning in an established universe to limited framework.
Better original characters:
Fish Mooney, initially an interesting character became separated at one point from the rest of Gotham's storyline with the Dollmaker arc. Initially kind of creepy, it did nothing to progress the story in a meaningful way. By the time she rejoins the main players she had become a shell of the promise she showed from the beginning. Butch, her henchman who was actually a very intriguing personality then has his...personality stripped (don't worry, it inexplicably returns.) If the writers need inspiration for well-thought-out original characters, perhaps they should look no further than to Batman: The Animated Series. Alongside familiar characters creators Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski and Paul Dini created some of the most interesting characters that are now part of the Batman universe. Can anyone say Harley Quinn? Which brings us to...
Stop throwing in canon characters and doing nothing with or ruining them:
Barbara. Back to her in a second. One of the bigger travesties on the show is Renee Montoya, a character created for Batman:TAS and made canon in the comics (she was a version of the Question.) With so much potential, she is treated as an afterthought: possibly a good cop, she disappears then reappears as a love interest for Barbara and then disappears again. She simply has nothing to do and her presence feels more like a nod to the fans (a bad one) then anything meaningful. Her portrayal is an insult to her character and the writers should be ashamed. Back to Barbara: I can't remember a more pathetic use of a character. She gets drunk, she's on drugs, she's annoying and this is supposed to be Gordon's future wife. She goes missing for episodes to then show up and do nothing. Early fan theories pointing to the possibility of a progenitor Joker might have made her interesting, but it seems they're going with the circus kid making it unlikely. The season hasn't started so that could change.
The biggest problem Gotham has is what AoS had early on: hubris. Saying you're making a Batman prequel, but throwing in known characters while saying it's really only about Gotham, but also expecting to pass a half-assed procedural cop show just because it's related to Batman is full of itself. No cohesive narrative, dragging us along promising "Oh look! The Batcave!" then saying it's not the Batcave reeks of pretentiousness. I really hope Gotham pulls itself together the way AoS did. But if it's more of the same, I'll just get my Batman fix from the better Batman show, Arrow.