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Gotham: The Complete First Season

Warner Bros. // Unrated // September 8, 2015
List Price: $60.10 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 10, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Season:

Gotham City has an old, relatively vague history independent of when Thomas and Martha Wayne were shot down in an alleyway, usually the first and primary thing that comes to mind about the motivation that drives Batman: the crime that got so bad that it took his good-natured parents away from him. The surroundings responsible for the billionaires' murder weren't created overnight, though, and intensified in response to their death, a time period that often goes unaddressed unless a detail about Bruce Wayne's transformation into the brooding hero needs mentioning. As a response to the character's unrelenting popularity -- sure to escalate as the Batman-Superman film approaches -- the folks at DC aim to use that largely unexplored space to provide an origin story for the city's violence and corruption, an attempt to recapture the magic of Smallville in a darker environment. The result is Gotham, a blend of crime-case procedure and mobster politics that also fills in the gaps between the orphaning of Bruce Wayne to where Batman begins, all of which gets hampered by patchy writing and hasty, problematic references to the mythology.

Taking pages out of the playbook of the comic-book series "Gotham Central", the show largely focuses on the interworking parts of the Gotham City Police Department, notably the arrival of rookie detective Jim Gordon in the midst of rampant corruption. Southland star Ben McKenzie brings initiative and fire to the character, a war veteran and straight-laced servant of the law who's thrown together with a dirty partner in Harvey Bullock, whose sympathetic flaws are marvelously embodied by Donal Logue. Their first case together? The murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, later revealed to be connected to the city's organized crime activity. In their investigation, Gordon quickly gets introduced to key players pulling the strings in Gotham, notably a swanky nightclub operator in Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) and her aging, rational boss, Carmine Falcone (John Doman). Then, there's Oswald Cobblepott (Robin Lord Taylor), an attendant to Fish whose wavering allegiances also come to the surface in response to Gordon and Bullock's investigation, working him into a position of persistent danger and upward mobility if he plays his cards right.

Against the backdrop of a Gotham City that combines Tim Burton's gothic vision with Christopher Nolan's stark approach into a relatively timeless metro area (flip cell phones give it a ballpark era), Gotham comes in hard and fast with its nods to the DC universe, eliminating any early concerns about how much of the mythology it'll incorporate. In fact, the show actually suffers from an oversaturation of these references, especially in how many of the classic villains have benign links to the GCPD in their pasts and, quite simply, how many have already shown up and taken shape into their well-known personalities. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, nor with tweaking what's known about the universe into its own continuity, but it does detract from the production succeeding as a credible prequel to the age of Batman -- touted early on as a selling point for the show. It's more bizarre than satisfying to see the riddlesome Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) as an awkward, morbid Dexter-like puzzle-solver working in the precinct, and to see a young Catwoman giving prowler pointers to a young Batman not long after she witnessed the infamous Wayne murder.

The areas where Gotham works are within the politics of the GCPD and the evolving criminal element, and, by association, the origin stories of Jim Gordon's fight against the department and The Penguin's ascent up the crime ladder. While the humdrum procedural aspect -- unhelped by the show's penchant for cheesy dialogue -- leaves a lot to be desired beyond references to the Batman universe, the conflicts that the individual cases spark at the corrupt precinct make up for it, elevated by Gordon's furious diligence against the powers-that-be who keep him from properly doing his job. Gotham only truly feels like it's in a comfort zone while exploring the power struggle between the mob bosses, though, especially when focused on the maneuverings of Robin Lord Taylor's brilliantly grimy performance as Oswald Cobblepott. Combining the knowledge that he'll eventually become a massive player in Gotham with the unpredictable, volatile nature of his younger self exemplifies what a prequel can accomplish. Bursts of violence and gunfights might amplify the energy of these situations, but the plays for power that force them into action -- benign and wicked -- are what give the series something worth following.

While Gotham does enjoy some measured success in expanding on the unknown areas of familiar characters and the growing malice of the city, it also regularly stumbles when it adds something entirely new to the equation. Chief of those being the character arc of mob associate Fish Mooney, an acrimonious muddle of transparent writing that armors her from harm and an overzealous performance from Jada Pinkett Smith that doggedly works to emphasize the character's survivalist edge. She's convincing as a threatening, abrasive presence with a unique visual flair to her appearance and her club, but the show gives her powers of manipulation and persuasion that neither the narrative nor the performance can back up, worsening as she becomes an integral part of the chaotic plotting late in the season. The bonkers developments in the life of Gordon's fiancee Barbara are about as problematic, filling her back-story with bisexual trysts, connections to Gordon's colleagues, and alcohol-infused moping and instability that aren't helped by the stiff performance of The Quiet Ones' Erin Richards. At least she's immaterial enough to be sidestepped, though, handled well by the show's inclusion of Dr. Leslie Thompkins -- radiantly played by Morena Baccarin -- as an alternate interest for Gordon.

Gotham really exposes the crux of its issues in the origin story of Bruce Wayne, built around the young orphaned billionaire developing the gumption and skill to investigate his parents' murder, planting the seeds for his growth into the Caped Crusader. This isn't the first time Bruce has been depicted as a sleuth during his childhood -- Scott Snyder's great run of comics a few years back has him following the trail of the Court of Owls as murder suspects -- but the in-depth, calculated methods of his research and the contribution of his war-veteran butler, Alfred (Sean Pertwee), try much too hard and far too quickly to emphasize this as the future Batman. The rush to get Bruce's intimate connection to Selina Kyle started at this young age, despite a plucky rebellious performance from Camren Bicondova, also tends to ring false through their interactions in playful training exercises, meetings throughout the city, even a fancy dance in the lineage of other iterations of their relationship. The show insists on people having no doubt of exactly who these kids become and what their fundamental attitudes will be, and it comes across as too on-the-nose to relish the significance.

As Gotham twists character attitudes in new directions, incorporates known Bat-villains for a routine procedural episode or two, and clumsily picks and chooses when to push the envelope of broadcast-TV limitations on bloodshed, it becomes even more unclear who its target audience intends to be. The bland case-solving drama and the show's powerlessness to make broad changes to the setting's landscape create enough static and stiffness to feel like it's not really going anywhere, while the alterations to known Batman characters understandably might rub fans the wrong way. Thing is, the series does get certain fundamental things right about crafting the elevated reality of the troubled city that could be focused upon in future seasons, if it were to capitalize on the opportunities opened up by its zany, violent shake-up of a finale to cast aside some of its weaker aspects. There's no turning back on the directions taken by Gotham in its premiere run, the growing paints in its odd divergences and the way it blows its wad so quickly on the Rogues Gallery; however, the foundation it's establishing as the crooked city that needs a vigilante force like Batman to straighten it out -- with Gordon's help on the inside -- still has plenty of potential hiding in the shadows.

The Blu-ray:

Similar to their presentations of Arrow, sans DVD discs, Gotham: The Complete First Season arrives from Warner Bros. in a standard slim tray case, which holds four discs with identical disc artwork. A side-loading slipcase duplicates the outer artwork, while the menus largely reflect the cover design's focus on head shots of what one could consider the four "main" characters of the show. A thin Episode Guide has also been included, which also annotates which episodes also have deleted scenes.

Video and Audio:

Warner Bros. have had a long time to hone their skills in their Blu-ray presentations of TV series, and it shows in their treatment of Gotham. Sporting six episodes on the first three discs and four episodes alongside roughly two hours of bonus features on the fourth, you wouldn't believe that so much content has been crammed onto each Blu-ray after seeing this slate of 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC digital transfers. The show's aesthetic ranges from grimy and gritty in the alleyways of Gotham, musty and/or muted in apartments and dining spots, and entirely robust and warm in Fish Mooney's bar, all of which retain proper color balance and robust (if slightly heavy) contrast through the transfers ... as do the bursts of fire, the acidic greens of chemicals, and other vibrant touches dropped throughout. Minor details in the surgically-crafted wardrobe, either sharp or wavy strands of hair, and set elements in both the GCPD and Barbara's apartment remain razor sharp, while the subtle radiance and diffusion of lighting sustains a highly satisfying presence no matter the mood. Appropriate skin tones, inky shadows, and no glitches. Can't ask for more under the circumstances.

Similar things can be said about the arrangement of 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks available here, which tend to be slightly stronger and more natural in presence than some of their other past efforts. As one can expect from a crime/comic book-centered show, a wide range of punchy effects can be heard throughout the series: gunfire, real fire, explosions, falling bodies, hand-to-hand brawls, the works. All of it sustains a meaty, expansive presence across the front channels and aggressively reaches into the lower-frequency channel, ramping up the action in all the right ways wherever needed. Surround activity remains persistent, from the rattle of trains to the bustle of a police station, with substantial and clear responses locking in the show's desired mood. More than all that, though, the verbal strength here is surprisingly well-handled and conscientious of the front channels, responding well to environments and tackling the range of loud and hushes voices with immense composure. No strained dialogue, no unsatisfying bass response, no distortion. Pretty terrific stuff. Subtitles are available in eleven different languages to accompany the English, Spanish, and Portuguese audio options.

Special Features:

Aside from the scant Deleted Scenes that are scattered across all four discs, all of the extras for Gotham appear on Disc Four, starting out with Gotham Invented (HD). Separated into three segments -- Building Our Gotham (13:19); Paving the Way for the Caped Crusader (6:56); and Fractured Villains of Gotham (11:13, 16x9 HD) -- these featurettes approach the conceptualization of the series in a straightforward, perfunctory interview-based fashion. Executive Producer/Writer Bruno Heller, DC creative chief Geoff Johns, and other producers and actors from the series elaborate on the timelessness and tone they're after with Gotham City, as well as how it's the birthplace for many of the biggest villains in literature and how it's in response to the Wayne's death. They also touch on the absence of Batman from the series and how they're telling the story of "why" instead of "how" these character became what they end up being, as well as how they've drastically tweaked some of the familiar villainous faces in the DC stable.

Bruno Heller continues to guide the bulk of the discussion through the other featurettes, leading into the aesthetic and tonal perspective the show's after with Designing Gotham (19:56, 16x9 HD). Discussion lands on the time-period inspiration for the fictional city, from '70s and '80s New York to '30s Chicago, accompanied by reference photos/footage and some nice, undoctored shots of the sets used in the series. They mention the intentional clash of period elements -- technology -- and art styles, while also including some set-construction progression footage. The Game of Cobblepott (26:25, 16x9 HD) focuses on the upsurge and failures of The Penguin in Gotham City, which tends to be somewhat drawn out with its comparisons to the game of chess and its incorporation of clips from the series. Gotham: The Legend Reborn (21:37, 16x9 HD), a series of web featurettes about the pilot that have been slapped together, plays as a straight recap of what the series is about and features interviews with a few cast members not included in other extras, though the content frequently overlaps with the stuff we've already heard.

WB and DC have also included a Night at Comic-Con 2014 (29:31, 16x9 HD) Q&A recording that also focuses on The Flash, Constantine, and Arrow, as well as a series of seven brief Character Profiles (HD) and a Gag Reel (4:55, 16x9 HD). A Digital Copy Slip has also been included.

Final Thoughts:

Landing on an overall recommendation for the first season of DC's deeply-flawed, maddening, yet ultimately watchable Gotham isn't an easy thing. In two of the three areas it wishes to expand upon the history of the city that brought Batman into existence, the show succeeds much more than it fails: the politicking around the Gotham City Police Department and detective Jim Gordon's charge through their dirty red tape, and the volatility of the criminal underworld within which Oswald Cobblepott claws his way upwards. There are negative aspect of both, though, notably the tedious case-by-case procedure that give Gordon and Harvey Bullock new things to do and the questionable presence of Fish Mooney, with a cloud of hammy, too comic-booky dialogue hanging over it all. It's also somewhat weak as a Bruce Wayne origin story, all points considered, rushing to get the young Batman into a recognizable character space as his adult self -- a problem felt by several other characters on the show, notably the abundance of villains that have already made an appearance. The gritty, guilty-pleasure style's there, though, and the show maintains a consistent, exciting pace, even when it has difficulties moving forward in narrative. Warner Bros.' Blu-ray boasts tremendous audiovisual qualities, and comes with a meager but substantive collection of featurettes. Cautiously Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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