I love it when a story does darkness well. Watching the first episode of Gotham, the new sort-of-prequel-to-Batman TV show, I was struck by how well executed that darkness was. It shows a city of dark alleys, grey skies, smoking factories and police corruption. A take on Batman where even the usually civilised Alfred has the grim air of an ex-army sergeant. In both look and content, this is a dark show, and one of the darkest facets is its morality.
It’s hardly surprising that the guy running the show, Bruno Heller, is showing a city where institutions are corrupt and decisions are pragmatic rather than idealistic. This is the man who gave us Rome, a show all about the fall of that city’s republic and its transformation through war and murder into an empire. His characters can embody principles – James Gordon, the central character in Gotham, certainly does – but institutions do not embody principles, their functions are not ideal or eternal. The roles of police, politicians, even criminals are negotiated out of power relationships, the people changed by the institutions and the institutions by the people. It’s realistic, in a cynical sort of way.
I love this exploration of social institutions through story telling. We take so many of the organisations and power structures around us for granted, and TV shows in particular tend to present them in an unquestioned, unchanging light. But everything change over time, that’s how history happens, that’s what I like to see.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no right or wrong, but it encourages us to challenge our assumptions about how society works.
If this cynical take on society sets the show adrift on a sea of moral uncertainty, then this is nicely matched by its aesthetics. Not just because Gotham is a visually grim place, but because its style doesn’t fit any particular point in time. It’s an ambiguity that fits the original comics, in which most of the characters have aged little if at all through over 70 years in print. That means that Batman’s timeline makes little sense, and we’re still expected to read stories from the 1960s as a near-contemporary part of his life, despite al the changes in technology, style and social expectations.
The Gotham city of Gotham, instead of ducking that problem by picking a timeframe, plays with it with relish. There’s hardly any digital technology on display, and the computer monitors in the police precinct appear to be bulky monochrome affairs, yet characters carry cellphones. I don’t know much about fashion, but I’d have been hard pressed to pin down a decade from what I saw. The cars, the diners, the booze bottles and performers in the nightclubs, they all contribute to an air of uncertainty over when this is taking place.
And yet that creates a distinctive sense of place and time in itself. Like steampunk and other retro-futurist genres, it mashes real and imagined period elements together to create its own aesthetic, one in which the city’s issues with powerful, institutionalised crime make perfect sense. One that you might expect to corrupt characters or to drive them mad.
Gotham holds out promise to become something fascinating. On the basis of one episode I can’t tell whether it will achieve that, but I am really intrigued.