Aesthetics and Affiliation in Gotham

March 24, 2015
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Gotham-PromoWhen Fox’s drama Gotham first premiered, it immediately became clear that its villains were going to be one of the primary foci. After all, while the series’ ostensible protagonists are Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and the very young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), Gotham’s aesthetic suggests that it is actually the two primary villains, Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the fledgling Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) who come to be the most viscerally pleasurable and compelling characters in this backstory drama.  The series consistently utilizes its aesthetic choices to undermine the typical moral binary that structures the narratives, and the appeals, of other more mundane and formulaic procedurals.  In doing so, it also forces us to live in an uncomfortably pleasurable sort of diegetic world, one in which the pleasures of that which is supposedly evil permeate even the ways in which that world appears to us on the screen.

Part of this, of course, has to do with the stiffness of Gordon; McKenzie lends a measure of gravitas and almost deadening seriousness to the future police commissioner.  While this allows him to, for the most part, maintain a measure of moral certitude that may appeal to the more conservative members of the audience, it also makes his plotlines somewhat plodding and predictable at times.  And poor Bruce.  While Mazouz invests the future Batman with a certain pristine appeal–slightly nuanced by his recent attempts to wrest control of his company from the obviously-villainous Board–he is overshadowed not only by the major villains, but also by his own child co-star Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).

It is also a matter of space. The police station is, unsurprisingly, painted in grim colors, rendering it a stultifying space that lacks a sense of liveliness or energy. Compare this to Fish Mooney’s bar, which is always full of lush, saturated colors and musical performers who, while perhaps not talented, nevertheless provide a bit of local color (and who could ever forget Carol Kane’s atrociously wonderful performance)?  The bar serves as a world of color and barely restrained sensual energy, a welcome relief from the bleak and grimy cityscapes that show us a Gotham crumbling under the weight of urban decay and the organized crime that permeates every corner of the metropolis. Mooney’s bar also sits at the center of almost of all of the major plots that have emerged among the various crime elements of the city.  Whether under the control of Mooney or of Penguin, the bar is the epicenter of the criminal life of this grimy city.

It’s probably no accident, then, that between them, Jada Pinkett Smith and Robin Lord Taylor get the best lines of the series.  The appeal of Fish Mooney, however, goes beyond her quips; it seeps into every aspect of her persona. It might be going too far to suggest that Smith is a scenery-chewer, but there is something decidedly lush about the ways in which she delivers her lines, even when faced with the imprisonment and torture that have characterized her more recent storylines. It’s thus more than just being interesting. Fish Mooney is compelling; we as viewers actually care about what happens to her.

Like the other powerful women of color that have appeared on television in recent years (most notably, Viola Davis as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder), Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney has elevated being an understandable and compelling anti-heroine into an art.  Just as importantly, she also contains a great deal of queer potential, the pleasures of her performance gathering just as much significance as the actions that she takes within the drama.

penguin-gothamWhen it comes to queer pleasures, however, no character provides as many as the Penguin.  From his kooky mother (Carol Kane), to whom he remains steadfastly loyal to his own penchant for the theatrically excessive, Penguin has emerged as one the queerest characters currently on television. Largely eschewing the tough-as-nails, hard-boiled male personae of Gordon and the world-weary patriarchal authority of Don Falcone (John Doman), Penguin succeeds precisely because everyone assumes that simply because he does not perform hegemonic masculinity as well as his fellow male characters. He succeeds because, like any queer, ludic trickster, he knows exactly the places where the dominant rules don’t or can’t hold up, and he exploits them to the fullest.

Through its aesthetic choices, Gotham encourages its viewers to confront the uncomfortable thought that evil, chaos, and queerness are infinitely more interesting, compelling, and even believable than the forces of good, law, and the boring straight world.  For a series that started out as a backstory for Batman and Jim Gordon, it seems to have fully embraced the idea that people really want to see, and what they really enjoy, are the villains who steal the show every week.


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