Reviews on Fox’s Gotham have been fairly mixed for the entirety of its first season, and admittedly, the show has no shortage of drawbacks. But I want to suggest that it has a great deal of potential too, and that, particularly in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter activism, and the current debate about unchecked police brutality, the show’s premise actually has a great deal to offer us when 2015 gets underway.
Gotham is ostensibly about the pre-Batman era of the Batman universe, and many people who have expressed dissatisfaction with it often do so on the grounds that it takes extreme liberties with the established canon. This is an understandable resentment to have. However, I personally am of the opinion that a) loyalty to the canon for loyalty’s sake is not inherent a virtue and b) genre fiction is always at its best when it is being used to comment on real world problems and politics. And with that in mind, Gotham is strangely, uniquely poised, in my opinion, to be one of the most insightful commentaries on a dilemma that is acutely relevant at this particular moment in time:
What does it mean to be a ‘good person’ working in and for a deeply corrupt police system?
American television is riddled with dramas that glorify police work as being mainly about helping good, law-abiding people, catching the “bad guy” and making sure justice is served. However, as many marginalized communities have long argued, this is a view of law enforcement that frankly reflects a white, middle-to-upper class, often hetero-male perspective. Most marginalized societal groups, historically and currently, experience a certain level of systematic victimization at the hands of police and law enforcement, be it the scores of women (and the fair amount of men) whose rape and domestic abuse reports are often dismissed, trivialized and under-investigated, to the black communities’ extensive brutalization at the hands of the police, to the historic entrapment of gay men, raids on gay bars and lack of justice for queer-bashing, to the over-incarceration of POC across the board for drug offenses white communities are equally likely to commit, and for which they are far less likely to be arrested and prosecuted.
Police procedurals have long been a popular mainstay of the American television landscape, and most of them tend to treat these issues – when they bother to address them at all – primarily as the result of a few bad apples within a basically good/decent system. Gotham is actually relatively unique in that it does not begin with the premise that most cops are good, or that the system is basically virtuous; its foundational proposition is that the system is essentially corrupt, and that most cops are not to be trusted or given the benefit of the doubt. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting it is the only show ever to explore such issues. Merely that it is one of the few currently airing to take on this central premise)
Gotham concedes from the outset that a significant segment of the police are fundamentally criminal, most are at the very least somewhat complicit, and even the tiny minority who are genuinely out to do only good cannot remain completely clean in a system that is so utterly filthy. This is what gives it the potential to be a genuinely subversive and insightful addition to the wide-ranging array of cop dramas currently airing on prime-time. Furthermore, because it is of the comic-book genre, and is therefore one step removed from ‘reality,’ it has more leeway to explore these questions and issues with greater frankness and less apologism than do shows like Law & Order, Blue Bloods, Castle, Rookie Blues, CSI, NCIS, etc.
As the backlash to the #BlackLivesMatter activism and protests have shown – particularly in the wake of the admittedly tragic deaths of slain police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu – it is very difficult to make a dent in the hegemonic mentality that the police are fundamentally the “good guys.” Even a whiff of criticism for cops – no matter how well-founded or immanently justified – is often met with unbridled outrage and hyperbolic defensiveness. To be clear, I of course am not at all condoning violence done to police as ‘retribution’ or in ‘protest.’ When police officers are killed without cause, it is an unequivocal tragedy, and the use of that kind of random, symbolic violence against police is categorically unjustified and thoroughly reprehensible.
However, false equivalencies are a serious threat to responsible public discourse about the actual rates of violence done to police, versus violence done by police, particularly against black communities in the United States. The levels are not even remotely comparable, and the rare, isolated tragedies that make the very occasional cop a victim of citizen violence are infinitesimally minute relative to the decades-long systematic brutalization done to particular groups of citizens on a mass scale by the police. Murdering police officers is deeply wrong, but it is also not a chronic, systemic problem in the same way police killing innocent black folks (and being absolved of any responsibility for it) demonstrably is.
To put the situation as bluntly as possible, cops are far more likely to victimize citizens with undue violence than they are to be victimized by citizens with undue violence. And that fact makes them and their institutions legitimate targets of protest, scrutiny and criticism, regardless of those anomalous instances where this general pattern of victimization is briefly reversed.
I have long said Gotham is at its best when it places Jim in impossible situations, and forces him compromise his ideals in order to “get along” in a system rank with corruption. Watching Gordon try to be a good guy when nothing around him supports or sustains that is really where the show’s latent genius lies, because it is a commentary on how being part of an evil institution perpetuates your compliance with and even doing of evil, even when your intentions are good and your motives are pure.
One of the most infuriating responses people often give to criticism of police is something along the lines of “My uncle is a police officer and he never hurt anyone, so how dare you paint all cops with the same brush.” This is faulty logic that says just because some individuals within the system are basically good, you are not allowed to criticized the system as a whole, and you are not allowed to make any kind of generalizations – again no matter how broadly justified – just because there are exceptions, outliers and anomalies. Gotham sits precisely at the apex of that argument and has enormous potential to say something about what is fundamentally wrong-headed about that mode of thinking.
This is why Jim Gordon is the protagonist America desperately needs in the context of this debate about systematic police brutality. Because he is precisely that good cop people love to point to in order to invoke the derailing argument of not all cops. This, however, is an obfuscation of the real power dynamics at work when good people go to work for bad systems. Jim’s fundamental dilemma is that he, as an individual, has very little capacity to be good when everything about the police force he works within actively punishes and suppresses that inclination. Lone individuals tilting at windmills rarely last long within corrupt institutions, and if they do, they are making significant compromises, picking their battles with immense care and are often coerced into silence about the misbehavior of others with whom they share institutional ties…all choices Jim Gordon has been forced to make and will make again in the future, I have no doubt.
Indeed, this pattern has continued to be one of the most predictable and disheartening fallouts of the recent high-profile, real-world cases where individual police officers have killed innocent civilians. Very few fellow police are willing to step forward and say, these officers did something wrong and they need to be held to account for the injustice they committed. Instead, there is a vocal minority of police officers actively supporting and defending the officer clearly at fault, surrounded by scores of other police officers who remain silent, because cops don’t publically criticize other cops…at least not if they want to get good assignments, decent promotions or remain employed long enough to get a pensions. Not to mention the district attorneys not particularly invested in indicting cops, for the sake of their own careers. As that paragon of jaded yet righteous indignation, The Wire’s Det. McNulty, once bemoaned, “Everybody stays friends, everybody gets paid and everybody’s got a fucking future.”
And that’s exactly what it means to be a good person in a rotten system. It means making calculations about the risks of standing up for what’s right when institutional punishment or retribution of some kind is not only possible but likely. It is also why the not all cops argument is a complete red-herring and why Gotham hopefully will stand as a prescient cultural counter-point to that perspective when it picks up again in the New Year.
The show thus far has flip-flopped between being a gritty crime drama, a campy origin story for Batman’s villains, a coming-of-age yarn for Bruce Wayne/Batman himself, and a journey of perpetual moral ambivalence for Jim Gordon. This inconsistency of focus is forgivable for a show still trying to find its footing during its first season. However, my hope is that going forward, the series will give primacy to Jim’s journey through the bowels of the GCPD system as he precariously balances all his pure motives and good intentions with the endless mandates he confronts to passively condone and actively perpetuate systematic injustice.
Gotham ultimately should not be about the cartoonish mustache-twirling evil of characters like the Penguin and Fish Mooney, or even the awkward adolescent evolution of Bruce Wayne/Batman. They are the comic-book garnish that gives the show a certain degree of genre flare and entertainment value, but they are not its beating heart. Ultimately it is the story of a man who wants to do good and who is, inch by inch, deprived of that capacity by a systematically victimizing institution that is so much bigger and more powerful than him. It is the story of a righteous man whose virtue is always on the brink, and who exemplifies the structural mandate to compromise with evil in order to function and “get along.”
The ultimate lesson of Gotham is that systems are always bigger and more powerful than the individuals operating within them. Jim Gordon is a cautionary tale that, unfortunately, is all too necessary in the context of our current cultural scene. Criticism of the police and their historically documented systematic victimization of various marginal groups cannot be waylaid or compromised by the misguided tokenizing of well-intentioned individuals within; the Jim Gordon’s of the world do not absolve powerful institutions like the police of the wrong that they do. So too, it is naïve to think the Jim Gordon’s of the world are not even a little bit culpable of perpetuating this wrong from time to time.
What is most important about Gotham as a prequel is that we know from the beginning Jim Gordon’s quixotic quest is an assured failure. Elsewise, there would be no need for the superhero Batman, still yet to come. Jim’s is the story of a man who cannot, through heroic individualism, exceed his over-determined imbrication within the corrupt GCPD, and Gotham is the story of how bad systems chew-up good people and structurally neutralize their efforts to do the right thing. Yes, Jim wants to be good. But most of the time, his good intentions are for shit, because as the saying goes, “It’s Chinatown,” “It’s Baltimore,” “It’s Gotham,” “It’s Ferguson.”
The show, ironically, is often dismissed as juvenile compared to series like Law & Order and Blue Bloods. However, in my opinion, is actually far more immature to continue to use these types of shows to tell ourselves flowery stories about the inherent goodness and virtue of police institutions when so much about our world demonstrably contradicts that thesis. Yes, it may have cartoonish super-villains and magical quasi-scientific potions for inducing super-strength, but of all the cop dramas on TV right now, Gotham is arguably one of the most grown-up in its willingness to admit the system enables and incentivizes wrong-doing by police, and that the struggle to be a good person within that system absolves neither it nor you of the havoc it wreaks on the innocent. It is a harsh lesson, and one with which we have a fiercely urgent responsibility to grapple in light of our ever increasing, mostly black, citizen body count and the growing array of law-enforcement officials still not held responsible for their unjustified killings.