Six Tweaks That Would Make Gotham a Great Show
Gotham was named the most promising new show of the fall, and it's steadily improving, but in this writer's opinion, it's improving from an "okay" show to a "good" one, rather than from a "good" show to a "great" one. But what would make Gotham a "great" show? Most of the criticisms leveled at the Batman prequel come down to "lack of subtlety," but let's break it down a little:
1) Fewer DC villains
The DC Easter Eggs are fun, but especially in cases such as Edward Nygma, we don't need constant, barraging reminders that he's the Riddler. I could forgive a few winks in the pilot, because pilots are still finding their footing and they need to rope in their built-in fanbase. But the persistent nudging after the pilot is emblematic of one of Gotham's larger problems: that it's taking too long to see their characters as independent of the comics. I'm a stickler for being faithful to source material as much as the next person, especially when it comes to film adaptations, but television necessarily needs to be its own living breathing animal just as a result of the nature of the medium. Being boxed in for long-form entertainment doesn't help anyone, because it doesn't acknowledge the dynamics that develop within the show along the way. The show needs to declare virtual independence from the comics. Draw inspiration from it, yes, but don't let DC become a suffocating, Bible-like text that leaves no room for natural evolution.
Penguin has been a fairly unqualified success, but other DC villains have felt extraneous as they have struggled to find their place within Gotham's specific universe (Selina Kyle, The Riddler), or have barely been given any attention at all (Poison Ivy). Trimming down the villains and the winks would allow the writers to get to the good stuff, in which they really dig into Penguin's pathology and what makes him the way he is.
2) Fewer characters/plotlines in general
Gotham is trying to be an epic tale of the corruption of an entire city, which means many different forces at work and many different intersecting plotlines. And there are some characters or ongoing stories that could be cut altogether, but mostly, Gotham's problem isn't that it's juggling too many balls in the air, but that it feels the need to feature all of its plots and characters in every single episode. Every episode feels overstuffed, every character development gets short shrift, every climactic action scene feels rushed. If they want to have a sprawling narrative, then more power to them, but focus on one thing at a time. The writers could take a few tips from The Walking Dead, an action-packed genre show with an ensemble cast which often takes a break from group stories to focus on a couple of characters per episode. Focusing on only two characters likely wouldn't work on Gotham, at least not yet, but they could at least refrain from adding in one or two perfunctory Selina Kyle scenes that collectively go nowhere.
3) Slower Burn
The first two points go to this as well, but in general, the show needs to keep the big picture in mind. At first glance, it seems like the entirety of Gotham is the "big picture," as they are setting up the complexity of the conflict between the mob families in increasingly intricate ways, and as stated above, they're visibly struggling to juggle all the different plotlines that they've started. And it makes sense, in a way, since they're trying to portray the relatively complex idea of a city that's devoid of hope and needs a masked vigilante to become a symbol of whatever ideal they need at the time. But the show would have benefitted, and would still benefit, from some patience. Not all the themes that will be addressed in the show needed to be addressed right away (or stated explicitly, for that matter), and themes with a large scope can often be illustrated with smaller-scope stories. If Gotham would take a breath, calm down, and take the time to develop its characters and slowly create a nuanced portrait of a city in trouble, then it has the potential to be a spiritual cousin of the Dark Knight series. And it would still have time to be action-packed and conventionally entertaining, as long as it cut down its plotline-to-episode ratio considerably.
4) Pick a lane, tone-wise
One could argue that it's pointless to ask Gotham to be more nuanced and less cheesy, as it's "supposed to be campy." But therein lies another problem. In certain episodes, "Balloonman" in particular, it seems like it's trying to be a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted comic adaptation that we shouldn't take too seriously. But so much of the show is hitting you over the head with its "grittiness": the perpetual nighttime, the rain-soaked city streets, the noir-ish war between mob families with idiosyncratic internal dynamics. If the show only wants to be campy fun, then it should probably be funnier, and if it wants to be gritty and self-serious, then it should make all of the above changes and more.
5) Focus on the darker and more grounded aspects of DC Comics
If Gotham is choosing the "gritty" lane, then it can still borrow liberally from DC Comics. Arkham Asylum is as dark and social commentary-friendly as it gets, and villains such as Victor Zsasz would be more than suited for a version of Gotham that was meant to be a recognizable, if hyperbolically dark, version of New York City. One primary villain at a time is enough, but Penguin will likely become more of an antihero figure than a villain in order to sustain his presence on the show. When that happens, either Zsasz or Scarecrow would be a suitable antagonist for a streamlined narrative.
6) Kill off Barbara
Just get rid of Barbara. I know Jim is supposed to marry her in the comics, but she has absolutely no chemistry with Jim, their relationship is seemingly based on nothing, and she detracts more than she adds from every episode she's in. A close second would be to turn her into a superhero of some kind, but really, just get of her. This is really just indicative of a larger problem- the lack of strong female characters. Selina Kyle is extraneous to the proceedings, and Montoya and Essen have barely made an impression. Montoya's only significant role so far has been to antagonize Jim, motivated entirely by unprofessional personal bias, and Essen hasn't driven any of the action even though she's the head of the police department. This problem intersects with the show's race problem as well, and Jada Pinkett Smith is the only exception to both. All of the significant plot drivers, aside from Fish Mooney, are white men, which should change for the sake of realism if nothing else. They may be addressing the race problem somewhat, as they recently added David Zayas as Maroni and Morena Baccarin, a Latina woman, is arriving shortly to play Leslie Thompkins. But until Morena Baccarin is confirmed to play a female character who is capable, intelligent, relevant, and not evil, I maintain that there is a serious representation problem on this show.