Flash and Gotham
Two new TV shows just blasted their pilots into the world like a space rocket filled with DC characters: Gotham, the story of a city without a savior, and Flash, the tale of the Fastest Man Alive. Having seen both, and having a background in comics, writing, and being a pedantic ass, I can help you choose – Which show is worth your time, and which show is a steaming pile of bear shit wrapped in a baby-skin tortilla? Let’s find out!
What Are They Trying to Be?
I’m from the Ebertian school of thought, which is that the only fair way to judge a work is by what it’s trying to be, not what you want it to be. What does this mean? It means I’ve dispensed with all fanboy complaints and continuity wonkiness, and I watched both pilots with an open mind. The fact is, I don’t care if they mess up the continuity and maybe Two-Face is a gay black woman – they’re telling a story, and going rote by-the-book is extremely boring for everyone. A storyteller has to have their hands in the pie to give a shit about the pie, and some things are going to change.
So when I say one of these pilots is enjoyable and one of these pilots is complete crap, I want you to understand my full meaning. We’re looking at storytelling, character establishment, character motivation, and setting. The basic building blocks of any movie, TV, book, or game.
The funny thing about these two pilots is how similar they are in how they approach the construction of their world, but how their tiny differences in the details is the difference between good (Flash) and redumbulous nonsenseum (Gotham).
Cheesy Balls of Corn, Everywhere
Flash and Gotham are both DC television properties, which means like Smallville and Arrow (and Birds of Prey, never forget) before them, they are both dripping in nacho cheese. Marvel tends to be more self-aware about their cheese, having characters comment on silly things and poke fun at the more ridiculous pieces of lore that pop up. Now, I’m more for the meta approach that Marvel takes, but I can deal with unself-aware cheese under one circumstance – it’s tonally appropriate.
Flash is cheesy and cornball (“Rrrruuuun Barry rruuunnn!!!”), but it’s okay, because that’s actually an authentic tone for a smiling hero who runs really fast and fights sentient gorillas and guys named “Weather Wizard.” Notice, I’m not saying it’s authentic to the comic (because we’re dispensing with fanboy complaints), I’m saying it’s authentic to the character they are presenting to us. They’ve given us a smiling hero who actually enjoys his powers, and the cornball tone fits right under the skin. For instance, when Barry’s speed powers start kicking in, he has the requisite new-superhero moment where he loses control and breaks stuff. Spider-Man’s done it (in multiple movies), Supes has done it. Hell, even badass Logan cut a sink and a radiator in half while an old couple looked hilariously distressed in the background.
However, Flash breaks away from the cliché as fast as it can – Barry knocks a trashcan over, he busts a car windshield, and it looks like he’s going to have some break down “oh God what am I?!” moment. Instead he gives a little smirk, chuckles to himself, and runs his ass off down the alleyway, because he realizes instantly how awesome it is to be able to run at super-sonic speeds. A character who has that kind of reaction to superpowers turns the tone of the story more towards a fairy-tale, and as an audience member I could instantly relax. “Oh thank God,” I thought. “It’s a superhero show.”
Gotham, to put a dark cloud over the proceedings, is possibly even more corny than Flash. How that was allowed to happen is anyone’s guess. Now again, I want to explain that we’re talking about tone. The show Gotham is presenting to us is a gritty cop show about a dirty city. The show opens with a brutal, ultra-realistic murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents (spoiler alert?), and then brings Gordon on the scene to investigate. At narratives go, it’s a great idea, and connects Gordon to the Batman mythos almost instantly.
Gotham comes right out of the gate as a gritty show . . . and then other characters appear. Pinkett-Smith’s “Fish Moony” channels Eartha Kitt’s ’66 Catwoman (even borrowing one of her lines), and the show is turned into pure camp.
Oswald “I’m Penguin Guys Look It’s Penguin I’m a Penguin” Cobblepot pulls a similar trick – he’s silly and ridiculous and about as subtle as a sledgehammer dipped in bees. He’s told that he looks or walks “like a penguin” about four times in the first episode, and then a few more times in the second episode. Then the Riddler shows up spouting actual riddles and is even name-checked as “Nygma” in case you missed the reference because you’re brain dripped out of your nose during the commercial break, apparently. Then Ivy Pepper shows up in two scenes, and in each scene is literally misting a fern and wearing green, because you’re a stupid moron you dumb fucking audience member.
The show jumps between silly and serious every few seconds. Then we’re back to Bruce, burning himself with candles and thinking about jumping off the roof of Wayne Manor. Then you’ve got Catwoman pawing at a piece of jewelry like a cat (and her street name is Cat, and she steals milk, GET IT?! DO YOU GET IT?!). Then Bullock and Gordon murder a guy. Then they’re captured by mobsters and hung upside down and crack wise to each other. Then Carmine Falcone makes a really interesting, dark speech about law and organized crime. Then Penguin stabs a guy to death for a sandwich. Gotham is completely tone-deaf, and it almost proudly flaunts its “made by a committee” design.
The Talky Parts
Flash’s dialogue is pretty okay, for the most part. There’s a few too many instances of “let me tell you about what kind of character I am,” where characters spontaneously wax poetical about their motivations and emotions. There could also be less talk about “running” and “speed” and “being quick” before Barry turns into the Flash – we get it, he’s wearing red, he’s on the poster for the show. We know he’s going to be Flash, chill the fuck out. Early in the show, when child-Barry is running from bullies and tells his mom he “wasn’t fast enough” and his mom tells him “it’s not about how fast your legs are, it’s your heart that makes you a hero” I almost threw up on my coffee table.
However, Flash also takes the time to actually establish characters with dialogue nuance. When a fairly grim scene about Barry being a freak ends, instead of leaving it on a down note that we can all feel bad about, Barry points at his Star Labs sweatshirt and says “hey, is it cool if I keep this?” It’s a moment of levity, and it’s welcome for that. More importantly, however, it says something about who this Barry Allen is, and it does so without having the character literally tell another character who they are. He’s a “look on the bright side” kind of guy, he has a quick mind, and he’s got an odd sense of propriety – even though he’s a freak and his life has changed, he honestly likes the shirt but would feel bad if he just stole it. That’s nuance, used as comedy, and it’s brilliant.
Barry’s response to the cop whose pen he took tells a similar story. His voice-over that opens the show is actually pretty great, too – it’s funny, self-aware, and even feels more like a Wally West line then a Barry, but again, it makes for an instantly likable main hero.
Like Flash, Gotham has loads of corny dialogue (pretty much anything Bullock says), but it doesn’t fit their hardboiled cop show about fiction’s grimmest town. Bullock in particular talks like he’s been written by someone who’s never heard a human person talk to another human person before. Donal Logue is trying his best to polish those turd lines, and he nearly succeeds, but Bullock’s oddly formal diction and parody-noir dialogue is insurmountable. Actually Gordon’s dialogue is fucking horrible too.
Gordon’s dialogue isn’t as actively cringy as Bullock’s or Moony’s, but it consists almost entirely of “telling.” No character quirks like in Flash, no clever observations – it’s all either plot exposition or character exposition. New drinking game – every time Gordon tells you exactly what he’s feeling and what his character motivations are, take a drink. You’ll be pickled like a frat-boy on Thankstaking Day inside twenty minutes.
Don’t get me wrong, Flash is also guilty of some of this. When Tom Cavanagh’s Professor Wells stops a scene to explain how he’s lost everything apropos of nothing, it’s jarring. When Caitlin Snow similarly slams on the brakes and blurts out that her fiancé died during the accident, it’s tossed off with no real build up or follow-up. “I’m doing this because I lost my job and my fiancé died and now I’ve got nothing” is essentially what she says without any prompting, and Barry Allen just kind of stares at her and nods, like he honestly doesn’t know how to respond to such ham-handed exposition.
Flash succeeds where Gotham fails in that while they both have some bad dialogue, Flash also has moments that shine. When the Weather Wizard (who probably wasn’t really the Weather Wizard, not to digress) tells the cops that he thinks he’s God, Detective West gets off a perfectly delivered, incredulous “Why would God need to rob banks?” It’s a great self-aware moment, whereas in Gotham it probably would have been met with Gordon saying something like “You’re not God” and then Bullock shoots him.
Simply put, Flash has characters, and Gotham has exposition-robots and walking audience-winks. Barry Allen is funny, clever, a little hapless, and a bit shy. By contrast, Gordon is good at making self-righteous speeches (kind of), and he appears to be a police officer. Iris West is rebellious, snarky, and (paradoxically to the rebel-streak) a loving daughter. However, the paradox actually makes the character instead of ruining her – sure, she seems to take joy in defying her father, but she still loves him. She only has to rebel because he’s clearly got control issues – his outburst at Barry about growing up shows a similar hot-and-cold relationship with his surrogate (and real) children.
Gotham’s supporting characters are walking plots. Gordon’s girlfriend-future-wife can’t be a character, she has to have a hidden lesbian tryst with Montoya. Montoya, normally a staid and loyal cop, is instead turned into the stereotypical predatory, mean lesbian. I’m sure this secret will come out and Gordon will feel bad or whatever, but I don’t even know who Montoya and Barbara are outside of their (apparently wicked?) former gay relationship secret. Crispus Allen is . . . a dick. Montoya is a dick. Bullock is a dick. Falcone is a dick. Gordon is even a dick. It’s literally just a blender filled with dicks shaking around in an empty kitchen.
Flash and Gotham are both filled with references, but Flash doesn’t kick them down your taquito-hole. First off, the addition of John Wesley Shipp as Barry’s dad was brilliant – the second he walked in the door I pointed at the screen and shouted “John Wesley Shipp!” Then I looked around and realized I was alone and had impressed no one. Anyway. So, Flash references. There’s a cage that says “Grodd” at one point, referencing a future Flash villain. Done. If that scene had been in Gotham, Barry and Wells would have stopped at that cage, and this would have happened:
Barry: What’s this?
Wells: That’s the cage of one of our test gorillas, named Grodd. Gorilla Grodd, the interns used to call him. The blast from the accelerator knocked the cage open, bathing the whole cage and the gorilla in radiation. He’s a super intelligent ape now, probably.
Wells: We weren’t fast enough to catch him. Maybe we should have run faster. Speed. Gorilla Grodd.
Barry: I don’t understand –
Wells: You’re going to fight him as the Flash.
Luckily for Flash, and this may be one of the show’s saving graces: viewers aren’t as familiar with the Flash universe as they are the Batman universe. There are even more references in the show, but most people (including myself) don’t notice them. While that’s a function of their obscurity, the writers are also a bit cooler about tucking the details into the background. Sure, a future potential Killer Frost appears, but it’s never stopped and pointed at like in Gotham. They mention her name, she seems a bit staid, and that’s it. No “ice to see you,” no “cold shoulders,” no “that frost sure is killer.” In essence, the difference is that Flash doesn’t seem to hate its audience, where Gotham seems like it’s shouting “there, are you happy?!” every twelve seconds.
The only reference that really stood out as pork-fingered was the obligatory Arrow crossover. I’ve never seen Arrow, so take this next statement with that in mind, but it was such an awful, lame moment that it felt more like a commercial than an actual scene. It doesn’t really fit in the narrative, Green Arrow isn’t introduced in any significant way, and then the pilot moves on like “Phew, we got that out of the way.” Their friendship/awareness of one another isn’t even explained or touched on. It would have been just as natural if Flash had had a heart-to-heart with Darkwing Duck.
Again, the similarities between the shows are startling. Flash and Gotham both include a huge number of future villains in one episode. However, on Flash it feels like they’re seeding a universe, where in Gotham it feels like a carnival barker shouting names at you until you are suckered into walking into the tent. And then the carnies steal your shoes and feed you to the pack of coyote-dogs they keep chained behind the Tilt-A-Whirl.
In Closing . . .
Flash is a solid, fun show that was created and executed under a singular vision. It isn’t perfect (I’d give it a B-), but it knows what kind of show it is and it embraces it fully. I will definitely be watching it more. Gotham is a terrible, no good, very bad show, and I stopped watching it twelve minutes into the second episode because I kept shouting “fuck you” at the screen and my blood pressure couldn’t take it.
Here’s my final say, the reason you should choose one over the other: Barry Allen is Flash, in costume, maybe 30 minutes into the first episode. Three episodes in, Gordon still doesn’t have red hair, a mustache, or glasses.
The defense rests.