Nadia watches Netflix: Gotham Season 1

A couple weeks ago, I binged the entire first season of “Gotham” on Netflix. “Gotham,” for those of you who are unaware, is a prequel of the Batman lore and follows Jim Gordon and his budding police career. We also get to see a young Bruce Wayne as he copes with the aftermath of his parents’ murder.

I was intrigued by “Gotham” not because I’m a Batman aficionado (I watched the animated series as a kid, but that was about it), but because Gordon is played by none other than “The O.C.’s” Ryan Atwood, whose IRL name is, Wikipedia informs me, actually Ben McKenzie.

The 2000s was really my heyday in terms of pop culture awareness, so Ryan (that’s his name as far as I’m concerned) is one of a few select group of television stars that I recognize on sight (others include Rory and Lorelai from “Gilmore Girls” and Kristen Bell, who will forever be Veronica Mars in my eyes. You thought I was kidding when I said the 2000s were my heyday, didn’t you?).

Anyway, I wanted to see what Ryan was up to, and I sunk like a rock into the dark world that “Gotham” imagines. I got through the first season almost compulsively because nearly every episode ended on a cliffhanger and I had to see what happens next. But it’s also a very violent show, so I needed a break between seasons. In the meantime, I thought I’d summarize everything I liked and didn’t like about the first season. Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead:

I liked:

  • Jim Gordon: I like Ryan in this new role. I mean, Jim Gordon is essentially a grown-up version of Ryan Atwood, complete with “strong, silent type” demeanor and a predilection towards emotionally unstable blonde girls.
  • Baby Bruce Wayne: It’s actually kinda fun watching a teenage Bruce Wayne develop the skills that he would utilize as Batman later on. Plus the kid who plays him, David Mazouz, is a surprisingly good actor.
  • Alfred: is badass. Seriously, I don’t know how he got the job as the Wayne’s butler, but clearly they were anticipating needing more than just a guy who can answer a door because Alfred is one tough cookie.
  • Harvey Bullock: Donal Logue makes everything better. I just love him.

  • Fish Mooney: I don’t know why, but something about Jada Pinkett-Smith in this bizarre and overly dramatic role just speaks to me. Actually I do know why: it’s because I like watching a tiny lady stab giant men. I’m super bummed she was drowned(?).

  • Edward Nygma: His descent into madness will clearly be the highlight of the next season.

  • Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot: He gives the me the heebie-jeebies, but I kinda want him to see him become the ultimate mob boss. It’s that physically underwhelming guy being the one in control thing again.

I didn’t like:

  • Selina Kyle: For a street urchin, this girl is surprisingly well-groomed and well-dressed. I’m not buying it. Scruff her up a little!
  • Barbara Kean: I knew she was crazy the minute she came onscreen, because a) see predilection for unstable blonde chicks referenced above, and b) she basically didn’t have a personality at all until the last third of the season, and unfortunately when writers don’t know what to do with a character, they make end up making her crazy.

  • Leslie Thompkins: This character is played by the girl who was the barista with crazy eyes on “How I Met Your Mother,” and once you’ve seen crazy eyes on a person, it’s hard to unsee them.
  • The Dollmaker: This was a stupid subplot and a giant waste of time.
  • Victor Zsasz: I like the actor, but I don’t get the character. There are already enough visibly disturbed people on this show. What is he adding here? Not much from where I’m sitting.
  • The city itself: Are we even going to pretend that this isn’t actually New York City? Not gonna even try? No? Okay then. Seriously, it’s jarring to be sucked into the story only to have it interrupted by what is obviously the New York City skyline. I’ll pretend that “Gotham” takes places in an alternate universe where New York City just has a different name, but I won’t like it.

 

The bizarre world of home improvement television

In case it isn’t already incredibly obvious, I watch a lot of television. What can I say? We get some pretty good channels at our place.

One of the channels we get (which will remain unnamed, lest I anger the Producers That Be) is dedicated to real estate and home renovations. If I had to guess, I’d say that this channel runs around eight different shows at a time. “Different,” however, is a strong word. These shows all run on one of two premises:

  1. A couple are moving to a new city and looking for a home in which to live. Both have very specific requirements for this home which are, more often than not, irreconcilable. A harried real estate agent accomplishes the impossible – finding them a home they both like – by showing them exactly three houses.
  2. An old house, rundown by time and probably weather, having suffered the neglect of man and woman and finally abandoned by the populace, is rescued from obscurity by a kindly, creative couple/siblings/single person determined to give it a new lease on life and on ownership, so that it may once again fulfill its housely destiny as a home for a family of three/five/seven/eleven/etc.

So, eight programs, all based on premise or the other. It is amazing to me that this kind of situation can occur and apparently be very profitable for said channel, although given the fact that there are approximately three separate “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” shows on at any given time, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised.

And let’s face it, that’s basically what we’re watching, isn’t it? Yes, it’s interesting to see what you can get for your money in Chicago or wherever, or what kind of furniture goes with blue wallpaper, but that’s just a sideshow next to the real entertainment.

Why can't they indeed, Liz Lemon.
Why can’t they indeed, Liz Lemon.

What’s truly entertaining is watching couples bicker about budgets and yard size and “curb appeal,” a term I learned recently. It’s a short window into the relationships, but through it you can glimpse (and snigger) at the power dynamics. You’d think there’s enough conflict on television, but apparently not.

I don't know if these two are married, but they should be.
I don’t know if these two are married, but they should be.

 

Regardless of the whys and hows, it’s obviously a winning formula, because it seems that every time I turn on the television I see an ad for a new show based on the exact same premise. Clearly, this unnamed channel and its army of real estate agents and contractors are raking it in.

It makes you want to get into the real estate industry.

The case for close-ended shows

Does it though? Image by Brandon Martin-Anderson via Flickr.

You, the reader, probably don’t watch a whole lot of Arabic television, but I do. But this not a list of the differences between Arabic and English television shows. That would be too long.

No, this is the case for incorporating one particular aspect of Arabic drama into the world of Western television, and that aspect is the closed ending.

Consider: the most satisfying aspect of a story in any format is that it’s building towards some kind of climax, followed by a winding down to a sensible end. This is story arcs 101, and there’s a reason for that: it works. When you don’t have a specified end, you force the story to continue in ways that are inorganic and ultimately dissatisfying.

Couldn’t be any simpler. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Think about it, how many of your favorite shows ended up going down the tubes after three or four seasons, rehashing old plot-lines and resorting to obnoxious guest characters to force humor and/or drama where none can grow?

Or even worse, how many shows were cancelled after one or two seasons, leaving the dedicated viewer grasping at straws, forced to resort to that dark side of the Internet, fanfiction, in a desperate attempt to gain some form of closure?

Compare that to your average Arabic television drama, which wraps up in quick and easy 30 episodes. This ensures that the show will have a beginning, a middle, and, thankfully, an end. Within that tried and true structure, you have character development, crisis and resolution, and an overall sense of structure. Even when the end is left purposely open, at least you have a sense that the main plot is wrapped up.

There are, of course, many shows that follow a season format, but that’s usually because they cannot, for whatever reason, resolve the major plot points within 30 episodes. At most you’ve got a story that 90 episodes to end. That’s still much less than the average six-season American television show, which at 22 episodes a season is over 120 episodes! That’s not even taking into consideration the fact that a lot of these episodes involve either a) upping the dramatic ante until it reaches previously unheard of levels of insanity (*cough “Grey’s Anatomy” cough*), b) employing ridiculously convoluted plot twists in an attempt to maintain viewer interest (“Pretty Little Liars” is particularly notorious for this), or c) beating the “will they won’t they” drama to death (“Friends” and, increasingly, “New Girl”).

Stop this plot! In the name of proper storytelling structure!

I’m not alone in thinking our shows go on for way too long: more and more new shows are debuting at just 10 episodes in their first season. In an interview with Variety, television producer and the brains behind Parks and Rec, Mike Schur, says, “…there’s more of a sense that shows should have a number of episodes that befits that idea, instead of just, ‘Let’s do as many as we possibly can.'”

It’s a trend that many credit to networks like HBO, AMC, and Starz. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s not enough. The problem is not the number of episodes per season, it’s the number of episodes overall. So I say it’s time to take a page out of the book of Arabic television and commit only to shows that have both a start and an end.

Goodbye show. We knew ye a little too well.

Racebending vs. whitewashing: Whys, whens, and hows

If you have a Twitter account and a vague interest in movies, you’ve likely heard of the rising furor over recent casting choices in upcoming movies. Specifically, the casting of British actress Tilda Swinton as Asian character The Ancient One of the “Dr. Strange” comics, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character in the movie version of the Japanese series “Ghost in the Shell” caused outrage over the whitewashing of Asian characters, culminating in the trending hashtag #whitewashedOUT.

Of course, Asian characters aren’t the only ones being whitewashed in pop culture. There’s a lot that has been written about race and representation in the media (some of it by me). The concept of representation is simple: people should see their world reflected back to them in what they consume. The process of representation, however, can sometimes be more complex, because we can have disagreements over what constitutes representation, particularly when it comes to changing the race or gender of already established characters. For the record, I am all for race and gender-bending – I actually wrote an article highlighting some great examples of it here. But there are times when race and gender-bending is appropriate and fun, and times when it is not.

Context matters

One of the major criticisms of the movie adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” is that the casting of Scarlett Johansson ignores the specifically Japanese context in which the story takes place. That’s not to say that you can’t adapt a story from one culture into another – you can, and that’s a great way to share cultures. But the key is that you adapt the whole story, recognizing that there are some aspects to the original that won’t translate or are not relevant in the receiving culture. A movie like that wouldn’t be “Ghost in the Shell,” it would be something else, something different, that’s inspired by “Ghost in the Shell.”

This is particularly important when we consider manga and anime works. Because of the way they’re drawn, a lot of Western audiences perceive anime characters as being white – they’re not. Anime and manga stories are created in a Japanese context and are often set in Japan. If you’re going to translate anime directly into another medium, you have to acknowledge the characters’ Japanese identity.

See this beautiful setting? It's Crystal Tokyo. TOKYO. via sailormoonnews.com
See this beautiful setting? It’s Crystal Tokyo. TOKYO.
Image via sailormoonnews.com

Where diversity is now

If you’re going to racebend a character, don’t do it to one that’s already underrepresented in mainstream media. Our goal should be to increase diversity, not decrease it.

Although there’s been some improvement in the representation of minorities, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, not just in numbers but in how these characters are presented as well. As this wonderfully detailed post by Nerds of Color demonstrates, major franchises sorely lack in representation of not just people of color, but also women and women of color specifically. What little representation there is often relies on harmful stereotypes and double standards for male and female characters.

The "diverse" world of The Avengers.
The “diverse” world of The Avengers.

This leads to another question – should you switch out one underrepresented group for another?

I’m going to go ahead and say no, and here’s why: a lot of Western culture tends to treat minority groups, especially those from similar cultures or close geographical areas, as though they’re the same and therefore interchangeable. Indian and Pakistani cultures are often conflated, Arab cultures are treated as one monolith, Asian people are seen as “looking the same,” and people deem it socially acceptable to say things like “I went to Africa.” Where in Africa? Apparently, that’s not a distinction that’s necessary to make.

Minorities are not interchangeable. You cannot, for example, replace an originally Arab character in a story with an Indian one and call that a win for diversity. When production companies do this, they’re basically saying, “Well, Indians and Arabs are basically the same.” Now think about it. If someone told you that Arabs and Indians are the same people, wouldn’t you consider that ignorant and racist?

I rest my case.

What purpose does race/gender-bending serve?

When we examine race and gender-bending in the media, we need to ask why it’s being done and to what end. I don’t include fan art in this because a lot of artists use these techniques to see themselves reflected in the works they love and admire, and I think that’s something we can all relate to. But when studios and production companies do this, I think we as an audience are entitled to ask questions.

For example, a good question here would be, "Is this a costume party? Because otherwise I have no idea what is going on."
For example, a good question here would be, “Is this a costume party? Because otherwise I have no idea what is going on.” Image via trevorcamis.tumblr.com

1. How does race/gender-bending fit in the original story being presented? In a story like “Ghost in the Shell,” for example, we can see that it doesn’t fit very well at all. In others, it might work better.

2. What does race/gender-bending add to the character? A black Superman, for example, would make a lot of sense given the science and the fact that, being an alien, Superman doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have a particular ethnicity associated with him.

3. What are the motives of the production companies in charge of making these decisions? One of the main arguments for the casting of Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton as Asian characters (and for whitewashing in general) is that these names bring in big bucks at the box office. We don’t need studios casting minority actors in an attempt to be edgy or to pacify “angry minority hordes.” Diversity should be reflective of the world around us – it’s that simple.