This is Part One of a two-part series on Gotham’s cast issues.
Lee, Fish, Barbara. Nygma, Butch, Alfred. Gotham’s season-three finale, “Heavydirtysoul,” saw a number of characters die, depart, or descend into suspended animation. And as beloved as these characters may be, it might be best for Gotham if the writers stick to their guns (or pens) and keep them out of the story.
As anyone who’s watched Gotham from the beginning knows, the series has vastly improved since its first season, largely ditching the freak-of-the-week formula to focus on a more serialized story with substantial villains.
But, even with fewer one-off baddies, Gotham continues to be plagued by a persistent problem: its overwhelmingly large cast.
To put this in perspective, Smallville, which ran for ten seasons, had 17 regular cast members. The Flash, currently in its third season, has had eight regular cast members. (For this post, regular, or top-billed, cast members are those actors whose names appear at the beginning of every episode, regardless of whether the actor appears or not.) Meanwhile, Gotham has had 22 regular cast members in three seasons.
Of course, top-billing is the result of contract negotiations between agents and producers (or whoever handles such things); and giving an actor top-billing status may be more about keeping her available for filming, rather than keeping her integral to the story. (Just look at the series-regular Arrowverse contracts that Katie Cassidy, Wentworth Miller, and John Barrowman signed this season, which turned out to be pretty worthless.)
So not all top-billed characters have to be served equally, but they do have to be served. And Gotham has a frustrating habit of narrowly focusing on Bruce and Jim, trying to juggle fan-favorite recurring characters like Jerome and Fish, and leaving regular characters like Barbara and Lucius with little to do for months at a time.
The question is, why does Gotham continue to do this?
Gotham’s casting problems manifested way back in season one, when Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen unceremoniously dropped out of the series after seven and six episodes, respectively. (Their disappearance remains one of the greatest mysteries in Gotham City.) Meanwhile, the likes of Butch Gilzean (ahem, Cyrus Gold) and Sal Maroni, who were billed as recurring characters in season one, appeared in 14 and 11 episodes, respectively. So right away, the top-billing designation proved meaningless (and those IMDb episode numbers were forever skewed).
In whisking away Montoya and Allen, you’d think that the writers recognized that they had more characters than they could adequately serve, or more characters than were necessary to serve the story. But that wasn’t the case.
After erasing Montoya and Allen (two characters of color, but that’s a story for another time), the writers also killed prominent recurring character Sal, sent Carmine Falcone away, and killed Fish Mooney (the latter two would return with recurring-character status). And early in season two, Sarah Essen was also killed (with more permanent results).
But with this culling came a replenishment. Butch, Lee Thompkins, Lucius Fox, and Harvey Dent were all promoted to top-billing for season two. Again, why? The latter two are especially grievous, as Lucius and Harvey only appeared in six and five episodes, respectively, in the second season. And besides those promotions, Theo and Tabitha Galavan were introduced to replace Fish as Big Bads, and Captain Nathaniel Barnes was introduced to replace Essen (one of the show’s more disappointing decisions). By season three, Gotham would do away with Harvey Dent (another mysterious disappearance), but would promote Ivy Pepper and introduce Jervis Tetch. And again, why?
Jervis was a serviceable villain in the third season’s Mad City arc, but there really wasn’t a reason to keep him around beyond four or five episodes (except to dredge him up in the season finale so that his blood could provide a last-minute cure to the Tetch virus). Once he’s locked away in Arkham, his scenes are largely there just to remind us that he’s still a part of the story, rather than to add dimension to the character or progress the plot.
And that’s Gotham’s greatest shortcoming: many characters appear briefly and do nothing, or simply don’t appear at all, for multiple episodes.
There are currently 15 regular cast members on Gotham (kudos to anyone who can name them all off the cuff), so it’s frustrating when the series sets up an interesting story for a character, only to back-burner said story for another five or six episodes (i.e., weeks, or longer due to the winter hiatus). And it’s frustrating for fans and haters of that character alike.
While I’m convinced that Jervis (not to mention my bane Barnes) has long overstayed his welcome, there are quite a few fans out there who are patiently waiting for his story to develop. I find his one-scene appearances in several episodes to be wastes of time, time that could have been devoted to more meaningful characters. But Jervis fans view those one-off scenes as teases of a greater story involving the Mad Hatter, a story they’d very much like to focus on.
So, depending on whom you ask, a character on Gotham is either criminally undersevered, or obnoxiously overused.
Fans will always want more time with their favorite characters, especially if they choose their favorites from among the supporting players (and don’t be fooled, top-billed or not, all of Gotham’s characters are in supporting roles to Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon and David Mazouz’s Bruce Wayne).
But some supporting players fare better than others, with Penguin and Riddler being the most fortunate (understandably so, Cory Michael Smith and Robin Lord Taylor are the best performers on the show), while female characters like Lee, Tabitha, and Barbara are continuously shortchanged. And the greatest disservice in the entire cast is done to Harvey Bullock.
From time immemorial, shows have misused great talent, but for Gotham to religiously do nothing with Donal Logue is baffling. (Donal, please return to Law & Order: SVU. I miss your Irish brogue.) Bullock was one of Gotham’s saving graces in the early episodes. And he continues to be a great comic relief, putting in brilliant performances in the little screen time he gets.
It seems preposterous to think that Bullock, when compared to Jervis and Barbara and Barnes, is underserved, but he is. We never see Bullock outside of work, the way we see Jim having dinner with Valerie (another thoroughly wasted character), or visiting cabins with his uncle. What do we know about Bullock’s home life? Whatever happened to that woman he was engaged to? His ties to the criminal underground (namely Fish and Falcone) were interesting story lines that haven’t been fully tapped. How are we three seasons in and Bullock still amounts to little more (professional promotion aside) than Jim’s sidekick.
If you’re a Jim Gordon fan, power to you, but he is one of the most unlikable leads I have ever come across. (This could be Ben McKenzie’s shtick; I saw him in Southland — a fabulous cop drama, I highly recommend — and his character there also became unbearable.)
All these words and still nothing has been said of prominent recurring characters like Fish, Jerome, and Hugo Strange, who command a fair amount of screen time when they show up for multi-episode arcs, leaving even less time for top-billed characters.
We can rest assured that the writers aren’t deranged enough to revive Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney twice, but of the six characters killed, exiled, or frozen at the end of the season, her departure is probably the only one that will stick.
The show couldn’t even commit to killing Butch, showing him alive at the end of the episode, despite being shot square in the head. Alfred died for all of a minute before being healed by a Lazarus pit. And it’s obvious that Nygma will be unfrozen, alive, and vengeful next season. That leaves Barbara and Lee as the only possible exits. I highly doubt that we’ve seen the last of Barbara Queen, and if we have, I’ll accept that. As much as I love Barbara, and as much as it would pain me to see them cut the female lead of a male-dominated show (only five of the 15 top-billed characters are women), Gotham’s cast is simply too large, and it has to start trimming the fat somewhere.