Five Reasons Why Gotham Could Be The Best Comic-Book Television Show Yet

The phrase “golden age of television” may be becoming worn out through overuse, but it certainly applies to current stream of great comic-book TV shows currently making their way to our screens.

The CW’s Arrow keeps going from strength to strength while Marvel’s Agents of Shield is finally finding its feet after a lacklustre start, and they will soon be joined by the likes of The Flash, Agent Carter and Constantine later this year as the networks look to capitalize on the genre’s enduring popularity.

But one show that has the potential to blow all others out of the water is Fox’s Gotham. The Batman prequel series, which revolves around Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as a young detective rising through the ranks of the GCPD, debuted to rave reviews in the US last week, which only made the anticipation for its UK arrival on Channel 5 that much more unbearable.

With a few weeks still to go before we finally get to see the show for ourselves, here are five reasons why Gotham could be the best comic-book spinoff yet.

1) It is in no way connected to the movie franchise.

Marvel’s Agents of Shield’s biggest problem is that its close connection with the Marvel Cinematic Universe often blunts its own creativity. The fact is that a TV show about a bunch of suits being outmatched by supervillains just can’t compete with the super-powered heroics seen in the movies – a problem exacerbated by Marvel producers giving Joss Whedon and co first dibs on all the best villains, leaving MAOS with second-rate antagonists such as melted-toy soldier Deathlok.

Gotham, however, should have no such issues as it operates independently of Dawn of Justice, the planned cinematic outing for Ben Affleck’s caped crusader. As Fox president Kevin Reilly recently said: “This is not an adjunct companion series. This is the Batman franchise, just backing it up [in chronology].” This means series creator Bruno Heller has free reign over the Batman canon, which should supply plenty of material for gripping and surprising storylines whilst also helping to avoid any pesky comparisons with the big budget movies.

2) Ben McKenzie is perfectly cast as Jim Gordon.

Some fans may initially be surprised to find that this is not a Batman origin story. Though David Mazouz will feature throughout the series as a young Bruce Wayne grieving after the murder of his parents, Gotham is really all about Jim Gordon.

McKenzie may be best known as The OC’s Ryan Atwood but his performance here is closer to his role as Ben Sherman in Southland. Told early on by his sleazy partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) that “this is not a city for nice guys”, McKenzie is great as the morally righteous Gordon, who can’t quite believe he is the only cop in the city who’s not crooked.

The best Batman stories have always explored the concept of morality in the face of corruption and it will be interesting to see how much Gordon will have to compromise his values in order to do some good as the series progresses.

3) Gotham is overflowing with colourful villains.

One big advantage of basing a series on a comic-book is that the stories come with an instantly recognizable rogues gallery. Gotham wastes no time in cashing in on the Dark Knight’s most formidable foes, teasing the audience with glimpses of The Riddler, a cherubic Poison Ivy, a young Catwoman and a brief appearance by a comedian who may or may not turn out to be The Joker.

The pilot episode focuses on Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin, introducing Robin Lord Taylor’s character as a snivelling mafia minion before setting up a series arc of Cobblepot’s rise to power. This is the beauty of a series sans the caped crusader: his absence leaves plenty of room to explore other creatively rich characters in greater detail, allowing Heller to bring them to life in a way we’ve never seen them before.

4) Jada Pinkett Smith’s character is a great creation.

Gotham is not just about the already established villains, though, and the first episode rocks up packing its very own colourful antagonist.

Jada Pinkett Smith’s power-crazed mob boss Fish Mooney makes a big impression in the pilot. Formidable and just-the-right-side-of-camp, Mooney is so infinitely watchable because of the way she drifts between sides – first acting as a dutiful ally to crime kingpin Carmine Falcone, then switching to sneaky police informant. It’s hard to know exactly which side she is on (my guess is it’s a side all of her own) and that’s a risky game to play on the mean streets of Gotham.

5) The City of Gotham has never looked so good.

From the title we know that Gotham will be an essential character to the series, mirroring the internal battle for Gordon’s soul in the police’s attempts to retake a city infected with crime and corruption.

Heller and director Danny Cannon have therefore put a great deal of effort into making Gotham as aesthetically noirish as possible. Seemingly ripped from the panels of Frank Miller’s Sin City, Gotham is shadowed by towering skyscrapers stacked against perpetually rain-lashed skies, its dark, shadowy streets shrouded in a dense fog that must be ideal for concealing late-night acts of skulduggery.

Click here to watch the trailer for Gotham

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Doctor Who: The Caretaker – TV Review

Doctor Who may have reached the mid-point of season eight with The Caretaker, but there was very little to get excited about in an episode that served to gently reintroduce some of the bigger plotlines (Clara’s trust issues re-emerge and we finally return to the Promised Land) without offering any of the thrill and sparkle one would expect from the sci-fi favourite.

Despite the shift to a later time-slot as of this week, this is by far the most child-friendly episode this season. It finds the Doctor returning to his old haunt of Coal Hill School under the unconvincing guise as the new caretaker as he tries to prevent yet another robotic threat against the Earth in the form of the Skovok Blitzer.

Co-writer Gareth Roberts has often polarised opinion with his previous five episodes due to his tendency to eschew the traditional whiz-bang sci-fi action in favour of character motivated stories. And that is all well and good when it works – the James Corden-starring The Lodger and Closing Time have a certain warm-hearted charm – but sadly things don’t gel quite as nicely here resulting in a rather bland adventure.

What’s really missing is the presence of a compelling and fearsome antagonist. The Skovok Blitzer is never able to build upon its menacing introduction, creeping out of the shadows to roast an unfortunate PC, because it is forced to play second fiddle to the Doctor, Clara and Danny’s tumultuous love triangle. As a villain it comes across as dated and ultimately harmless, and without this threat there’s simply no urgency or momentum to carry the plot forward.

The episode also struggles to find the humour in its situation. The writers aim to draw laughs from Clara’s frenzied attempts to explain her sudden absences to Danny and from Capaldi’s flailing attempts to appear normal: “The name’s John Smith… but people always call me the Doctor.”

While seeing Capaldi’s misanthropic Time Lord grumble through his encounters with humans is at first funny, it quickly becomes a one-note joke and you can never quite escape the feeling that Capaldi is much more comfortable during the dramatic scenes that makes better use of his powerfully fierce persona.

The Caretaker is not without its good moments, though. This mostly stems from the tempestuous dynamic between the Doctor and Danny Pink. The two men in Clara’s life finally meet this week and take an instant dislike to each other – the Doctor dismissing the former soldier as a PE teacher; Danny viewing the Doctor as a flat-track bully like his former officers.

Initially, this comes across as the bickering of two prospective suitors, but the writers smartly flesh it out to reveal the paternalistic side to the Doctor and Clara’s relationship. Capaldi can’t hide his pride when Clara seeks his approval on her new boyfriend and it becomes increasingly clear that he wants to protect his companion and see that she is happy – just as long as it’s not with a soldier.

This also affords Samuel Anderson the time to show a greater range to his character than we’ve previously seen. He gets his big heroic moment towards the end and clearly revels in the fiery confrontations with Capaldi, but the most touching moment is the look of genuine heart-break and betrayal Danny gives when he discovers the truth behind Clara’s mysterious absences. Yet more proof that Danny could eventually become an excellent companion.

Impressive performances aside, The Caretaker is a largely disappointing episode that labours through its plot with little in the way of pay-off. It’s telling that the highlight of the episode came at the end when we return to the Nethersphere to meet a mysterious Chris Addison and his boss Missy as they prepare to meet the Doctor – a faint glimmer of hope, then, that there are more exciting stories to come in a season that is currently on the wane.

Next week on Doctor Who… the Earth is once again under threat when the Doctor and Clara crash-land on the lunar surface and face a terrible dilemma that affects the rest of humanity. With a mining base full of corpses and deadly spider-like creatures spitting venom, Kill The Moon looks to be a return to the frightening storytelling at which Capaldi’s incarnation excels.

Click here to watch Doctor Who: The Caretaker on BBC iPlayer

American Horror Story: Why Freak Show could be the most terrifying season yet…

There are still a few weeks to go until the curtain is raised on the new season of American Horror Story, but already anticipation has reached a fever pitch.

Ryan Murphy’s horror anthology, which features a recurring cast who tackle different roles in a new story each season, has previously petrified viewers with creepy stories about a haunted LA mansion, an asylum concealing a Nazi surgeon’s eugenics experiments and a coven of witches fighting for survival, but season four, subtitled Freak Show, could well be the scariest one yet.

In the upcoming season, we venture back to Jupiter, Florida in 1952, where we follow a troupe of ‘curiosities’, including a three-breasted woman (not that one, or that one) and a two-headed twin played by Sarah Paulson, in one of the last remaining freak shows in America.

Series regular Jessica Lange plays Elsa Mars, the German expatriate managing the show, who, along with bearded lady Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates), battles to keep the business alive as the freaks come into conflict with the evil forces that pervade the town.

The series’ strength has always resided in its superb ensemble cast and season four is no different with the introduction of the smallest woman in the world, Jyoti Amge, who plays Ma Petite, complementing an already refreshingly diverse group.

But it is one of the season’s new characters that presents the most terrifying prospect. John Carroll Lynch plays Freak Show’s main antagonist Twisty, a retired clown who wears a mask on the lower part of his face and is infuriated by the arrival of the freak show in Jupiter.

Murphy has said that he is worried the show’s sinister clown may be too scary even for him, the writer recently telling BuzzFeed: “It’s heart-stopping what he does. The clown’s intro in the first episode is … even I was terrified of it. It’s brutal.”

According to Murphy the crew were so disturbed by Lynch’s appearance that some members were unable to look at him while some even had to leave the set.

There were some who accused the third season, Coven, of being too camp and over-the-top – though I thought it was an intelligent romp that used conventional horror tactics to tackle America’s ignoble history of slavery and persecution – but there should be no such complaints this time around as Freak Show looks set to be American Horror Story’s most terrifying instalment yet.

The Riot Club – Film Review

With An Education and One Day, the recent additions to Lone Scherfig’s impressive oeuvre have exclusively been subtle portrayals of the aspiration and naivety of college-age students. Her latest covers similar ground, albeit from a more scathing perspective, adapting Laura Wade’s 2010 play Posh, a loose dramatization of The Bullingdon Club that depicts a secret society of entitled toffs who aim to create a life of “debauchery raised to an art”. But what starts out as an entertaining glimpse into the corrupting influence of money and privilege fails to offer the insight that would tip it into legendary status.

Adapting her own play for the screen, Wade takes the opportunity to expand on her story by fleshing-out her two main characters. Miles (Max Irons) may have a posh accent and an even posher title but he’s determined to paint himself as an outsider upon his arrival at Oxford and so immediately channels his attention into pursuing a northern girlfriend. Alistair (Sam Claflin), on the other hand, arrives trapped under the shadow of his high-flying older brother and crushed under the weight of having to live up to his family name.

Both these wide-eyed freshers are recruited into the highly exclusive Riot Club, seduced by its camaraderie and its single-minded pursuit of hedonism, and while Miles initially looks to have the most intriguing story arc – his intense infatuation with ‘common Yorkshire girl’ Lauren (Holliday Granger) putting him at odds with the club’s elitist ideology – it is Alistair who becomes the film’s focal point.

As Miles gradually grows disenchanted with the club’s morally vacuous antics, Alistair goes the opposite way, becoming increasingly unhinged as the acceptance and recognition of his club mates proves to be a corrupting influence, adding an undercurrent of violent tension to his already overwhelming sense of entitlement.

It is still hard to see the attraction, though. Unpleasantness abounds in The Riot Club, providing a gruesome feast of deplorable actions and bodily fluids smeared on furniture. One of the more deplorable acts involves an initiation ritual in which a blindfolded Alistair must imbibe some wine and guess the vintage. The catch? The wine has been spiked with a cigarette butt, a vile of urine, bogies, phlegm and maggots. And that’s what they do to the people they like.

This, though, is just a light-hearted preamble to the film’s genuinely disturbing final act as the group’s developing degeneracy is funnelled into the annual club dinner, which involves members hiring out an unsuspecting gastro pub, getting wrecked, trashing the place and then paying for the damage without remorse.

Though this sequence feels undeniably stagy, it is still unbearably tense as the wine and spirits flow, and the gang become increasingly infuriated, first by a ten-bird roast that is one guinea-fowl short and then by a hired escort who refuses to satisfy their desires. When the club’s pent-up aggression does finally explode outward it is the pub’s put-upon landlord (Gordon Brown – not that one) who suffers their ire in an uncomfortably disturbing scene.

Despite what may sound like a viciously cutting portrait of privilege, The Riot Club really comes across as a blunt parody of the upper classes that barely scratches the surface of what must be an incredibly complex culture.

Unlike The Wolf of Wall Street, which also offered an unbridled depiction of the one-percent’s salacious partying but also uncovered the man behind it with depth and nuance, The Riot Club can only replicate the humorous take on a ridiculously frivolous lifestyle. As such, it fails to provide a sense of humanity, making Alistair too much of a sociopath and Miles too much of a spineless wreck to be relatable, and it never even attempts to understand the mentality behind their behaviour.

The Riot Club may entertain with its stinging satire of wealth and privilege, but merely indulging our base perceptions of the elite classes and failing to expand on who these people really are only makes for a rather hollow experience.

Running time: 107 minutes; Genre: Drama; Released: 19 September 2014;

Director: Lone Scherfig; Screenwriter: Laura Wade;

Starring: Max Irons, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Douglas Booth, Jessica Brown Findlay.

Click here to watch the trailer for The Riot Club

Doctor Who: Time Heist – TV Review

After last week’s clever psychological thriller Listen scared the bejesus out of every Doctor Who fan who ever feared something may be lurking beneath their bed, Time Heist provides a light-hearted breather from all the darkness and existential plot twists as the Doctor turns bank robber to raid the most secure bank in all of time a space in an episode that is a lot of fun if little else.

The episode opens with a fascinating set-up as the Doctor and Clara wake up in a dark bunker along with two apparent strangers, augmented-human hacker Psi and lonely shapeshifter Saibra. None of them have any idea how they got there or why (they have some grossly slimy memory worms to thank for that) and their only instruction comes via a recording of a cloaked figure known only as the Architect who order them to rob the impenetrable bank of Karabraxos.

At first Time Heist takes the form of a rollicking sci-fi caper in an unmistakeable nod to heist movies such as Ocean’s 11 and The Italian Job. With a snappy script from co-writers Steve Thompson (Journey to the Centre of the Tardis) and Steven Moffat, the plot races along at a breathless pace as the Doctor and his crew worm their way through the bank’s many security systems and start to unravel the mystery behind their high risk mission.

Things then make an unexpected, though no less enjoyable, shift into suspenseful sci-fi horror mode, creating an Alien-esque vibe as the gang are stalked through the bank by The Teller, a threatening extra-terrestrial creature that can detect guilt and use that same power to turn intruders’ brains into soup. The writers and director cannily wring every last ounce of tension from these scenes, recalling Clara’s encounter with the clockwork droids in Deep Breath in the way it utilises suffocating close-ups and alarming mood lighting as Clara desperately tries to clear her mind and escape the Teller undetected.

While all of this is immensely thrilling and hugely entertaining, it’s hard to escape the knowledge that Time Heist is clearly a standalone story and ultimately pointless in the context of series eight. This is not necessarily a bad thing – some of the best Doctor Who episodes have been standalone stories – but by coming so soon after Robot of Sherwood this feels like a wasted opportunity.

There’s no progression of the series arc – in fact, it’s been weeks since we last glimpsed Missy in the Promised Land – and save for a throwaway remark about the Doctor being a good man, there’s very little character development for the Doctor and Clara.

The supporting cast is similarly given short shrift with Jonathan Bailey (Broadchurch) and Pippa Bennett-Warner handed thinly sketched characters in Psi and Saibra, who serve no purpose other than to get bumped-off by the Teller in order to raise the threat levels and sense of dread.

Keeley Hawes is also wasted here as the bank’s icy head of security Ms Delphox. Hawes may give Delphox a suitably cold, matter-of-fact tone, cracking wise immediately after having a perceived intruder killed, but her character is completely without nuance and depth until a final twist reveals her to be a clone and the instigator of the heist, which comes far too late in the game to have any impact.

In many ways Time Heist represents everything fans love about Doctor Who: an exhilarating, pacey plot that adroitly blends silliness and scares, featuring a fearsome alien foe and with a timey-wimey plot twist thrown in for good measure. But it is also so obviously lacking in purpose and depth that it is impossible to view it as anything more than an entertaining throwaway that feels like a wasted opportunity.

Next week on Doctor Who Clara struggles to keep the two men in her life separate when the Doctor takes the position of caretaker at Coal Hill School. With a scary-looking robot and the potential for an oddly-comic love triangle this could be a welcome return to form for the Doctor.

Click here to watch Doctor Who: Time Heist on BBC iPlayer

The Strain – TV Review

Vampires are cool. Everyone knows that, which is why we all love to watch TV shows about them. But with HBO’s True Blood finally bowing out after eight seasons of fluctuating quality last week, viewers could be forgiven for wondering where their next fix of blood-sucking action would come from. Luckily, that particular fang-shaped hole in our schedules has been quickly plugged with The Strain, a 13-part vampire horror series from Guillermo del Toro that began on Watch last night.

From the outset it is clear that this is a visceral supernatural thriller dressed up as an outbreak procedural. With a rare solar eclipse looming, a transatlantic flight lands at JFK airport and sits coldly on the tarmac without response. There are no visible signs of life on board and closer inspection reveals that nearly all of its passengers and crew are apparently dead. Only four people have survived, but even they have no idea how any of this happened.

Expecting the worst, the Centre for Disease Control immediately deploys its finest epidemiologist Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), one of those flawed TV-sleuths who is somehow brilliant at his job despite his personal life being a complete mess. Along with the rest of his “canary team”, Goodweather has to try to find the root of the mystery, but simply can’t piece events together fast enough to prevent a vampire plague from sweeping across New York City.

With the recent Ebola outbreak still fresh in viewers’ minds, re-vamping (pun intended) the origins of vampirism as a global epidemic spread by translucent, thread-like maggots feels like a frighteningly real prospect. The placement of a ticking clock on the investigation injects the story with a sinuous urgency that is positively thrilling for the first 15 minutes or so.

However, a lot of this terror is firmly squelched by the revelation that the contagion has in fact been orchestrated by The Master, a cloaked, slithery parasite who has designs on forming his own vampire race with the help of an ailing billionaire and an icily scrupulous associate.

It feels like del Toro isn’t entirely certain about what kind of story he is trying to tell as he struggles to find a happy balance between the po-faced nature of a procedural and a desire to produce a tongue-in-cheek throwback to the pulpy horror stories of his childhood.

The overall effect is therefore disjointed and unappealing as the tone and pace of the script veer wildly between the taut energy of Goodweather’s investigation and slow-burning reveal of The Master’s Machiavellian scheme.

And that’s a shame because there’s also a lot to enjoy about The Strain, a show that is at its best when combining freaky gore and morbid humour. This is especially true whenever David Bradley is on screen as Abraham Setrakian, an abrasive holocaust survivor who has an elaborately decorated sword concealed inside his cane.

In one scene, shortly after despatching two unfortunate hoodlums with a well-placed knife, we follow Abraham down to his basement to find the still-beating heart he keeps in a jar as a pet and feeds with drops of blood. It’s a weird, unnerving scene that feels strangely affectionate and shows del Toro’s knack for blending horror and beauty with devastating results.

You can also see the director’s sticky-fingers all over the frightening design of the vampires, who feel more feral and animalistic than we’ve seen elsewhere. Far from the pasty abs-models of Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, the monsters here are just that: slimy beasts who feed through a mucus-covered pincer that snaps out from their decaying faces. They’re disgusting, which is exactly how they should be.

Not content with replacing True Blood, it seems that del Toro also has his mind set on emulating the success of The Walking Dead, amassing an endless stream of nasty body shocks and gruesome murders. But if it is to match that level of achievement The Strain needs to decide what it is – a bleakly tense procedural or a knockabout throwback to classic horror – because right now that is the only thing holding it back.

Click here to watch a trailer for The Strain

The Leftovers – TV Review

The nature of despair has always been a rich source of drama for the makers of great TV shows. Widows, orphans and extended families struggling through grief have graced many a television screen over the years. And recently the lens has been pulled back even further to examine how death can affect entire communities in the likes of Broadchurch and The Returned. Even so, I’d wager that there is nothing that has been before that can adequately prepare you for the intense melancholy of The Leftovers, Sky Atlantic’s newest HBO import, which began last night.

Adapted from Tom Perrotta’s best-selling novel, The Leftovers takes place three years after a global tragedy that saw 2% of the world’s population vanish. And yet the show is not really about what happened so much as it is about the people left behind, their human hunger for understanding and the different ways the cope with knowing the most profound answers will never come.

Likewise, any viewers expecting to find out where these people went and why will be left disappointed; the mysterious Sudden Departure – which disintegrated families and tore relationships apart – is not the focus here. Instead the drama hones in on the fictional town of Mapleton, New York, an ordinary American suburb that has been devastated by loss. Three years without answers has twisted the view many of its townspeople had of the world. Some now choose to isolate themselves, returning to the memories of when their families were together; others need to feel angry, rallying against the Departed in order to distract themselves from the pain.

There are people like Justin Theroux’s police chief Kevin Garvey, who suffers from disturbing hallucinations and has to battle to keep what’s left of his family together while clinging on to what remains of his sanity. Then there are people like Liv Tyler’s engaged-suburbanite Meg, a woman whose apparently perfect life is on the brink of a breakdown. In their despair and confusion, the town has become a breeding ground for unsettling cults like the white-clad mutes of the Guilty Remnant, a group of The Shinning-inspired mourners who believe they are a living reminder of the Departure, and the intensely charming preacher (Patterson Joseph, in a role strangely similar to his Peep Show character) who claims he can “unburden” people of their pain. It’s this collection of small human moments that combine to paint a portrait of how sudden loss can destroy a person.

The Leftovers certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. There will be those who find it unremittingly bleak and depressing, and many more will find the absence of a clear plot increasingly infuriating. Nor will they be won over by its purposefully blunt and hypnotic style that is quite content to sit in the gaze of grief with its characters and give you a chance to get to know them.

So why should anyone stick with it? Quite simply, because it is the most gripping and engaging thing on TV. The pilot episode alone is a lesson in how to stretch tension to breaking point, depicting a town on the verge of conflict before finally letting the tension snap in a brutal sequence in which the Guilty Remnant provoke a violent assault by a gaggle of mourners that will leave you horrified as to the depths mankind can sink.

But more than that, there is a thin veil of hope buried beneath all the tragedy. There are fleeting moments of normalcy sprinkled throughout the episode, such as a teenage girl’s awkward attempt to flirt with a cute boy, a tepid town council meeting and a disruptive family dinner, that suggest redemption is a possibility – people can move on with their lives and escape the despair if they can just learn to stick together.

The Leftovers may be too miserable to cheer you up at the end of a hard day, but as an examination of the human condition there really is nothing better.

Click here to watch the trailer for The Leftovers