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‘Gotham’ Finds Spirituality in the Darkest of Souls

“You seem like a nice guy,” Harvey tells him. “This is not a city, or a job, for nice guys. Understand?”

Gotham, Fox’s highly-touted series that begins its run at 8 p.m. EST tomorrow, Sept 22, gives us a city with very few nice guys. Its streets teem with thugs and heavies. Its bars and dance halls are buoyed with underworld money. Pickpockets and psychopaths root around the city’s edges—exploring their darkest inclinations, wondering whether Gotham might be the place to make a name and a fortune.

Official Extended Trailer | GOTHAM
 

The city could sure use a hero—but there’s no Dark Knight in sight. Bruce Wayne’s just a sad, frightened rich kid, ensconced in his lonely mansion.

James Gordon will have to do.

It’s hard to make a compelling superhero story without a superhero. Most don’t even try. “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”  struggled to find itself most of its freshman season on ABC. At times, it felt more like an intermission performance than a dynamite television drama—a small-screen song-and-dance number before an Avenger took center stage.

So Fox, instead of pushing Batman to the periphery of the story, eliminates the guy altogether. There’s no Batman here—just the child Bruce Wayne desperately trying to deal with his parents’ death. Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery is barely in its beta stage: Selina Kyle AKA Catwoman (Camren Biconova) is stealing milk on the streets; Future Riddler Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) is working for the Gotham police force as an IT specialist. When we first meet Oswald Copperpot ()Robin Lord Taylor), he’s a flunky helping the beautifully duplicitous Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith)—and he hates being called “Penguin.”

Gotham can’t turn to a caped crusader to save it. And few others seem inclined to try.

James Gordon, played by Ben McKenzie, is the exception. Still years away from being Commissioner, James is the closest thing that Gotham has to a white knight. He’s as clean as they come—but it’s hard to stay too clean in this filthy city. His partner, Harvey (Donal Logue), is more typical: His primary goal each day is to survive to see the next. And if that means working with Gotham’s underworld power brokers? So be it.

“Sometimes in war you’ve got to do a bad thing to do good, right?” he tells James.

Fox’s Gotham is a good fit in this era of television antiheroes. In the last several years, we’ve rooted for serial killers and watched chemistry teachers break bad. Fox alone has given us a Jack Bauer, a hero who shreds every rule in the book, and Homer Simpson who, despite his utter lack of parenting skills, has become America’s favorite dad.

The fact that these antiheroes are so popular says something about us, too—something deeply spiritual. Each of us intrinsically understands the division in our own souls; we are flawed beings, and yet we feel the hero inside us, too. We are fallen products of a fallen world. And yet, the divine design in us still lives—a spark underneath the dark.

In Gotham, we see that strange antihero-like duality in many of the characters we meet. Harvey is corrupt, but he’s not altogether bad. Carmine Falcone (John Doman) may be Gotham’s unquestioned crime kingpin, but he has a strange love for his ugly city. We meet people who want to be good—but they’re so dirty themselves that they foul everything they touch.

Gotham asks an important, and inherently spiritual, question: Is it really possible to be a nice guy in a bad city? Can you clean up a place like Gotham without getting dirty yourself?

Batman’s own mythos the last decade or so has been predicated on mulling that very question. As I explored in “God on the Streets of Gotham,” the superhero is himself an antihero, though different from those we typically see: He’s incorruptible in a way, adhering to his own stringent code of ethics. And yet he works outside the law. He believes that, to find true justice, you must sometimes skirt the system designed to give it to us.

In Gotham, the question becomes in a way even more intriguing. See, James Gordon is a part of that very system that Batman can ignore. James must work within it—and yet, he knows as well as anyone its flaws. We see how difficult it can be to stay squeaky clean, even in the first episode. James may feel incorruptible, but only by comparison. He honors the system. He respects the law. And yet, James comes to understand that he, too, will have to work in the shadows a bit—just like a certain caped lawman will someday do.

It’s telling, I think, that Jim is mentoring a young Bruce Wayne—teaching him lessons that may come in handy down the road.

“I know how you feel right now,” James tells Bruce right after Bruce’s parents were murdered in front of him. “And I promise you that no matter how dark and scary the world might be right now, there will be light. There will be light, Bruce.”

The world of “Gotham” is flawed, just like ours. It’s full of darkness, just as we are. It is a place populated with sin and corruption and compromise, and perhaps James won’t walk through its shadowed streets without some of its ick sticking to him. But in this promising Fox show, we’re still given a real hero—one who hopes to rise above the world he’s in and serve as an example to others who might follow.

In the dark world of Gotham, James Gordon is looking for the light.

DID YOU KNOW: Netflix coughed up $1.75 million per episode to stream the show before the first hint of a ratings report came in.

Paul Asay has written for The Washington Post, Christianity Today, Beliefnet.com, and The (Colorado Springs) Gazette. He writes about culture for PluggedIn and also blogs for Patheos.com [http://www.patheos.com/blogs/watchinggod/]

He wrote the Batman book, “God on the Streets of Gotham” (Tyndale), and his newest book, “Burning Bush 2.0” (Abingdon), will be hitting shelves in April. Follow him on Twitter at @AsayPaul.

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