Gotham, We Have a Problem
There's an old theater adage that says drama should be life without the boring parts. For webisodic soap operas, that saying holds true more than ever before. With just a few short minutes to tell a dramatic story, every second counts if you are hoping to hook Internet viewers with the attention span of breeding rabbits on crack. Unfortunately, Martha Byrne's new series Gotham is falling a bit short in this endeavor.
Now before anyone races to the comments section to join in for a good, old-fashioned, patented Jamey Giddens rip apart session, that isn't what this is. I want Gotham to succeed. I want to like this show, not just because I admire Byrne greatly, and truly believe she is trying to give disenchanted soap opera viewers what we want, but also because the sky is literally falling in terms of our beloved daytime soap operas. Just look at the depressing Nielsens report this week.
It won't be long before one of us here at Daytime Confidential posts the blog: "BREAKING NEWS: The Young and the Restless CANCELLED." I know, that sounds crazy, but it's coming. It could be two years, it could be three, but soap operas airing five-days-a-week on network television is about to go the way of the Dodo and Charlie Sheen's sense of chivalry. This is why I desperately want to support daytime stars-turned-producers like Byrne and Chappell in their soapy, entrepreneurial efforts, but it will do no one any justice if we simply paint on happy faces and not admit where some web soaps are missing the mark.
The good thing about shows like Venice and Gotham is that because they are independent projects, they can't be cancelled by trigger happy network executives just because they may have gotten off to bumpy starts. The talented writers, producers, actors, etc. involved with these projects have the time to work out the kinks, and if they so choose, listen to our constructive criticism. So here goes: Gotham is really, really boring! Four episodes in, and I feel like absolutely nothing has happened.
It's great to see so many soap faves, like Byrne and Michael Park reunite on our laptops, but familiar faces simply aren't enough to make a soap opera successful. Where is the story? The only reason I know Gotham is a starcrossed saga about Catherine and Richard, is because I read so on the soap's official website. This should have been shown, not told to me the viewer by this point in.
I think it was a mistake to spend four episodes at Catherine's fundraiser. Unlike Quinci's birthday party on Buppies, where something game changing happens in every scene, the party on Gotham feels like a home movie, where friends are standing around talking and giggling about a cute boy. Not. Interesting.
The few bits of dramatic tension we have been afforded (i.e. Richard tonguing down with the lady who got her head shrunken on As The World Turns making Catherine uncomfortable) were unnatural and forced, and there has to be a better way to subtly reveal to the audience that Richard is Gotham's answer to Mr. Big, without Catherine's BFF Tina (the always delightful Anne Sayre) reminding Catherine of the fact over and over again. That isn't how people talk to each other, except on daytime soap operas, and it's one of the reasons people make fun of the genre.
I hate to say it, but perhaps instead of using classic, 80's soap operas as a benchmark, Byrne and other web soap producers should look to successful, current and/or recent primetime series like Brothers and Sisters, or The Starter Wife miniseries? These programs took what daytime once did best and made them contemporary. Gotham's overall feel is very dated, sort of Central Park West meets Procter and Gamble Productions, and I know the insanely talented Byrne and her crew are better than that.
Here are some quick tips to get things moving in the right direction:
1.) Add a narrator. Martha Byrne has one of the most memorable, lyrical voices I've ever heard. Catherine should narrate every episode like Carrie in Sex and the City or Meredith in Grey's Anatomy. This will allow exposition that is more natural, and free up the dialogue for action.
2.) Quicken the pace. While soap fans may want our hour-long programs slowed down, it's painful to watch every boring bit of a party play out for four weeks on a web soap. Let's see Catherine and Richard in other settings, you know, in Gotham, the place where the series is set! Which brings us to number 3...
3.) USE New York!Has Sex and the City taught us nothing? On a show called Gotham I expect to see Catherine and Richard mixing it up on Park Avenue, not down the path from the Robert Frost poem (Though a lovely path it is). I want to see Catherine at her swank offices at Nicole Miller, or at a runway show with Tina. Of course I realize there may be budgetary considerations, but a boy can dream.
4.) Give each scene a stronger, dramatic pulse. SOMETHING has to happen! Less yapping between Catherine and Tina and more soapy, good fun and drama. Every conversation, every line of dialogue, needs to mean something on a 3-minute series. There has to be something at stake for these characters all the time. Why couldn't Tina have summoned Sheila (Maggie Reid) into the other room when she saw her kissing Catherine's man, only to shove her in the broom closet, and lock her in?
5.) Use music and slow motion sparingly. I hate to say it, but I fear Byrne watched one too many episode of the last season of Guiding Light, as did Venice's Chappell (More on Venice in a blog post to come). Soap fans love musical montages, and a good soundtrack is important, but each and every scene does not require a song. Songs— even lovely ones by Byrne— water down the story when overused.
6.) Find an opening theme that signifies your show and stick to it. Gotham is a glamorous, mythological place. Why does the theme music for a show set in popular culture's most idealized city recall an episode of Headbanger's Ball (Does that show still come on?)? Think of the music used for Sex and the City. Now of course we realize Byrne probably can't afford to license Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind", but something along those lines.
7.) Ditch the Gotham logo and replace it with one more feminine, seductive, something inviting to women and gays, that will make brands like Cover Girl or Ponds want to sponsor the series. Think Knots Landing in the later seasons. The current logo looks like something for a Nickelodeon show featuring green slime.
7.) Let's see more of Catherine. By now we should know a bit more about who she is, her career at Nicole Miller, what makes her tick. It shouldn't be all about the boy! Fashion. New York City. Friendship. This show could be gold if done right. This is where having Byrne narrate could come in handy (See Number 1).
8.) We need more payoff on the foreshadowing. In episode one, a phone call made Richard wig out, yet there's been no mention of that since. Soap fans pay attention to these things, obsessively so. Trust me.
9.) What are the "B" and "C" stories? I know you're probably like "Huh, it's only three minutes every other week, how is there time for "B" and "C" stories?" I hate to once again reference Buppies, but I must. On that three-to-five minute weekly web soap, we are currently seeing the story of a protagonist dealing with her ex bringing a date to her birthday party, a second story featuring one of the protagonist's friends dealing with his male ex-lover showing up at the same party, where his girlfriend just announced she was pregnant. Meanwhile, a fourth friend is dealing with a fifth friend's shock over who he is dating. It can be done. I want to know more about Tina's life. Why not have a side story arc featuring the gay, black pal? With so much of the show being about Catherine and Richard's slightly forced romance, it comes off as a lackluster version of the old Taster's Choice commerical.
10.) Put out new episodes weekly. Having new eppys air only twice a month makes it really hard to remember to even watch the show, let alone promote it properly.
In closing (Wow, I haven't written that phrase since my college English papers!), I firmly believe Byrne's Gotham will be a success story in the end. Byrne is one of the most beloved actresses in soap opera history, and learned at the foot of the master— the late Douglas Marland. Gotham has a great premise and tons of talented people working on it. All the elements are there, but as with any soap opera, story is everything.