Gotham: a Shameless-ly brilliant performance from Cameron Monaghan is no joke

I’ve watched a lot of television the last few days, and one thing has become abundantly clear: with a pair of standout turns in Gotham and Shameless, Cameron Monaghan owned TV this week.

Cameron Monaghan owning TV this week

Like I said, Cameron Monaghan, owning TV this week

I’ll start with Gotham, in which Monaghan took on the iconic role of the Joker. It was a star-making turn in a show that has become essential viewing. In just 16 episodes, Gotham has carved out an iconic spot in the TV schedule. Full to bursting with grittily memorable performances, with Ben McKenzie’s beleaguered crusader for justice Jim Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor’s beautifully off-kilter Penguin leading the pack (“hello, old friend”), the show has a rock-solid grip on its world.

Gordon and Penguin face off... face... off...

Gordon and Penguin face off… face… off…

Gotham is a perpetually cloudy, ominous, dirty, baroque version of itself, like an L.S. Lowry steel mill nightmare, peopled with lowlifes and hoodlums, iconic freaks, and lost souls. It’s dark, uneasy, but it’s shot through with a rough, raucous humor, a wild and wide-eyed glee in its strangeness. The show takes a particular kind of comic book sensibility and runs with it; it’s a fractured, monstrous reality that feels 100% grounded.

It’s also, of course, the home to the future Batman, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, the Riddler… Chief amongst these, of course, is the young Bruce Wayne, and the show has done a fantastic job showing us his slow, steady journey towards becoming the Batman. It does make you kind of wish for a spin-off teen Batman and Catwoman show, since David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova have been consistently fascinating as their younger versions. The producers have said that the show ends when Batman first puts on his suit, which is on one hand a shame, but on another, completely understandable, since Gotham is Jim Gordon’s show, and Ben McKenzie delivers raw, fearless, intense, hilarious and gripping performances week after week.

This week’s episode, “The Blind Fortune Teller,” took on the circus, which allowed the show to dive even deeper into its beautiful weirdness. This circus is run by the Lloyds and — future sidekick alert — the Graysons, two families at war. McKenzie’s Gordon is on an awkward date at the circus with Morena Baccarin’s Dr. Leslie Thompkins, when a fight breaks out in the middle of the show… a fight which ends with the discovery of a body: the snake lady has been murdered, and her son, played by Monaghan, is distraught.

Or so it seemed. Monaghan brought the kind of sensitivity we’ve seen from him in Shameless, at least to start with, as he played the lonely, upset son struggling with his mother’s death. Gordon didn’t buy it though, and in a you-can’t-handle-the-truth showdown in an interview room, Monaghan revealed his character’s true self in an absolutely brilliant and unforgettable 3 minutes of television. We saw flickers of the future Joker rippling across his face as he danced between madness, sadness and psychosis, often in the same beat. And then there was that laugh. Chills. In just a few beats, Monaghan gave an extraordinary, indelible performance that would have been the most iconic moment of the TV week… if Monaghan hadn’t already claimed that title the night before.

Because he also plays Ian in Shameless, a gay teen who has been struggling with bipolar disorder for most of this season. In “Crazy Love,” Ian kidnapped his boyfriend Mickey’s baby and went on a terrifying 18 hour joyride while his friends and family slowly disintegrated with worry and fear. It was a bravura, revelatory performance, culminating in some jaw-droppingly heartbreaking work as Ian finally gets checked in to a mental institution. He played the fear, the overwhelming sadness, the almost total inability to process what was happening, in the most understated of ways.

Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher as Ian and Mickey. Broken hearts very much pictured.

Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher as Ian and Mickey. Broken hearts very much pictured.

 

“Crazy Love” was written by John Wells, himself one of the most iconic figures in TV today, the creative force behind E.R., The West Wing, Third Watch… and of course, SouthLAnd and Shameless, which made the Gordon-Joker face-off something of a SouthLAnd-Shameless mash-up, since McKenzie played Ben Sherman on 5 seasons of the always amazing and canceled-WAY-too-soon SouthLAnd.

Moment of silence for that show.

We miss you, SouthLAnd

We miss you, SouthLAnd

So in this week’s Shameless, Wells did what he does best: create visual and emotional moments of pure television. He did the heavy lifting at the start of the episode (although he’s a brilliant writer, so it seemed effortless), so that by the end, we were coasting on pure emotion, and it was all down to the actors to play the heartbreak. And play it they did.

I want to take a second here to call out Noel Fisher, who has been one of the most underrated but consistently excellent actors on this show. He plays Mickey, the most-feared motherf**ker on the South Side, who is also Ian’s boyfriend. Fisher has been brilliant throughout, conveying the constant struggle as Mickey fights to maintain his rep while also trying to actually be happy. In “Crazy Love,” Fisher showed Mickey coming apart at the f**king seams. His moments in the car ride back from finding Ian, where he realizes that Ian has to be committed, and in the institution at the end, were genuinely astonishing.

No I wasn't crying, a**hole. F**k you. (quietly sobs in the corner)

No I wasn’t crying, a**hole. F**k you. (quietly sobs in the corner)

But ultimately, the show was really Monaghan’s, as was Gotham. He owned them both with connected, naturalistic, grounded and heartfelt work, and with these back-to-back performances of troubled, unstable characters, Monaghan has surely put himself on the Emmy map.

Gotham is going from strength to strength with dizzying speed, and Shameless is in the midst of one of its best seasons to date.

I love TV.

 

We Have A Hulk: How The Avengers Took Over The World

Wow.

I mean… Wow.

Whether you were a total Whedonite, or just a Buffy or Firefly fan, or someone who knew he did that vampire thing but didn’t know about the comic books or web shows, or you just weren’t a fan of Joss Whedon at all, it was impossible not to kneel before The Avengers as though it was an all-powerful demigod demanding your allegiance. In a good way.

Kneel!

What a remarkable achievement this movie was on each and every level. Never before has a franchise been born character by character before being pulled together into one massive, all-conquering whole. For that we can thank the unswerving vision of Marvel Studio’s head honcho, Kevin Feige. From 2008 through 2011, he shepherded Iron Man 1 & 2, Thor and Captain America into production, setting up the title characters, and weaving in Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Each movie not only set up its lead, but also evolved the Avenger Initiative backstory a little more, through one-liners, brief glimpses of the S.H.I.E.L.D. world, and crafty post-credits stingers.

With that heavy lifting taken care of, the biggest task still remained: how to take all those characters and synthesize them into one fast-moving, massive spectacle of an event movie, while retaining the humor, soul and smarts of each of the previous installments.

Which is where Joss Whedon came in.

Joss Whedon directing Mark Ruffalo

It’s no easy thing, to keep so many characters in the mix, giving each their moment(s) to shine, without losing any of them — this is especially true when the characters in question are iconic; are all (or have the potential to be) stars of their own movies & franchises. At least, it’s usually no easy thing in the movies. In TV, on the other hand, keeping multiple character arcs rolling and interweaving as you escalate stakes and understanding is simply business as usual. Todd VanDerWerff made this point in a brilliant piece for the Onion’s AV Club. He talked about how J.J. Abrams, another TV superstar-turned-movie-god, also had the same intuitive understanding as Whedon: focusing on the good guys and their interactions and emotional connections is a powerful foundation, especially in a huge movie. There are exceptions, of course, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which are dark and extraordinarily focused odes to isolation and loneliness (also, they’re works of utter genius). However, in the case of The Avengers, which is a high-energy, brightly-colored rock-n-roll universe, focusing on our heroes was a brilliant move on Whedon’s part.

Everyone got arcs and awesome moments (although Robert Downey Jr may have had a few more than most, knocking them all out of the park). Whedon found a way to humanize each of his heroes (most poignantly using “the cellist” and the trading cards to make us care about Agent Coulson), which drew us in all the more: such care is rarely taken in tentpole pictures, and even when care is taken, it’s rarely done with such skill and charm.

The script really is a force to be reckoned with; this is writing as superpower. It begins with a boom, then rides that momentum easily as it swoops from character to character, using one to segue to another, never losing pace as it builds up the cast; then it ratchets up the stakes, the conflict, the sheer size of everything — bringing the team together then breaking them down then finding a nuanced yet brutal emotional lever to launch the massive, rollicking final third of the movie.

This juggernaut of narrative pace is shot through with constant soul, emotion, and, most importantly of all, a relentless and brilliant sense of razor-sharp wit. This may just be the greatest comedy of the year, even as it lays an early claim to blockbuster movie of the year, and possibly even highest grossing movie ever made.

Whedon brought other great grace notes to his performance as writer & director, flourishes that made the performance even more his own: casting the iconic rebel Harry Dean Stanton as a janitor (to Hulk: “son, you have a condition”); using Lou Ferrigno as the voice of the Hulk; ending the movie with Soundgarden’s first song in fifteen years.

The Avengers in action

On so many levels, The Avengers is basically a glorious expression of everything I’ve ever loved about genre and pop culture. As a child, bringing together multiple characters was simply how I did it; that’s what toys were for. In my childhood games, it wasn’t unusual for Captain Kirk to join Spiderman, Superman and the Daleks for a face off against dinosaurs (f**k off, I’m copyrighting that, it’s mine!)… so the notion of superhero team events is basically wish-fulfillment on a massive scale: thank you, Mr. Whedon, for making this match-up so much more than the sum of its parts.

But that’s enough about Joss and the boys. Let’s talk about Scarlett.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in The Avengers

As the lone female, Scarlett Johansson had her work cut out. But she had Whedon on her side, one of the great feminists of pop culture, a true believer in the awesomeness and awesome power of women. Who better to make Black Widow unique and memorable, soulful and strong, kickass and funny? But having Johansson bringing Whedon’s words to life on the big screen was a truly special thing. She brought a stormy, sensual quality to the Black Widow/Natasha Romanov, playing her with a quiet strength interlaced with a hurt soulfulness, and a sharp intelligence, hidden like a knife, wielded with deadly precision and speed.

Yes, she kicked ass with the best of them, but her shivering, shaking vulnerability after just barely avoiding being killed by Hulk is just one example of what makes Natasha Romanov so human, and is one of the reasons this movie has so much heart and soul. Johansson gave the movie its warm yet broken & tortured soul. In the process, she made an airtight case for a standalone Black Widow movie.

I could keep going, but then the run time of this review would almost match the movie.

In conclusion, The Avengers was a majestic blend of humor, soulfulness, intelligence, mad thrills, and a visceral, always-building visual crescendo.

Iron Man

An extraordinary pop culture rush, in other words.

Final rating: five out of five quippy one liners.