Before they were batty: the cast of TV’s Gotham.
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Mark Lawson: What the boy Batman tells us about TV prequels

Gotham follows an established formula in applying to fictional CVs the nostalgic-ironic tactics of TV archive series such as Before They Were Famous.

In choosing an adult name for his superhero identity, Batman subliminally encouraged speculation about a younger self, and an American series arriving in Britain this month is a sort of Batboy. Gotham, screened here by Channel 5, depicts the events that made Bruce Wayne grow up to be a secretive millionaire with an English manservant and a high-flying night-life in black rubber.

Gotham becomes the third spin-back from a big movie character in the current TV schedules, joining Bates Motel (Universal Channel), which dramatises the adolescence of the man whose bathroom issues were explored in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Hannibal (Sky), in which we meet younger versions of the FBI’s Will Graham and Dr Lecter from the works of Thomas Harris.

Gotham follows the other two series in applying to fictional CVs the nostalgic-ironic tactics of TV archive series such as Before They Were Famous. Here are villains such as The Joker and Penguin (before they were infamous) and the character later known as Police Commissioner Gordon is a young cop on the Gotham force, investigating the murder of the parents of a boy called Bruce Wayne.

The obvious attraction of such shows to broadcasters is that, in a digital marketplace crammed with calls on viewers’ attention, they arrive already knowing the backstory (or, strictly, front-story). When the English actor Sean Pertwee introduces himself as Alfred Pennyworth, not only do we immediately know that he is a valet but, in our movie-shaped imaginations, he grows up to become Michael Caine.

But, depressingly, Gotham, Bates Motel and Hannibal have almost identical motivations, seeking to justify the later behaviour of the protagonists – Bruce’s benevolence, the malevolence of Norman and Lecter – through events of their childhood, a Freudian reductionism that is already present in the adult narratives (especially in Harris’s prequel novel, Hannibal Rising), but never as simplistically. The boy Bruce is haunted by his inability to intervene in his parents’ murder but this feels a flimsy psychological explanation for soaring over cities at night dressed as a bat.

Viewers who are not fanatics of the franchises may also tire of storylines that depend almost entirely for effect on us knowing what comes next. Every moment when the young Bruce looks down from a height or teenage Norman walks past a shower head can feel like those war movies in which the hero is first seen playing with toy soldiers.

The trio of shows can be seen as evidence of the popularity of film franchises as a source of TV drama, although, in the case of Gotham, the traffic between big and small screen is more complicated, Batman having been a brief but much-repeated American TV show in the 1960s.

And, increasingly, the road between TV and cinema is successfully two-way. Whereas, in the past, hit Britcoms such as The Likely Lads or Are You Being Served? would be turned into a flop movie, The Inbetweeners and Mrs Brown’s Boys have become financial, though not critical, hits.

There is also an intriguing subset of TV classics that grew out of films without most viewers even noticing. The 11 seasons and long syndicated afterlife of M*A*S*H grew far beyond its origins in Robert Altman’s cult 1970 film, based on the same books about an army hospital in the Korean war, while The West Wing (NBC, 1999 to 2006) is chiselled on TV’s Mount Rushmore, far overshadowing the 1995 film The American President, with which it shared a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, and the same set re-creating the White House.

Gotham, though visually striking, will surely prove, like Bates Motel and Hannibal, to be a B-movie in comparison with the films that made it so attractive to television.

Condescending Wonka: his stage debut

Another intense cultural competition exists between theatre and the internet. Playhouses fear the web, in the way that print media do, as a potential thief of revenue and customers, though some companies have pioneeringly explored streaming as a way of reaching broader audiences, as the Hampstead Theatre in London did with Howard Brenton’s play #aiww.

The Royal Court Theatre is now staging its second recent production that attempts to put online on stage. Following Jen­nifer Haley’s The Nether, in which actors played fictional characters and their avatars on a fantasy site, Tim Price’s Teh Internet Is Serious Business aims to dramatise the virtual world without ever using film or screens.

The web itself is a pit of brightly coloured balls, while code-writing is represented by dance and internet memes such as Condescending Wonka take physical form.

Both plays are eloquent about the political possibilities and the moral risks of digital interaction – but surely people go to the theatre to get away from the internet. Trying to theatricalise screen culture feels like a vicar trying to fill the pews by asking a Satanist to preach.

“Teh Internet Is Serious Business” is at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1, until 25 October

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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