Ben McKenzie describes the five seasons he spent playing Det. Jim Gordon on the Fox series "Gotham" as an incredible journey. Taking on the character born in the pages of DC Comics also ended up being "exhausting."
"When you are making a show on this scale, it's extraordinary that they ever get made. It is a real testament to the cast and crew," McKenzie says. "It was even harder because the character and the show is so dark. It has been six weeks since we wrapped and it's been nice – as pleasurable as the job has been – not to have to set in the Batman, noirish conceit and be constantly mining the muck of crime in Gotham."
After a short hiatus, "Gotham" returns Thursday to begin airing its final episodes. The series launched in September 2014 as the story of Batman's home city before Bruce Wayne decided to put on the cape and cowl to fight crime. That approach meant the show dealt more with Gordon's efforts to keep the peace and the rise of some well-known criminals.
The final episode goes right up to Batman being on the scene with a 10-year jump into the future. Favorite villains such as The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) and Catwoman (Camren Bicondova) will be on hand for the monumental moment.
It's only now, away from being consumed by the darkness of the series, that McKenzie is able to fully appreciate the full quality of the show.
"When you are in the thick of it, it's sort of hard to know what to make of it because, quite frankly, you are so focused on the next day and the next day," McKenzie says. "One of the luxuries that you don't have in television that you have in film, is that you have to keep making the product every single day, especially if you are directing or writing it (McKenzie wrote the series finale).
"You need to keep moving. You can't rest on what sort of laurels you may have accrued. To be able to reflect back and see what we made is quite a feeling. I look back at 'The O.C.' or 'Southland' differently now as a 40-year-old man than I did when I was 25, 30 or 35."
McKenzie never saw Gordon as a typical officer of the law, but as the surrogate Batman until the Caped Crusader came along. That feeling was in line with Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon, who co-created the series. Their thinking was in a pre-Batman Gotham, there needed to be a prototype of the costumed hero who could be both a mentor to Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and have moments where he would pick the wrong way to deal with the super criminals.
Gordon had to face the same villains Batman would battle, except without billions of dollars to buy fancy gadgets or vehicles. Through most of "Gotham," Gordon only had his gun and a badge, and both were taken away from him at various points along the trek.
"Gordon's journey is both a hero's rise and the story of a fall of an everyman," McKenzie says. "He can't possibly keep up with this city that's circling the drain and, ultimately, needs a Batman to save it. That was wonderful and human and tragic. Audiences responded well to that."
Long before taking on the series, the Texas native was aware of the DC Universe, but he wasn't a super fan of comic books. There was little free time starting in 2003 after McKenzie was cast as Ryan Atwood on "The O.C.," which ran for four seasons. That was followed by films such as "88 Minutes," "Johnny Got His Gun" and "Junebug," plus the cable series "Southland," which ran for five seasons.
The different approach to the Batman story coupled with what he learned from reading the script for the first episode was enough to bring McKenzie up to speed. He was most excited in regards to getting to play Gordon because he had played a cop on "Southland."
"The thing that was always difficult for me to embrace about the superhero genre was when people began to fly or have super powers. That didn't jive with what I was interested in," McKenzie says. "But, of course, Gordon doesn't have any of that. Nor does any of the other characters in this Batman world. The world is heightened, but it's real."
8 p.m./7 p.m. Central Thursdays, Fox
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