The premise behind Gotham, the newest FOX show and television’s latest entry into the superhero genre is an interesting one — wind the clock back to the days right after Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered, and follow the lives of the various denizens of Gotham City in the years before Batman arrived on the scene. It sounds… boring. It sounds pointless, for what is Gotham City without its Dark Knight?
Turns out, it’s quite a lively town.
The pilot episode, which premiered last night, showed that there is indeed vast potential in a Batman-less Gotham, with enough vibrant, interesting, and creepy personalities to easily fill a few episodes. Whether or not it can sustain itself — and whether or not it will fall victim to a villain-of-the-week conceit — remains to be seen. But for an hour on a Monday night, it was absolutely a solid, slightly flawed effort.
The pilot centered on the Wayne murders, but did so cleverly, using it more as a framing device to show you not only the central characters, but also to give you a glimpse of the Gotham City of its time. Crime is, as always, rampant. The city is patrolled by a decadent and corrupt police force that is constantly at war with itself, represented best by its central characters — Detectives James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). Gordon is of course the white hat in a roomful of grays and blacks, represented best by one of the earlier scenes when he defuses a hostage situation. Yet immediately after, violence overtakes the rest of the crew, and hard lessons are taught to him by Bullock.
Soon thereafter, they pick up the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne as a case (the murder which was, in a curious non-canonical twist, witnessed by a young street kid who will grow up to be Catwoman, but for now is a petty thief in steampunk goggles). Over the course of their investigation, they begin to encounter some of the show’s soon-to-be-infamous rogue’s gallery. Most notable are the invented-for-the-show Fish Mooney (a delightfully and sinisterly charming Jada Pinkett-Smith) and her obsequious henchman, the profoundly creepy Oswald Cobblepot, aka the future Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor, who is perfect in both performance and appearance).
Now. If the episode had left it there, it would have been satisfying. But it’s in a rush to cram as many recognizable names in as possible, a strange decision given the need to sustain itself over (presumably) a number of seasons. So we’re introduced to a CSI tech named Edward Nigma (the future Riddler), a young girl and daughter of a petty thief/wife-beater who will become the one known as Poison Ivy, and Carmine Falcone, the head of the Gotham City mob. It was simply too much, and the episode suffered for it. Most of those were throwaway entries, casual name-drops that felt like fan service, and clumsy fan service at that. The one that hurt the story most of all was the abrupt appearance of Falcone, played with effective ruthlessness and intelligence by John Doman. The performance was solid, but it felt all too fast. Over the course of a single episode, we saw his subordinate, Mooney, plot against him, while she in turn dealt with her own mini coup d’etat, who had his own issues to deal with. It came too quickly, and felt rushed and haphazard. A bigwig like Falcone feels like he should be saved for a more substantial reveal, instead of his bizarre, 11th hour pseudo-rescue that effective neutered Mooney’s crew right away.
As a result, the story started out with great promise, but quickly began to suffer from an overcrowding of personalities and subplots. Now, that can be salvaged, by simply dialing things back in the future episodes, using this as just a sort of introductory glossary to all the main players. What will be a bigger challenge is the characters themselves. The unquestionable star of the episode was Logue’s Detective Bullock, the most complex character in a crowded room. He’s dirty — really dirty — and also unethical, violent, and even a bit cruel. But he’s also shrewd, intelligent, and not without a bizarre sense of pride and maybe even a little honor, which results in him keeping a case he never wanted simply out of spite. Logue has just the right amount of bravado and arrogance and world-weary bitterness infused into Bullock, and he feels like he’s slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes by taking on the character (he and Pinkett-Smith also have the most success at delivering the show’s often unusual, comic-bookish dialogue).
McKenzie, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. He’s clearly channeling the ghost of Bud White in some moments (in fact, much of the show is clearly inspired by James Ellroy as much as Frank Miller), clenching his jaw and staring stonily into the camera, tightening every muscle in his body as he tries to contain his inner rage. It’s juxtaposed with his white-knight attitude, the good guy in a land of baddies, and sometimes it works, and sometimes… sometimes it comes off as what it is — a mediocre actor with a couple of effective gimmicks paired with a seasoned, very talented older, wiser, stronger actor. The pairing of Logue and McKenzie makes for interesting drama, but it also draws McKenzie’s faults to the forefront at times. The bigger problem, at least in the pilot, is the relationship between Gordon and his fiancee, Barbara. Putting aside the unexpected, cryptic and forced-feeling love triangle that involves Barbara and another female detective, the chemistry between Jim and Barbara simply felt flat (in part due to a rather lackadaisical performance from Erin Richards).
I mean, am I crazy here?
Perhaps most interestingly was how little of Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) there was, though it should be noted that McKenzie’s best moments were his brief, earnest interactions with young Master Wayne and an unusually gruff, salty Alfred (Sean Pertwee). There’s an added layer of empathy and honesty that McKenzie brought to their moments — particularly at the scene of the Wayne murders — that felt absent from prior filmed versions. Regardless, I’m personally OK with less Bruce Wayne, as I’d much rather wander through the underbelly of Gotham through the eyes of Gordon and Bullock, who provide a more nuanced, mature viewpoint.
The show also needs to achieve some level of consistency with what and when Gotham is — there’s a strange mishmash of genres and time periods at play that is at times confusing. Everyone’s driving 80’s model sedans, but they have cell phones. Jada Pinkett Smith dresses like a flapper girl, but wears a pink-hued weave. It’s all over the place in terms of what kind of atmosphere it wants to present, and the dialogue is another manifestation of that - it’s a weird combination of comic book and outdated, noirish detective jargon. It’s trying to settle somewhere between a comic book and a Chandler novel, and never quite finding firm ground.
Ultimately, Gotham had more positives than negatives, so it’s worth sticking with it to see where it takes us. DC Comics has historically had the best luck when it comes to television adaptations, between its terrific animated fair to the hugely entertaining Arrow on the CW network (and the promising Flash adaptation on the same network), all of them thus far superior to efforts like Agents of SHIELD or Marvel’s lengthy list of earlier stumbles. It would be nice to see this one succeed, and if it will, it will be bolstered by its efforts to remain as realistic and non-comic-bookish as possible, which grounds the show and makes it feel a bit more alive. But it will need to thin out the crowd for it to be effective — it’s astonishing how rushed a simple 60 minute network episode could feel. More importantly, McKenzie has his work cut out for him if he wants his Jim Gordon to stack up to both the outstanding efforts of Gary Oldman, as well as some of the great depictions in the comics. He will need to make the iconic character his own, and he’ll need to do more than glare and chomp and give the occasional kindly glance. Yet all of that said, Gotham does an excellent job of showing us Gotham City, and all of the dirt and decay and despair that comes with it. The characters are mostly well-rendered, and while the story is already a bit too complicated, it has enough potential to make it worth exploring a little more.