Fox’s Gotham does just enough things well to make it one of the stronger pilots in a truly awful Fall TV season.
I promise you, however dark and scary the world might be right now, there will be light. There will be light, Bruce.
That line above, spoken by the fresh-faced Jim Gordon to a weeping 13-year-old Bruce Wayne, is what we in The Biz call “foreshadowing.” And, if you’re Fox, you don’t put out a series called Gotham and not tease us with the Batman, right? Even if he’s many, many seasons away?
Well…maybe not. Because my chief complaint about the debut episode (I have a few complaints, but this is my chief) is that there’s surprisingly too much Batman. Gotham has the potential to do something really cool — be a half-modern, half-retro cop show with a lonely hero in a futile battle against the forces of organized crime and institutional decay — and it doesn’t need Batman at all to do it. As created by Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, HBO’s Rome), Gotham borrows in more than concept from Gotham Central, the beloved series from the mid-aughts about GPD’s finest, who were just trying to do their jobs in the periphery of Bruce Wayne’s exploits. Unlike Gotham Central, Gotham the TV series pre-dates Batman, instead opening with the umpteenth depiction of that fateful alley shooting.
I’ll be honest — I’m bored by origin stories. How many times to do we have to see the death of Mr. & Mrs. Wayne? (For that matter, how many times to we have to see Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben get shot?) How much do I really care about the beginnings of the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and other assorted rogues? The answer: not much. Not to say that they can’t work as characters on this show, as a couple of them do. But they’re all introduced in a wink-nudge fashion (“If I wanted riddles, I’d read the funny papers,” someone literally says to forensic scientist Edward “Future Riddler” Nygma), as if the writers just want to make the fans feel special for recognizing them. A pre-teen Poison Ivy doesn’t need to cameo. I’m not sure that the young Catwoman (who skulks around this hour without a single line of dialogue) needs to be here. If Bruce Wayne has to be here, he shouldn’t be a series regular. Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot, who Gordon pretends to murder at the end of the pilot, ought to now disappear until the end of, say, next season. Instead, he’s a regular too.
If Gotham wanted to sprinkle in these Batman Babies asides as we went along, that would be one thing. But to jam-pack the pilot episode with them is complete overkill, and sets a precedent that will be impossible for the series to sustain. Because the best parts of Gotham are, surprisingly, the police procedural parts. As Gordon, Ben McKenzie is great — I didn’t really buy him in the role based solely on promotional images, but once he got to work some scenes he exhibited the kind of hard-headed decency you want in the Bat’s future ally. As Harvey Bullock, the “slovenly, lackadaisical cynic” who is forced to take Gordon on as a partner, Donal Logue’s greatness is a given. These are the kinds of cops who still eat in diners; who stand out in the rain wearing fedoras; who talk like characters in a Humphrey Bogart movie. Jada Pinkett-Smith plays “Fish Mooney,” an underworld diva invented for the show, and seems to be one of the only people involved who remembers this is based on a comic book.
As a weird throwback in terms of setting and style (though the technology is entirely modern), Gotham is kind of fascinating. In interviews, Heller has already invoked the sacred 70s thrillers Serpico and The French Connection as touchstones, and compared to the dreck CBS is running, it could easily be one of the better cop shows on the air. And, I’ll say it again: it doesn’t need Batman to be a great show. As Gordon runs into corruption, urban realities, and impenetrable bureaucracy, it almost resembles The Wire: Gotham — heck, we’ve already got appearances from John Doman (as Carmine Falcone, world-weary, idealistic crime boss?) and Michael Kostroff; make the plot resonate just a little bit with current events, and let’s get David Simon to guest-write an episode. I would watch the s–t out of that.
Obviously, we’re not there. We’re probably never going to get there. With the amount of money/promotion Fox has poured into the show (a lot), it’s going to have to aim somewhat broad, with more nods to the Bat-verse than necessary. But the pilot is confidently constructed — it looks GREAT, with a chiaroscuro noir-ish vibe; it’s well-cast (obligatory nods to David Mazouz as a not-annoying Bruce Wayne, and Robin Lord Taylor as a perfectly sniveling Cobblepot); it’s paced well; it’s even occasionally funny, in those all-too-brief moments Gordon and Bullock can just bounce off each other. The dialogue is a bit on-the-nose, as I’ve already mentioned, but it’s clear that Heller has vision for the show going forward. This isn’t a test run. It’s something fully-formed, even if not all the pieces work.
The fundamental flaw of prequel stories is that they spend time on the characters you know before they actually become interesting. But in a sandbox this big, there’s no shortage of lesser-known villains and plotlines that Gotham can make use of, without feeling like it has to keep teasing the eventual arrival of the bigger names. So in this case, I’m giving out some unusual advice: Aim lower. Small stories, but big themes. Think Character, not “characters.” Gordon, who says he’s “out of his depth” but has no choice but to swim, is a compelling lead: let’s go somewhere with him. The others will still be there when there’s actually something for them to do.
And even if Gotham doesn’t do this, it will probably still be worth watching — Batman’s pull is just too strong.