And thus begins 2014’s comic book takeover of television.
Those more casually acquainted with the caped crusader might find the premise of a show about Batman’s world before the main man ever showed up somewhat redundant. But anyone familiar with Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central, or any of the great Commissioner Gordon tales spun over the last few decades, will know Gotham is a setting rich with storytelling possibility even at the most grounded of perspectives. Watching a rookie Jim Gordon trying to hold out against an irreparably corrupt police force, warring crime families and the eventual threat of supervillains long enough for him to pass the torch to the city’s first superhero could prove one of the biggest crime epics on television. With Gotham the potential is certainly there, but whether it proves to be just a low-budget cash-in on the success of the Nolan movies or a strong addition to the Batman lore in its own right depends entirely on it striking the right balance between comic book campiness and generic police procedural.
Gotham stars Ben McKenzie as the idealistic Detective James Gordon (tragically not sporting the character’s signature mo’), freshly recruited into the G.C.P.D. and partnered with the far less virtuous Detective Harvey Bullock. Their first case? None other than the infamous murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne that would set their son Bruce on his path toward vigilantism. Yes, it’s familiar territory (how many times are we going to have to see those damn pearls fall to the ground?), but after firmly rooting us in the Batman mythology the case soon becomes a vehicle for us to explore Gotham’s criminal landscape, as well as introducing us to a number of familiar faces that will go on to wreak havoc across the titular city. While diving into the political inner-workings of Gotham’s underbelly is mostly an interesting ride, the cheesy introduction of the would-be villains – and the unbearable dialogue used to do so – pretty well derails the whole pilot into being laughable.
When you have a rogue’s gallery as flamboyant and cartoonish as Batman’s, a little subtlety is mandatory whenever you’re asking an audience to take them seriously in live-action. Though they don’t yet wear their bombastic monikers, the script is unapologetic in shoving the future villain’s identities down your throat. You can’t help but cringe when a young Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) screams about how much he hates the nickname ‘Penguin’, or when Bullock tells the P.D.’s coroner Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) how he’s in no mood for his ‘Riddles’. Gotham’s pilot is far more interested in obnoxiously announcing its iconic characters than it is in bringing them to life. If this show really wants to go the distance it needs to pump the breaks hard and build its cast organically. No child sees his parents murdered in front of him and goes from mourning to standing on rooftops and pompously announcing he’s trying to ‘conquer fear’ in such a short space of time. You’re not ‘Goddamn Batman’ yet. The one possible exception is in an allusion to a certain seminal Alan Moore story that, if played out, could actually explore something fresh in a character I’d otherwise dread seeing on this show.
When you get past the contrived introductions, the cast that does play a substantial role in this episode is thankfully a little more hit or miss (I don’t think I’ve ever used that as a positive before). Despite the aforementioned nickname dropping, Taylor’s Cobblepot does actually prove to be a captivating creation, and is easily the best realization of the show’s premise. You can see the ambition and hunger that one day threatens to violently break free from the shackles of his current cowardice. Though it’s a little much this early, David Mazouz does provide the young Bruce Wayne with the right kind of ominous intensity that is made palatable by the counterpoint of Sean Pertwee’s fun and less refined take on Alfred. It’s hard to say just how heavily Bruce will feature in Gotham given his defining transformation will likely be the series’ endgame, but the pilot does manage to set up a spiritual connection between him and Gordon that could keep him in the show without it feeling forced.
Logue’s Bullock is probably the most ‘wait and see’ member of the cast. A cop thriving in such an utterly corrupt institution is the perfect counterpoint for the lawful paragon that is Gordon. You get the sense he has long ago sold his soul to survive, but he doesn’t take any pleasure in having done so. It’s a shame then that he has some of the most wooden and stilted dialogue of the whole show, second only to Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney (Yep, Fish Mooney is the name they went with), whose mob-boss mistress would be over the top on the set of Sin City.
As for Gordon himself? Well, honestly, there just isn’t that much to report on yet. McKenzie doesn’t quite fit the mold fans of the character may have hoped for, but if you can get past the TV-ification of Gordon, the groundwork is there for a lot of his defining attributes. For the time being though, that’s largely thanks to the frustrated virtue McKenzie injects into the role and not the way the character is written (notice a trend here?). There’s a strange disconnect where the writers seem unsure whether they want Gordon to play the part of the rookie or of the veteran.
Which brings us to the big problem: the show’s lack of focus. Rather than trying to balance the crime and superhero genres, Gotham puts its weight at either end of the seesaw as the board cracks in the middle. The pilot fails to develop a personality with the ingredients it’s given, and takes the easiest clichés of both procedural cop shows and comic book storytelling in the hopes it can skate by on concept alone.
In truth though, it probably can. While the pilot does feel like a chore to watch, with all the half-baked cameos and dry, indulgent dialogue, it still manages to get you excited about this world and how it will all come crashing together. For all my complaints about the show, there are none intrinsic to its design and are all fairly typical for a network pilot. Painful as it sometimes was, moments like the first meeting of Gordon and Gotham’s kingpin Carmine Falcone (John Doman) set the stage for an incredible crime epic, and remind me why this is one of the most exciting new shows of the season. Gotham has a long way to go before it gets there, but its pilot shows every indication of a great show with a bumpy start. Let’s hope they can get their act together and give us the comic book show we need, and not the one we deserve…or however the hell that goes.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10