“There will be light, Bruce,” a young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) promises newly orphaned boy Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) in the opening moments of Fox’s DC Comics adaptation Gotham. Viewers may have their doubts about that.
The first series out the gate in DC Entertainment’s attempt to conquer the 2014 television season, Gotham is a police procedural masquerading as the origin story for the entire Batman mythos. As DC film auteur Zack Snyder is fond of saying, “The fans want this material to be taken seriously.” And from writer/developer Bruno Heller’s script on down, Gotham takes itself very, very seriously.
The pilot’s opening portrays perhaps the most violent version yet of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder, and the rest of the episode does a tour of Gotham City’s would-be rogue’s gallery as Gordon and his new partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) attempt to catch the anonymous gunman.
Gordon and Bullock sum up the show’s approach to the world: Each character has a few visual touchstones tying them him to his comic book roots (square-jawed redhead; slovenly with crumpled hat and trench coat) while also adding a few twists to propel the story forward. McKenzie’s Gordon is a recently discharged war hero (what war, what branch of the military or why he’s a hero aren’t mentioned) whose father was both the former Gotham white knight D.A. and died before his son’s eyes in a car crash. Bullock represents the traditional “on the take” detective on the force. But of course, maybe he’s not so far gone as to avoid redemption.
Throughout the episode, the two clash over methods and results — their teeth always gritted and voices always gravely. Gordon is crusading to keep a promise to young Bruce. Bullock is looking to avoid the spotlight and lean on his uneasy alliance with the mob to cut corners. Aiding the pair briefly is Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), the most one-note of the characters badly in need of some harmony. Nygma’s scene could easily be cut from the episode except the producers really wanted to say “This guy is going to be the Riddler!” in neon-green letters.
At the same time, competing Major Crimes division detectives Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen (a brief but effective Victoria Cartagena and Andrew Stewart-Jones) seem honestly concerned with truth and justice, while Gordon and Bullock’s captain Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara) feels immune to B.S. or corruption. These touches undercut the pilot’s shaky ability to establish the supposed corruptness of the Gotham Police Department.
But of course, there’s plenty of corruption to be found elsewhere in the city. The detectives’ investigation goes quickly up the scumbag food chain from a montage of face-tattooed biker types to mob captain Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) — a flashy club owner flanked by her ambitiously cruel lackey Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) and a fill-in-the-blank enforcer named Butch Gilzean.
Fish is a new character to the Batman world, and so she works extra hard to be memorable as she buddies up to the seemingly corrupt Bullock. In Smith’s hands, the character spits sassy retorts like “Aren’t you a cool glass of milk?” while keeping awkward attention on her fragile hairstyle (is that supposed to be a wig or what?). On the other hand, the pre-Penguin Cobblepot mostly draws attention due to Taylor’s beak-like nose and conveniently included umbrella. When Cobblepot sells Mooney out to the police in a power play, her leg-breaking revenge sets up a penguin-like hobble for the would-be boss. The move is just one example of the drama’s attempts to show viewers “how a character came to be,” but at least Fish’s crazed attack on Cobblepot was one of the more surprisingly fun scenes.
The young end of the villain spectrum make brief appearances as well. Unnamed and unnoticed street thief Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) slinks through the opening moments to witness the murder of the Waynes and then crawls along the tombstones at their funeral. And the plant-obsessed child Ivy Pepper is only a creepy obstacle to Gordan and Bullock arresting her father for the Wayne murders on a tip from Fish. When Bullock shoots the perp to save Gordon, the plot takes its one big turn away from the simple and straightforward.
Rounding out the core cast, Jim’s fiance Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) is a little too eager to please and a little too quick to doubt Jim. That she and Montoya are former lovers doesn’t quite help their one scene pass the Bechdel test, but it is an unexpected twist to the traditional Gotham narrative. And it’s nice to see Montoya play a more central role after receiving little promotion this summer.
And you can add to all of those fly-by performances the first of what will surely be a number of would-be Jokers. This one is a flailing comedian who entertains Mooney with a slightly dark but hopelessly bad stand-up routine flashing shades of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. Still, if every episode drops in a bit as inconsequential as this, it’ll be a long slog to the clown prince of crime.
If the list here feels a little “can’t tell the players without a score card,” it’s because there are too many characters introduced too quickly. The show tries to justify this by playing the revolving door of human Easter eggs as tropes, but it too often makes them clichés. Fish is a diva, Bullock a cynic, Cobblepot a sadist, Gordon a good guy, and on and on.
What’s more, the direction by Danny Cannon is a little too glossed over. The stylized, hazy lighting of the various bars, back alleys and holding cells of Gotham City meld easily into the CG-inserted, gloomy skyline. But for the most part, the C.S.I. veteran gives the show a look that tries hard to be unique yet has no character. The action (from gun violence to throat-slitting) is full of blood but lacking in any visceral, emotional punch.
Most TV pilots try hard to be one thing when the show is destined to be something slightly different and suffer for it. That’s how prequel and origin stories work too. So Gotham has its work cut out for it twice over to do something original. By the time the episode ends, it starts to get there some.
After realizing the man they killed wasn’t the Wayne murderer but a fall guy, Gordon goes to confront Fish’s men only to get both himself and Bullock placed on the chopping block. After a spectacularly violent throwdown between shotgun goons and a cleaver-swinging gimp, deus ex machina mob kingpin Carmine Falcone (John Doman) swoops in to set the status quo in place. The Wayne murders will go unsolved while Gordon is ordered to kill Cobblepot to prove his willingness to play along. That the young cop will miss the killshot and let Oswald go is never in doubt, but the Pandora’s box he’s opened with his choice will doubtlessly complicate the first season.
Whether Gordon and Gotham can dig their way out of the darkness and into entertainment worthy of the Batman franchise remains to be seen. But maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
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