REVIEW: Pre-Batman "Gotham" Aims High, Falls Disappointingly Short

You know there's something off when the best thing about your Batman-based TV show is Jada Pinkett Smith's newly-created character.

FOX screened their hotly-anticipated "Gotham" pilot at Comic-Con International to a packed crowed of fans eager to see what is in store for Lt. Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as he navigates a corrupt, pre-Dark Knight Gotham City.

What we saw was a rushed, emotionally dull affair that is equal parts overcooked and underwhelming. In trying to service too many sub-plots, the hour leaves you unconvinced that you really need to see "Poison Ivy Begins: Age 8," especially when it takes time away from exploring the trauma that brought Gordon and a young Bruce Wayne together. We know this dynamic provides more than enough drama to sustain a series without having to pad it with the origins of peripheral characters; it's too bad writer and showrunner Bruno Heller (HBO's "Rome") sees it differently.

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After opening with a young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) pick-pocketing her way along Gotham's streets, she witnesses the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. And it is (literally) the bloodiest depiction of this crime ever seen in live-action. Master Bruce (David Mazouz) watches blood pool and gurgle around his parents' bodies -- for no dramatic reason other than "just because" -- and let's out an unintentionally funny scream while striking the iconic "Year One" cover image.

From here, we meet do-gooder Jim Gordon and corrupt Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). The former is naïve but packs quite a right cross. The latter passes bucks, drinks booze and repeats. Both work at a GCPD that, for some reason, constantly has police sirens strobe through windows as if to make certain we don't forget we're in a police station. Because the guys with badges on their cop uniforms isn't enough.

Gordon soon takes it upon himself to solve the Wayne's murders, while Bullock wisely wants to distance himself from the media attention the case will bring, especially if they don't catch the perp. After an obligatory scene featuring Bullock angrily requesting a transfer from his Captain as Gordon looks on, the two cops reluctantly work together -- with Bullock exposing Gordon to his underworld ties in an effort to use killers to catch a killer.

This aspect of the investigation brings crime boss Fish Mooney into the fold, a character created especially for the series. Pinkett Smith finds the perfect balance between menace and scene-chewing, and the script is at its most entertaining whenever she is on screen.

But when she isn't, the plot lurches from one scene to the next, and the hour never quite gels into a cohesive whole. It's like we're watching a rough outline on the writer's room wall come to life, only to yield mostly stillborn results.

McKenzie is serviceable in the role of Gordon, but unless he expands his range to include more than serious and really serious, our patience with the character will run thin.

Logue, so great in FX's "Terriers," is surprisingly the weakest link here. His performance alternates between grating and unlikable, as if he's acting in a different show or suffering from a lack of direction. Either way, our first live-action take on fan-favorite Bullock shouldn't be this problematic, especially with such a capable actor in the role.

"Gotham" partially succeeds with its chronicle of Oswald Cobblepot's early rise to Penguin status, and actor Robin Taylor is quite engaging in the role. Less successful is the shoe-horned introduction of Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), an GCPD analyst whose predilection for offering up case info with riddles is more annoying than The Riddler's shtick on the '60s TV show.

In the end, "Gotham" feels like exploited IP that does everything different and nothing better than its very Christopher Nolan-inspired counterpart. Why center a show on Bruce Wayne at an age where he is the least interesting and the most inactive? How does that choice benefit "Gotham's" long game? And what do we gain by watching Batman grow up to fight a rogues gallery that will be middle-age by the time he puts on the cowl?

We shouldn't be left asking these questions. We should be totally onboard with a Gotham-set procedural. Instead, we're left wishing we re-read "Gotham Central."

All that said, "Gotham" isn't terrible. What it lacks in compelling narrative it makes up for with ambitious production design and a commitment to its gritty, DC origins. There's a great show to be had here -- and maybe the next few episodes will reveal it. But if the pilot's any indication, "Gotham" is neither the series we need or deserve right now.

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