Why, oh why, didn’t they just adapt Gotham Central, the acclaimed early 2000s series - set in the present-day DC Universe - that featured Gotham’s cops taking on the super-crime endemic to the city, without reliance on any caped heroes?
That sounds like a fanboy gripe, and I suppose it is. But it’s the question that Gotham’s pilot raises, thanks to creator Bruno Heller’s dubious decision to do a Jim Gordon-centered GCPD series as a prequel set years before Bruce Wayne puts on the cowl. The consequences of that creative decision reverberate throughout the pilot. Does Heller want to fully embrace the show’s comic-book roots and create a literal Batman-minus-Batman series, at the likely cost of ceasing to work as a prequel (i.e., if mere police officers can take on costumed supervillains, rather than more conventional criminals, why would Batman be needed?). Or does he want to make a more grounded crime drama that merely happens to be populated by human beings loosely patterned after familiar Batman characters - in which case he risks alienating viewers tuning in for the Batman elements?
Apparently, he wants to make both. The result is a show wildly inconsistent in tone, where an all-but-fully-formed tween Catwoman appears in the very first scene and poses dramatically throughout, even before the Waynes get murdered; where a standard Gordon and Bullock perp-interrogation sequence is quickly followed by introductions of the Riddler and Penguin - sorry, it’s Edward Nygma and Oswald Cobblepot, but the script is comically unsubtle about who they’ll become; where Jada Pinkett Smith’s original character, criminal nightclub owner Fish Mooney, devours the scenery with delicious zeal in a manner more befitting the Adam West series than anything else in this show.
Gotham is not a bad show. The cast is almost uniformly excellent, doing their best with some clunky dialogue (an exception being an utterly terrible soap-opera bisexuality subplot, involving Gotham Central’s beloved lesbian cop Renee Montoya and Gordon’s fiancee), and the production values are generally superb; the show’s CG-enhanced, timeless alternate vision of New York is far more visually interesting than Christopher Nolan’s take on the city. And it’s certainly never boring. But the pilot did little to convince me that Heller hasn’t written himself into a corner with the very premise of his series. I’m curious to see him attempt to maintain Gotham’s awkward balance between comic-book heightened reality and gritty crime drama, and I’ll keep watching for that, the visuals, and the cast. But can a genuinely good show result from that balancing act? Not yet, and I’m unconvinced that it can.
There's something very Arrow-esque about the soap opera-y way the series presents itself. It also can't make up its mind whether it's a 1940s Gotham or present day Gotham (Harvey Bullock's reference to the "funny pages," then, later, mentioning Jim's cell phone running "out of juice"). This temporal schizophrenia is jarring & takes us out of our desired suspension of disbelief.
Speaking of Bullock, Donal Logue's considerable acting chops are wasted in this role. By oversanitizing the show to make it more family-friendly, Logue's character is neutered to the point of caricature: the "dirty cop" whose menace is told, but not shown. You can see him chomping at the bit inside this part, but the gritty potential of Harvey Bullock is never going to see the light of day.
Mostly, Gotham suffers from the sin of banality. Evoking the Batman mythos in a fresh and interesting way after the recent Nolan-by-way-of-Miller Dark Knight movies was always going to be an uphill battle. But even harder: how do you tell a story that everyone already knows? Probably mindful of rabid fandom purists, there just wasn't enough originality and verve in Gotham to keep the familiar tale engaging.
It’s tough for me to review Gotham without at all addressing what it’s not, so let’s get this out of the way: it’s not Gotham Central.
Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s (deservedly) much-lauded series, which ran for 40 issues from 2003 to 2006, followed Gotham’s police force as they fought crime throughout the city. Batman, while only depicted on-panel occasionally, was a constant presence over the course of a book centering on the ambiguities of the role of law enforcement in a city dominated by the presence of supervillains and vigilantes.
Gotham is not Gotham Central.
And it’s also not Smallville.
That series - which ran for 10 seasons from 2001 to 2011 - followed a young Clark Kent in his journey to eventually becoming Superman (sort of).
No, Gotham isn’t either of these. For the three of you who haven’t seen the show’s ubiquitous marketing campaign, it follows Detective James Gordon (still years away from becoming the Commissioner we know), a young Bruce Wayne (whose parents’ murder opens the pilot episode), and a host of criminals, many of whom will eventually become familiar supervillains. The pilot alone introduces many of these characters, arguably too many; there’s Oswald Cobblepot (the Penguin), here a thin-skinned henchman of crime boss Fish Mooney (the only major original character); Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman), just a petty preteen thief… albeit an agile, almost catlike one; Edward Nygma (the Riddler), here a riddle-obsessed GCPD coroner; and Ivy Pepper, a young girl with a certain obsession with plants. (Why she’s not Poison Ivy is beyond me).
I guess we can’t call her Pamela Isley, or it won’t be sufficiently obvious that she’s eventually Poison Ivy.
So what works about Gotham, and what doesn’t?
For starters, the show looks pretty slick; while some of the NYC shooting locations are recognizable, well-placed CG manages to make TV’s Gotham City come into its own. The cast, too, is mostly strong--my favorite element being Fish Mooney, played by Jada Pinkett Smith in her best scenery-chewing mode.
And the show could play out well as a crime drama; the pilot teases an overarching storyline centering on a gang war, with Mooney and comic villain Carmine Falcone vying for power (and a hint at the end of the episode that Cobblepot may soon become a major player).
What doesn’t work? Well, to be honest, there’s a lot. It’s not fair to judge a show by its pilot, which often necessitates an inordinate amount of setup for future episodes and storylines, and showrunner Bruno Heller has himself admitted that the pilot is overstuffed.
While much of that setup is probably necessary to appease the suits (not to mention audiences), that doesn't make it any less groan-inducing. Do we really need it spelled out to us that Kyle has a cat fixation, that Nygma loves to deliver information to cops in the form of... Riddles... Or to actually have someone say out loud that Cobblepot looks like a penguin? It's already the stuff of parody, not surprisingly.
Another problem is Gotham's fundamental uncertainty (understandable at this early juncture, but still worrisome) about what sort of show it wants to be. That the show opens with the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, conveniently witnessed by Selina, suggests an intent to keep the origin of Batman at its forefront, as does heller's stated plan to have the show culminate in Bruce finally donning the cape and cowl. Yet while that murder sets the series in motion, Bruce is kept on this episode's periphery. It's implied that the Waynes' death was part of a conspiracy, rather than a random murder, but that mystery seems like something the show will only be able to return to occasionally, unless it resolves the storyline soon (unlikely in serialized television). All of that makes me uncertain as to what role Young Bruce will fill going forwards. Will he aid Gordon and the cops Encyclopedia Brown-style? Or will the show turn into a Smallville scenario - where what's supposed to be an origin story winds up becoming a Batman story without the Batman?
On Smallville, this actually got to the point where Clark joined a not-yet-the-Justice League, and donned a superhero costume as "The Blur." Really.
But by far, the worst offense the pilot commits is its depiction of one of Gordon’s fellow officers, Renee Montoya--a major character in the aforementioned Gotham Central. First introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, Montoya is a headstrong detective, a Catholic, and, as revealed in an early arc of Gotham Central, a lesbian.
I’ve written before about the lack of queer representation in comics-based TV and film, so it’s nice to see her as a regular character here. Unfortunately, her sexuality is established in about the worst way possible, in a confrontation with Gordon’s fiancee, wherein it’s implied that the two women were once lovers. This isn’t a great way to handle LGBT representation; it suggests that the show is (at least initially) only going to handle it as a tawdry, soap-opera-esque complication for the heterosexual protagonist. A great character like Montoya deserves better.
Those issues aside, there’s still some potential here. But this show is going to have a tough time finding its feet.