Robert Tiemstra ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Let’s face it: The premise of Fox’s Gotham is fundamentally flawed in a big way. The whole ‘Batman without Batman’ approach seems ludicrous on paper to anyone who takes even a moment to consider what the Batman mythos were built on: The escalation of madness. The ridiculously gothic and over the top villains only worked because they were themselves a reaction to the presence of a theatrical vigilante. The last scene of Batman Begins clearly establishes this pattern of escalation, and every writer who has tackled a Joker story in the comics feels the dire need to imply (subtly or overtly) that the Joker was ‘created’ by Batman in the same way Batman was created by Gotham City. Without this logical grounding, Gotham’s decision to introduce The Joker (presumably later in its planned 16-episode run) seems gimmicky and tasteless.
However, if you managed to wade through that verbose list of reasons for why this show wouldn’t work, here is a surprise for you: The show works. At least for now. The genius of Bruno Heller’s vision for the show is not necessarily in the writing (which goes over several tired old procedural clichés) but in the aesthetics. While early teasers and promotional art may have looked like a generic CSI ripoff, the pilot itself proves far from generic by conjuring a version of Gotham City right out of a Film Noir.
This is not to say that Gotham succeeds purely because of its own style, merely that the style colors everything within the show, rendering a gritty-yet-beautiful atmosphere much like the frames of a comic book. It’s the small touches that make all the difference: More dramatic shadows & light sources touch everything that comes near them – this is the kind of world where the lights on a police car can light up a whole crime scene.
The cast acquits themselves decently throughout the course of this one hour pilot – Standouts come in the form of Robin Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot (a toady later destined to become The Penguin) and Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney, a sadistic crime boss created for the series. This character, played with fiendish glee by Smith, would feel right at home in Frank Miller’s gritty comic Batman: Year One (if Frank Miller knew how to write complex female characters, that is). The arc of this episode belongs to Oswald, who manages to survive both the extremely clunky forshadowing and relative lack of screen time to become the most genuinely promising aspect of this series.
And yet, for all their efforts to stay clear of the Batman films, a re-enactment of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne is necessary. The scene strikes one of only a handful of false notes in this pilot, reminding the viewer of the superior (and much less sterile) sequence in Batman Begins. At the center of this story is a young detective by the name of James Gordon. This character has historically been played by everyone from Gary Oldman to Bryan Cranston, which doesn’t bode well for Ben McKenzie, who adds very little to the character – aside from a sense of innocence and a young face notably devoid of facial hair.
But is it really McKenzie’s fault if Gordon is not the most interesting character within this delicious Rogue’s gallery? He throws himself into the role with enthusiasm, but the part of James Gordon is a limited one in this scenario – he is still the “one honest cop” we all have grown to know from other Batman media, but without having the morally ambiguous caped crusader as a dramatic foil, Gordon isn’t nearly as compelling on screen. McKenzie has the confidence & charisma of a young Russell Crowe, but only time will tell if he can find nuance within this all-too-straightforward role.
That sentiment sums up the overall quality of the Gotham pilot quite nicely – “Only time will tell.” Only time will tell if the dynamic between Bruce Wayne & James Gordon becomes compelling (and not, say, a piece of fanservice disguised as a character arc), and only time will tell if introducing Batman Villains before the presence of Batman undermines the narrative or not. For now, with its delicious Noir aesthetic and colorful supporting cast, Gotham works.
Gotham airs Mondays 8/9pm.
Overall Grade: B+