Gotham succeeds at doing Batman without Batman, but depends on its stellar casts to save it from poor writing.
Before Gotham premiered on Fox this Monday, most of the dialogue surrounding the new series focused on the reinterpretation of Batman's antagonists in a Gotham City without the Caped Crusader. My concern was that if the show's focus was on the established villains of Batman without the hero himself, only Batman fans would be interested in the show and many of them wouldn't be able to get over the cognitive dissonance of a Gotham so different from the comics and movies.
Fortunately, Gotham doesn't depend as heavily on the costumed villains as it does the corrupt police department and organized crime established in the comics. Unfortunately, the pilot episode falls victim to cliché and uninteresting dialogue as well as a sometimes jarring juxtaposition of gritty police drama combined with a comic book world. Gotham City is grounded in reality, but the cartoony elements and over-the-top characters break that dark realism. What surprised me most is how much I liked that.
Surely it will be a divisive opinion, but the dichotomy of genres and visuals almost clash, but it ends up creating a unique visual and thematic style I actually really liked. Specifically, I was a fan of the boring, brown coloring interrupted by small splashes of color in almost every scene or the chaos of the Gotham City Police Department that, for some reason, keeps cells in the office area. Unrealistic? Sure, but it helps to establish a vision for this word, whether this design is meant to communicate how overcrowded the jail is (necessitating cells next to desks) or to show how badly the police department is infected with crime and corruption.
The biggest way this world is built is through the characters, especially Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor). While the dialogue is dry and cliché-ridden, the cast is absolutely brilliant and saves Gotham from being unwatchable. Almost the entire cast manages to bring enough subtlety and nuance to their characters to add depth to the personalities and add mystery to their motives (either in the moment or in the long-term).
Gotham airs Monday nights at 8/7c on Fox. You can also catch the pilot on Fox's website and Hulu. The rest of this review will go into spoiler territory, but specifics about major plot points will be avoided.