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.
Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin, is the only character from Batman’s rogue’s gallery to have significant screen time, but he is also further from the source material than the rest of the characters. Edward Nygma (the Riddler) has a few cryptic lines as the coroner, Ivy Pepper (Poison Ivy) is simply the daughter of a suspect, and Selina Kyle (Catwoman) is a teenage pickpocket watching from the sidelines. None of them make an impact on the story and are just introduced for future reference (although Ivy might be motivated in the future by this episode’s events), but Cobblepot is a major plot-driving character and splashes on screen.
Surprisingly, Cobblepot is also significantly different from the many interpretations of the character. He’s a lackey to crime boss Mooney, relegated to rubbing her feet and holding her umbrella, rather than an established criminal mastermind. While he desires power and attempts to usurp Mooney, he differs from the Penguin we know, and his childlike glee at hurting a fellow criminal is creepy and unsettling. The disheveled character we get in Gotham is distinct from his source material and proves to be a much more interesting character for it.
His boss, Fish Mooney is the only original character in the episode and provides a primary antagonist for the pilot. Smith is fantastic at making Mooney sweet, sinister, or calculating, but her best trick is maintaining Mooney’s powerful rage behind these facades. The end result is a controlling character that is fantastic at manipulating others while Smith communicates that fury to the audience, making her kind of terrifying.
Most of the problems of Gotham City and its police are communicated through Harvey Bullock. Bullock is in danger of falling into tropes, thanks to his pessimistic worldview, bottle of antacid, and heavy drinking. Luckily, Logue saves the character, adding enough expression to make him enjoyable to see on screen and, whether intentional or not, to make his motives questionable. He demands that Gordon either compromise his values or get out of the way, but there’s enough hints to know that Bullock was forced into this position, too.
In the climax, Bullock tells Gordon to execute Cobblepot on behalf of Gotham’s head crime boss, Carmine Falcone. Gordon fakes the execution and Bullock’s “Good boy” is nuanced enough to leave it open to interpretation. While it seems that Bullock believes Gordon killed Cobblepot, Bullock is no moron and it may be that he is glad that Gordon has found a way to play the game.
Gotham’s lead character, Jim Gordon, is played well enough by Ben McKenzie. His generic appearance and “one cop against the world” mentality could be tired and boring, but McKenzie keeps it interesting by bringing intelligence to the character while he observes the world and learns the game in the first half of the episode. The plot throws that intelligence out the window when Gordon confronts Mooney, and though Gordon’s brooding is believable, it’s not much fun to watch. Still, Gordon chooses to fake killing Cobblepot rather than insisting to stand for his morals. A Gordon that plays the game to break the system will be much more interesting than an uncompromising hero, anyway.
One other character that stood out to me was Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena), an officer in the Major Crimes Unit (which Gordon runs early in the Dark Knight trilogy). Montoya was a favorite side character of mine from the comics, and I’m glad that Cartagena is a series regular. The fact that she is working to save the city from the corrupt police while thinking Gordon is just another one of “them” is an exciting concept. There are allusions to her having an unhappy past with Gordon’s fiancé, Barbara, and it looks like that might be a romantic history. I love the way Cartagena plays Montoya and her focus on the passion and anger of the character.
One other thing the show has going for it is its sense of humor. The show skirts close to being too grim, so the ability for the character to make jokes is crucial. A number of the lines earn a chuckle, for instance when one of Mooney’s henchmen asks Gordon “How you liking Gotham?” in a far too casual way given the circumstances (even the random henchmen are played well). When Bullock tries to get Captain Sarah Essen (yes, the Essen from the comics) to reassign Gordon, the new detective jokes, “You’ll get used to me.”
Gotham depends on these little things. The cast is the best thing the show has going for it, and that can count for a lot, but the jokes and unique visuals are crucial, too. Equally important is the show’s ability to tell a story supported by Batman’s established characters and themes, rather than a story centered around them.
In fact, the story is motivated by the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, which is played out as an assassination in this interpretation of the events. Still, while visiting the origins of the Dark Knight is an interesting side plot, rather than the focus for the show.
Bottom Line: Overall, Batman-without-Batman works, but it is so close to failing that each episode will need to at least keep up with the pilot or, ideally, improve. The show has plenty of room for improvement, but there is definitely a basis here that can work, and I’m more excited for the next episode than I was for the premiere.
Recommendation: A definite watch for Batman fans. Others may be turned off by the weak points, but the Gotham pilot is worth checking out for what the series might become.[rating=3]