There are two different versions of Gotham: what it could be and what it is. What it could be is amazing and intriguing and surprisingly fresh. What it is is…well, not. Yet.
If the pilot is any indication, Gotham is not a great show. But it could be. The pilot is frustrating, middling and by-the-numbers but it also shows a promise that exited me as a lifelong Batman fan. Will it get where it needs to go? Will it become the first great Batman show in ages? It’s got a long way to go but, hey, it’s possible. I really, really, really hope it pulls it off.
As you already know, Gotham is a prequel series of sorts: telling the stories of Gotham City years before Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl and becomes the one, the only, the Batman. The creators of the show have vowed that we will never, ever see Wayne as Batman which is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the writers are allowed to tell the story they want without having to shoehorn Bats in. A curse because no matter what stories the show embarks on, this will always be a Batman show with Batman characters, even if the the Dark Knight himself never shows up. The shadow of the Bat will always loom large.
Speaking of comics, Gotham wastes no time reminding you that this is a show featuring iconic comic book characters. Hey, look, it’s Edward Nygma – he loves riddles! Oh, that Oswald Cobblepot hates being called the Penguin! Gasp, that redheaded girl loves plants! That young thief cares for cats and likes to crawl around just like one. You see what I mean? It’s a shtick that gets old quickly but is kind of necessary fan service, especially for a show on network TV. This stuff is to be expected, right? That being said, one hopes the show doesn’t rely on this sort of nudge-nudge-wink-wink shenanigans for long.
The main character of the show, of course, is James Gordon (Ben McKenzie). We all know his story, we’ve seen it a hundred times: he’s the one clean cop in Gotham and does his best to clean up the streets despite his grumpy, mostly-crooked partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). This is nothing new, it’s been told before by Nolan, Timm, Dini and countless comic writers. McKenzie and Logue work well together, though, and are very watchable. McKenzie’s Gordon is a bit one note but becomes a lot more fun when he gets pissed. Logue (as always) is spot-on from moment one and will be a treat to watch. You can already see his corrupt Bullock starting to turn good. Truth be told, I’m more interested in his journey that Gordon’s.
Gordon and Bullock’s first big case is the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Slain in an alley in front of their son, Bruce (David Mazouz) the Waynes’ murder is quite the connudrum. Who did it? Why did he do it? How does this play into the ongoing crime wave and gang wars? Gordon is determined to find out, even if he butts heads with Gotham’s meanest and most villainous baddies.
I could tell you the rest of the plot but there’s nothing surprising here. You can see where it’s all going. It’s a gorgeous show, it’s got a lot of money behind it, but its script is rather flat and rarely brave. The dialogue is on par with the countless other CBS, NBC and Fox cop dramas. The surprises aren’t surprises at all and the character work isn’t even remotely inspired – yet. This is all stuff we’ve seen before, tied together with an underlying air of mystery and conspiracy.
The major mystery it’s building is one of Gotham’s major problems. It’s trying to be a police procedural and a crime drama all while introducing well-known comic characters. On top of that, it’s crafting an unfolding mystery. It just can’t juggle it all and this results in none of those elements working at 100%. The cop stuff is lukewarm, the criminal underworld angle is half-baked and the mystery material just feels forced, something that every other show is doing so Gotham has to as well. Of course the Waynes’ murderer has his face hidden. Of course not even crime boss Carmine Falcone knows who killed them. There’s something bigger at work here, you see, something that’ll likely take several seasons to uncover. It’s a tedious start to what could be a great series.
Here’s my dream for Gotham: it becomes the next Boardwalk Empire. Hear me out, it’s possible. For those who don’t know, HBO’s brilliant Empire is about 1920’s Atlantic City crime lord Nucky Thompson. But it’s also about the rise of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and other legendary gangsters. We all know where Capone, Luciano and the others ended up but Empire does a terrific job of filling in the blanks and giving us something new (and, at times, largely fictional). I really, really hope this is where Gotham is going but it’s got a long way to go before it’s anywhere near Boardwalk Empire territory. It needs to be bold with its story. It needs to invest in just a few characters and not force a massive cast. It needs to trim the fat and find a laser focus.
Luckily the show has some great talent on board. As I said, McKenzie and Logue sizzle and will really shine if given more than the typical, rote dialogue TV writers can pen in their sleep. Jada Pinkett Smith as the brand-new Fish Mooney is fun, though it’s as if she was told the show is a million times campier than it is. She really lays it on thick. The real stand-out here is Robin Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin. I think Taylor is the key to making this show a hit. His portrayal of Cobblepot is interesting, lively and just the right amount of pathetic and weird. He’s a blast to watch and I like what the pilot is setting up for him. They’re already taking his character into new territory and if we are lucky, this will be the start of the Boardwalk Empire-like turn the show needs. The writers have such a massive playground, they should stretch their legs, go wild and surprise us.
Gotham has promise, it could be really great. It doesn’t try hard enough in the first episode and comes off as boring and derivative. But if the creators slow down, focus and try new things – like the stuff they are doing with the Penguin – this show could be something special. Despite having a cast of characters more well known than Jesus himself, Gotham could end up being quite original and surprising. It’ll take a lot of work but it’s possible. One thing’s for sure: the cast seems up to the challenge.