When I first heard about Gotham, Fox’s new show chronicling the downfall of Bruce Wayne’s beloved city in the years before the orphaned billionaire becomes the Dark Knight, funnyman Patton Oswalt leaped into my mind. Most fans of the comedian are familiar with his “At Midnight I Will Kill George Lucas with a Shovel” (from his 2007 Werewolves and Lollipops album), in which he eviscerates the Star Wars prequels, culminating with a primal scream of “I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love!” It’s a reaction shared by anyone who’s suffered through an unsatisfying backstory – from the 2011 The Thing to Peter Jackson’s overstuffed Hobbit adaptation. And it’s a reaction fans like me, still burned by ten long years of Smallville culminating in the the faintest glimpse of Clark Kent’s alter ego, might have to the latest DC TV series.
It’s a perfectly logical reaction. But, as I realized upon watching Gotham‘s pilot, it’s by no means a necessary one.
What creator Bruno Heller (of Rome and The Mentalist fame) – aided by executive producers Danny Cannon and John Stephens – has wrought is in fact two stories: the oft-told tale of the young Bruce Wayne (played by David Mazouz) and that of James Gordon (Southland star Ben McKenzie), here an idealistic police detective new to the city. Mazouz is fine in the pilot, as is Sean Pertwee as the show’s Alfred Pennyworth (here recalling the gruff, no-nonsense manservant of the Batman: Earth One graphic novel), though the two are given little to do thus far except react to the Waynes’ untimely deaths. It’s McKenzie who impresses most as Gotham‘s central protagonist. Reminiscent, in both attitude and appearance, of the damaged Russell Crowe of L.A. Confidential, his eyes forever signaling the weariness of upholding justice in a city where corruption climbs as high as the skyscrapers and dirigibles.
McKenzie’s backed by a strong cast, including Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock (the cop on the take with whom Gordon finds himself partnered), Jada Pinkett Smith as crime boss Fish Mooney (a new character introduced in Gotham), The Wire‘s John Doman as gangland lord Carmine Falcone, the stunning Sara Richards as Gordon’s fiance Barbara Kean, Victoria Cartagena as major crimes unit detective Renee Montoya (who’s also Barbara’s former lover), and, best of all, Robin Lord Taylor as the deranged Oswald Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin.
The show’s sixteen-episode first season will, we’ve been told by the producers, examine the Penguin’s rise to power after he’s cast out of Gotham by Gordon and marked for death by Mooney and Falcone. In Taylor’s performance – which conjures memories of the twitchy young Peter Lorre of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca – Gotham finds just the right tone of fear and anxiety, wedged firmly between the gangster films of the 1930s and the film noir of the 1940s (the best examples of both, it’s worth noting, were produced by DC’s parent company Warner Brothers). Ably abetted by a desaturated palette that makes Gotham the handsomest and most downright cinematic-looking of this fall’s crop of comic-book-inspired shows, that tone is strong enough to make me wish Gotham wasn’t so beholden to Bruce Wayne and the other tween characters, like Camren Bicondova’s Catwoman-to-be Selina Kyle and Clare Foley’s nascent Poison Ivy, Ivy Pepper. (Why her comic-book name, Pamela Isley, is unused remains a mystery.)
The kids do a good enough job with what they’re given, though they serve as a constant reminder to audiences of something Gotham, by design, can never give them – the full story of these characters. Bruce and Selina may one day become the best known characters in the Batman universe, but there’s a limit to how far any storyteller can take them before they come of age. I’d have been perfectly happy if Gotham omitted them entirely and focused instead on Gordon’s battle against the mob, highlighted with an array of Penguin-like eccentrics. For that’s where the heart of this show lies, not in fan service. Yet Gotham‘s pilot overflows with fan service — Ivy cares for her plants, the Penguin eats sardines, Selina steals milk, and police egghead Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) just can’t stop presenting information in the form of riddles. One should expect the deluge of Easter eggs to subside once the show finds its footing and focuses on a different character each week.
For starters, next week’s episode is titled “Selina Kyle”. Much as I wish it was titled “Oswald Cobblepot”, make no mistake — I will watch that episode. Gotham‘s ambition alone makes its pilot worthwhile viewing. Whether that ambition translates into the kind of scope that fuels the best genre TV remains to be seen. But for now, I’ve got Jim Gordon’s back.