Of all of the new dramas debuting this fall, perhaps none comes as heavily hyped as Fox's new Gotham, debuting tonight. The show, a sort of Batman prequel focused on a city where James Gordon is just a detective and Bruce Wayne is a kid, debuts tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern. It's attracted a great deal of interest for its premise, its talented cast, and its attempts to do a Batman show without Batman.
So if you're a comics fan, you'll probably be tuning in anyway. But what about everybody else? Is there stuff for us to appreciate here? Surprisingly, yes, though there are a few glaring warning signs in the pilot as well. (Fox declined to make any other episodes available to critics.)
Good: The look
The problem with a lot of pilots is that they create hugely impressive visuals that could never be replicated on a week-to-week basis. Pilots are sales documents. They're trying to get both the network and the viewer to pick up a show full time. But what happens in week two, when everybody has to set a budget, and that budget doesn't have nearly as much room for visual effects or cool camera tricks?
But pilot director Danny Cannon (responsible for much of what we might term the CBS house visual style) has turned in an episode that should be easy to replicate in the weeks to come.
He uses bold lighting strategies and streaks of color to highlight particular settings. The city's streets pulse with electric life, and the show seems to have one foot in the ‘40s and one foot in the 2010s. This is mostly accomplished within the camera and via judicious use of creative lighting, and those sorts of things will be fairly easy to recreate as the show goes forward. There are times when this show looks like the Warren Beatty Dick Tracy movie, and that's meant as a high compliment.
Bad: The foreshadowing
Gotham is a Batman show, and it wants you to know it's a Batman show. That's why every other scene seems to feature a character who will grow up into an important figure in the Batman mythos, with clumsy foreshadowing used as a nod to the fact that, yes, this is who you think it is. For instance: Edward Nygma is asked to cut it out with the riddles — because he will eventually become the villain The Riddler, get it?
A little bit of this is fine, but a little bit of it also goes a long way. The pilot for Gotham does it on several separate occasions, and by the time the hour is up, you're half expecting the characters to have an acquaintance introduce them to his long-lost brother, Manbat.
Fortunately, this is the kind of thing that's easy to cut out after a pilot, once everybody has settled down and can just start telling the story. And if the series is going to offer a spin on the Joker, it's not yet overtly tipping its cap in that direction (though it offers plenty of opportunity for fan speculation).
Good: The cast
As one of the most anticipated pilots of the year - and one that is operating with a 16-episode order, shorter than the standard network 22 episodes — Gotham was able to attract a terrific collection of actors, and it shows in just about every scene. This is broad, pulpy material, and it requires a certain swagger to put it across without making the audience giggle at the silliness. Everybody in the cast has that swagger in spades.
This is particularly true of Ben McKenzie as James Gordon and Donal Logue as his partner, Harvey Bullock. McKenzie has spent the last five years on Southland, proving he was born to play TV cops, while Logue has hopped from project to project, in search of the thing that channels his scruffy charm but also wins an audience. (Let us take this opportunity, once again, to mourn FX's marvelous Terriers. RIP, Terriers.) As the cops closing the case at the show's center — the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents, naturally — the two have great chemistry and an energy that propels even the most paint-by-numbers interrogation scenes. All cop shows thrive off of relationships between officers, and these two have that "grudging respect" thing down cold.
But the great casting extends beyond the central duo. Jada Pinkett Smith is a lot of fun as the villainous Fish Mooney, while Robin Lord Taylor cuts a menacing swath through the show's world as the man who will eventually embrace the supervillain moniker Penguin. Sean Pertwee is buttoned-up perfection as Alfred, and even the two kids — David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne and Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle (your future Catwoman) — are good as TV kids go. This is a fun ensemble, from top to bottom, and it makes some of the dumber stuff go down more smoothly.
Bad: Much of the dialogue
Series creator Bruno Heller has done several great things. His Rome was a terrific example of HBO's raw ambition in the middle of the last decade, and The Mentalist was solid fun for a CBS detective show. But he's always been a little better at story structure than at clever dialogue. (The most famous dialogue moment in Rome, after all, was one man shouting a single word over and over.)
That carries over here, where several of the characters — but particularly Harvey Bullock — talk in an affected, hard-boiled patois that sounds like a hyper-caffeinated college student trying to capture the voice of an old-time radio serial and blend it, somehow, with the pages of lurid detective novels from the ‘30s and ‘40s. This makes a certain amount of sense, given the provenance of the series' source material, but it often feels like the show is just trying too hard. Here's another place where simply reeling things in will help substantially, and that will likely happen in episodes to come.
Good: The big picture
So many TV pilots are graded almost solely on promise. The vast majority of pilots are, objectively speaking, not that great, because they're prologues for what's to come. But when watching them, we are often able to trick ourselves into seeing the glimmers of hope amid the clumsy exposition and set-up. That can prove all the more disappointing if the show doesn't live up to those glimmers, but it never means we stop seeing them.
This is particularly true in the case of Gotham, a show where that which glimmers is bright enough to leave you enormously hopeful, even as the episode itself has problems here and there. Heller's whole idea for this show — the story of a city more than the superhero who guards it — is enormously appealing, even if it sounds a mite ambitious for network television. But he's already laying the groundwork for it in this pilot. Gotham feels lived in. It feels like a place where people conduct business. It feels like a city, slouching toward harder times.
There's an element of the eternal return here. How many times do we, as an audience, needs to see this story? How many times do we need to see the deaths of Bruce Wayne's parents? How many times do we need to see him learn to conquer his fear and become the Dark Knight? For as often as we return to this story, it almost seems like something we have stuck in our subconscious as much as it's become lodged in Bruce Wayne's.
But Heller leans into that. Yes, this is familiar. Yes, you're going to know much of what's coming. But the best prequels work when they lean into that sense of destiny. Bruce Wayne will always become Batman, and James Gordon will always become his friend. It's unavoidable, just as it's unavoidable to see these troubled people become horrible villains. Gotham is, in a real sense, about the tension between its characters and the audience. We know what's coming. They do not. And the more that Heller exploits that gap, the more the show sings.
Airs tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern
Created by Bruno Heller, from the DC Comics characters
Starring Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Mazouz, Robin Lord Taylor
One episode screened for review.