Monday, September 22, 2014

Pilot Review: Gotham

Gotham (Mondays at 8:00 on Fox)

Do you really need me to tell you whether or not to watch this show? You've definitely already decided by now if you're going to give it a shot (you have possibly even decided whether or not you will hate it or love it), so I'm sure this review is more of a formality than anything that will change your mind one way or the other.

So, Gotham. A retelling/origins story of one of the most popular comic book stories of all time. You know the drill: Bruce Wayne's parents are gunned down by a mugger, and he is raised by the family butler, Alfred, after acquiring his family's billions. In this version, the cop investigating the Wayne murders is a rookie detective, Jim Gordon (Southland's Ben McKenzie), who will later become Batman's police liaison. Gordon is bright-eyed, wanting to impress goodness and hope on the downtrodden Gotham City. Working alongside partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue, most recently seen in Vikings and Sons of Anarchy), Gordon makes his way through the seedy underbelly of the city to solve the high-profile murder case, and he forms a bond with the young Master Wayne along the way.

That didn't tell you anything you didn't already know, right? The entire concept of Gotham has been something of a controversy among comic fans, for multiple reasons. For one, this is a Batman story without Batman. Yes, Bruce Wayne factors heavily into the series' arc, but it is not about Batman, but rather one of the least interesting side characters. Gordon is just a man. Depending on which incarnation you're reading or watching, he is either a clueless dimwit who can't do anything without Batman; or he's merely a curious cop, trying to work alongside The Caped Crusader toward the common goal of ridding Gotham of crime. But he's never been the star until now. Gordon is our window into this dark, rich world of Gotham City, the heroic everyman in the vein of 1940s noir private eyes. He's honorable and upstanding and full of hope... much like Batman, just without the costume and the gadgetry. So really, Gotham isn't much of a stretch at all. We're just replacing a vigilante with a legitimate law enforcer.

The world Gordon leads us through is beautifully realized by Gotham's creators. The lighting and set design are moody and dramatic, taking the atmospherics of noir (fog, rain, darkly lit corners, etc.) and making them look and feel contemporary. The city itself becomes its own character thanks to the design elements and the assured hand of director Danny Cannon (Nikita, Alcatraz). There is some disconnect between the setting and the time period, like how Bullock dresses like Sam Spade even though it's sometime in the recent past since characters chat on cell phones (but no smart phones in sight... perhaps the early 2000s?), but it all looks so cool that it's not too big a deal. Because these characters are so iconic, Gotham can get away with existing in a weird space that combines throwbacks to 1940s style, 1970s camera work (the POV shot of Gordon chasing a suspect) and modern-day sensibilities. It gives the impression that the story of how good people can overcome corruption could happen at any time, so we're kind of just in all of them at once.

Plus, almost everyone just seems to be having a really good time. Logue chews at the scenery like it's made of Juicy Fruit, and Jada Pinkett Smith walks away with the whole pilot in just a few scenes with a delicious, just-shy-of-over-the-top performance. She's playing a character brand new to the Batman world, an underground crime boss named Fish Mooney who runs a seedy nightclub when she's not beating her staff with a bat. Robin Lord Taylor has a hammy, appropriately creepy turn as the young Penguin. Sean Pertwee puts an interesting twist on Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth, turning him into a hardened man attempting to toughen up his young Master. The only person not really going for it is McKenzie; he's too pretty for the grittiness of Gotham, seemingly too soft and reserved for a character who will need to be gruff in order to survive his tenure on the police force. In a show full of huge personalities, his Jim Gordon gets lost in the fray.

There were some other small moments that didn't work for me, like the forced introduction of Poison Ivy as a feral looking child and the many random cuts to Selina Kyle trying to hide in the open (how Alfred or Bruce or Gordon don't see her slinking around the Wayne property in broad daylight is beyond me), but overall Gotham is stronger than I expected it to be. I was strongly in the camp, when the show was first announced, of those who believed it couldn't possibly be exciting to have a Batman show without Batman. And while the writing could use some refining (the pilot is penned by The Mentalist creator Bruno Heller, and it often falls into the corny, obvious dialogue of that show), the concept somehow works. For a show that will have a built-in audience that will watch regardless of how well done it is, Gotham tries its hardest and often succeeds at being better than expectations. And in a season full of drama pilots that feel like they're not even trying, that's a win in my book.

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