Season One – Pilot

By Matt Fleming. If Fox wants to make a foray into episodic comic adaptations, following The CW (Arrow, the upcoming Flash) and ABC (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), they’re going to have a tough road ahead. Gotham, produced by Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome), is essentially a Batman series with no Batman. When first announced, skepticism was palpable: would TV watchers, with their obsessive binges, series loyalty, and flair for social media, embrace an origin series placing the Caped Crusader in the background in favor of focusing on the young Detective James Gordon? Could Fox produce a series that pleases both hardcore Bat-fans and draw a casual crowd? Upon first viewing of the pilot, it seems possible.

(I’ll attempt to omit any spoilers, however, some content – read: Bruce Wayne’s parents die – is well known within Batman’s canon.)

The episode opens on a young woman, acrobatically stealing some milk and feeding it to a cat. This feline-friendly girl accidentally witnesses the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Gotham’s wealthy philanthropists, gunned down before their son’s eyes. Crooked detective Harvey Bullock (the very game Donal Logue) and his rookie partner, James Gordon (Ben McKenzie, hunk) arrive on the scene, and Bullock recoils. Aware that such a high profile murder would require real work on his part, as well as affect his relationship to local organized criminals, Bullock tries to ditch the case, but his young partner refuses. Gordon reveals his good heart when he promises Bruce Wayne justice.

However, Bullock’s first instinct is to have a chat with the lovely mob underboss Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith, with the spirit of Eartha Kitt), a new character created for the TV series. While Bullock schemes with Fish, Gordon checks out Mooney’s tough guys, and meets her very slimy and sadistic, Oswald Cobblepot (creepy Robin Taylor). Cobblepot knows the crime world of Gotham is heading toward a violent clash, so he uses his access to Mooney toward gaining his own power, playing the snitch role perfectly. Not long after their meeting, Bullock and Gordon get new info about the Waynes’ killer, and they pursue. Things get more complicated when Bullock shoots and kills the accused, seemingly solving the crime. Mysteries unfold, double crosses are tripled, and people are hit over the head with objects. Eventually, Jim Gordon has to choose between his life and his high code of ethics. His decision will keep him out of the hot seat temporarily, but puts other futures in motion as well.

For the first episode of the series, “Pilot” sets the tone beautifully. Early on, Gotham looks like the perfect balance between solid police procedural, weekly mystery, and gritty comic book series. With more money than The CW and less need for superheroic effects, Fox looks like they’re taking the chance on a very pretty art design (the Gotham cityscapes are as good as any Christopher Nolan movie), fairly decent – if campy – writing, and a pretty outstanding cast.

It is the strength of a few performances that carries the viewer above the chasm of expectations, and if they continue, this could very well be a Batman series that doesn’t need Batman. Ben McKenzie’s rugged, action-packing Jim Gordon is terrific. He manages to elevate an already esteemed character without making him hokey. His expressive face tells the viewer that he is soaking in all the twists and pitfalls of being an honest cop in Gotham, and his assurance to the young Bruce Wayne seems to guide his conscience and his mission. McKenzie is young enough to make Gordon believable as a badass, but rugged enough to reveal a war hero attempting to do the right thing. His counterpart, Harvey Bullock, is played with equal portions grime and grief by Donal Logue. Here, Bullock – never known as a sweet character – knows the score, and is just trying to play along. Gordon annoys him by making him do actual police work, but he’s still going to come to Gordon’s rescue when needed. While not sympathetic, Logue’s Bullock is loyal enough to keep you guessing.

The sympathetic characters are present, and not always obvious. David Mazouz plays the as-of-yet-not Bat-kid with both solemnity and bravery, and the development of his relationships with Det. Gordon and his guardian Alfred Pennyworth (I’m not totally sold on Sean Pertwee just yet), looks to be a highlight of the series. On the opposite end of the gallery, Robin Taylor’s pre-Penguin Cobblepot steals this episode with his sympathetic yet sadistic young gentleman of crime. Equally cunning and naive, he manages to get himself in and out of trouble all by himself, and he seems to learn as he licks his wounds. I hope we get more of this guy’s grey sneer. The rest of the supporting cast range from pretty darn good (Jada, Jada, Jada!) to questionable (John Doman as Falcone? Couldn’t do any better?), and promises to reveal more characters familiar to Bat-fans and some casual consumers.

With the first episode in the bag, here are some pointers. Tweak the dialogue a bit. In a scene between Gordon’s fiancee Barbara (Welsh ingenue Erin Richards) and rival cop Renee Montoya (saucy Victoria Cartegena), their history is given a lurid tease. However, the lines they deliver sound a little too soapy. I’d like Gotham to avoid cliche cop-show or soap opera writing as much as possible. The source material has enough cheese to begin with, and this show needs to excel as a drama in order to transcend Batman. If the rest of this season is as good as the pilot, or better (is that possible?), Gotham looks like it may be the right iteration of a familiar story that rides the line of fantasy and realism better than most super hero fictions.

Passing Thoughts:

-Cameo party! Eddie Nygma, forensic nerd! A man telling jokes! A young, abused plant-lover named Ivy! I’m sure there were more that I missed that a real comic fan would slap me for omitting.

-How about the Tarantino-style footrub. I’ll bet Jada makes Will do the same.

-Selina Kyle slinks around in the shadows throughout this episode. Next week promises some real insight into her character, her observations from the Wayne murders, and her motivation to become a Cat-lady.