On the D/L – Gotham
Season 1 Episode 1 – “Pilot”
I was skeptical of the viability of this show from the minute it was announced; to my mind the underlying concept of James Gordon’s rise to power in Gotham city seems somewhat short term with only limited potential. The idea of showing Gotham City from the perspective of James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and exploring the origins of the main Batman villains is a good one but I’m wondering how long a Batman prequel series can sustain itself before the need for Batman to be there arises.
Smallville is probably the closest analogue for this show in the sense of showing the origins of an iconic character but the advantage Smallville had was that Clark Kent was the central character and still had most of his powers. The joke with that show was that by the time Clark Kent becomes Superman he has very little to do since they introduced many of his signature villains throughout the 10 year run. That joke can almost be applied here as well since we could be in the position where Batman appears to a city that’s free from crime with most of his iconic villains already locked up. Could be quite funny actually, a scene where Batman turns up ready for war then Jim Gordon tells him there are some people walking on grass that they’re not allowed to walk on or there’s been several reported cases of dog fouling that he can be looking into. Time will tell how much mileage this series really has.
The story begins in the same way that most Batman stories begin, the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. It’s all pretty standard with them coming out of a show -in this case the movies-, being accosted in a dark alley with the intention of being mugged and then being shot and killed right in front of Bruce Wayne’s (David Mazouz) eyes. It’s done effectively enough but all feels a little familiar, right down to the pearls impacting the ground though it’s quite possibly the most violent and bloody version I’ve seen. It’s also interesting to see the aftermath dealt with extensively as I haven’t personally experienced that beyond the collection of scenes in Batman Begins where that version of Jim Gordon comforts a young Bruce Wayne at the police station though admittedly my experience with Batman origin stories is somewhat limited.
Much of the episode is devoted to the investigation of this murder which feels quite fresh to me. Versions I’ve read or seen there’s usually a time skip not long after the event or the flashback relaying the information cuts off after this point so it’s really good to see the Gotham City Police Department reacting to this event and beginning their investigation. There’s a really good scene between Jim and Bruce where Jim relates to the experience of losing family urging him that life does go on and things do get better. It’s clear that a bond is starting to develop between the two characters and it will be strengthened as the show goes on, again this seems different as I’m not familiar with versions of Batman where the Bruce Wayne side of his identity is close to Jim Gordon so this is absolutely a fresh take on such a well trodden relationship.
Through the investigation we begin to see another famous aspect of the city, corruption. As the story begins Jim Gordon is new to Gotham City and doesn’t quite understand how deep the corruption goes and how things generally work in the city so it’s down to his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) to show him. Bullock is an older and more experienced cop who has towed the line in Gotham for many years so has an idea of what cops can and can’t get away with as well as what criminals to go after or leave alone. He’s clearly got an intricate network of contacts and trust built up through his career and is trusted by many others. I really liked the impatience he shows for Gordon’s willingness to fully investigate things when he’s all but ready to just write it off and get on with his life. Gotham is built to be a dark and corrupt city where criminals clearly have much of the influence. I liked how the relationship between Gordon and Bullock is established here providing a stark contrast between Gordon’s naive idealism and Bullock’s hardened cynicism which I dare say will cause much conflict in their future cases.
Tonally, the pilot episode works really well by establishing a bleak and almost hopeless world for these characters to live in. Gotham feels multi faceted with lots of agendas in play simultaneously and a veritable minefield of lies, deceit and threats to navigate in order to achieve some measure of justice. It also looks great with some impressively dangerous looking locations as well as the sweeping city vistas that will no doubt be used frequently throughout the rest of the series. The city feels lived in as well as dangerous and it’s an interesting world to have explored. It really helped that the episode was well paced and took us through the main beats of the investigation really quickly while expertly sliding in time for character exploration as the episode progressed. I never really felt that any scene was tacked on or unnecessary so it wins a lot of points in that regard.
It wouldn’t be a Batman prequel series without some nods to the character’s extensive rogues gallery and there’s plenty of that here. Camren Bicondova plays a young Selina Kyle who is actually present at the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, her appearance is brief but noticeable and she basically seems to be Catwoman already given that she does a lot of climbing and sneaking around as well as her trademark stealing. She even steals milk that she gives to a stray cat. Cory Michael Smith has a brief appearance as Edward Nygma, a coroner for the Gotham City Police Department who annoys people by constantly speaking in riddles. Robin Lord Taylor plays Oswald Cobblepot who is at this point a sniveling, spineless henchman who is nicknamed “Penguin” by the other thugs. I fully expect a series like this to have nods to the mythos like this but for the pilot episode it was all a little too much; the winks to the audience were so overt that they were completely at odds with the tone that was being set up and could have been used far more subtly. For instance, instead of having the obvious signpost that Edward Nygma likes riddles there could have been a brief shot of him working on a puzzle before someone speaks to him. We even have a young Poison Ivy (Clare Pepper) who obviously hangs around prominently displayed plants. Going back to Smallville, references like this were very common in that show but it sort of worked there because tonally it was set up for more cheesy and tongue in cheek referencing whereas here it sticks out more than it should and just feels out of place. Maybe now that the pilot is out of the way and these references have been made there will be less obvious winking at the audience.
There are other supporting characters propping up the roster as well including Erin Richards as Barbara Keen, Jim’s fiancé who seems to have a mysterious past that she keeps hidden from him, Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee), the Wayne’s loyal butler and the man who now has to raise Bruce Wayne and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney, a mob boss who is a close associate of Bullock as well as being in Carmine Falcone’s (John Doman) employ. Both Barbara and Alfred are only featured briefly with not a lot of emphasis on their characters but I do find myself interested in Barbara’s past and what that really means for her relationship with Jim. I also really like Pertwee’s Alfred being played more like a younger version of Michael Caine’s iteration. He’s very commanding and tries to inspire strength in the grieving Bruce Wayne. Fish Mooney is a really interesting character, clearly intelligent and devious with a fearful grasp on those who answer to. Being an original character created for the show she has plenty of scope for growth and development in whatever way the producers want her to but for now she steals every scene she’s in and her presence is really formidable.
All of the actors are well chosen and play their roles well, McKenzie is an excellent lead and is able to carry the series very well. I really like his tough exterior with shades of vulnerability and the clear code of ethics that he has but clearly her will have to constantly walk a fine moral line to achieve the results he wants. There’s an undercurrent of regret about his past that he keeps below the surface as well, the performance is nicely layered and Jim Gordon is an excellent character so far. Donal Logue is similarly excellent as the bitter experienced Harvey Bullock and I really liked Taylor’s Cobblepot, he plays the cowardly yet insane dichotomy really well.
I thought this was a very strong episode with a great cast playing interesting characters. A swift pace and dark tone really helped bring the viewer into Gotham as we start to explore the seedier elements of the corrupt city. Unfortunately it’s brought down by some really out of place winks to the audience in the form of drawing attention to some very overt references to Batman lore through the cameos of the future villains, considering the tone it all felt hugely out of place. The same effect could have been given with more subtle nods to the future of these people. It remains to be seen how well this will play out over the rest of the season but for now the show has done a great job of establishing the world and the characters who inhabit it.