Gotham – “Pilot”
“You have a little danger in your eye.”
While flipping through the pages of a comic book, it’s not as apparent but every idea in and around Batman is completely insane whack-a-doo koo-koo pants. We know that Bruce Wayne is one of the greatest detectives this side of a deerstalker but why is it that all of the criminal masterminds and psychopaths of a city have decided against functional disguises of stealth and, instead, lean toward the garrish, brightly-colored, and unquestionably villainous costumes? To make his job easier? How are there so many of these psychopaths in one town? How many daddy/mommy issues can one city breed? Why aren’t there enough funds in the state or even the country to help out a city whose mental health crisis has consistently threatened the balance of world economy and livelihood? Can there be better locks on Arkham Asylum’s doors? And what of the Bat-Man who looked at this rampant psychopathy and decided on the if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them philosophy. Well, as far as the garrish costumes go. He definitely beats them. All the time. With his brawny fists. He just does it while wearing a cowl. Which is not as fashionable as it once was.
So how did Gotham City get to this point where Batman constantly has to swoop in and save the city from itself? What helped to tilt the decisions for the city’s insane population to look at a latex suit and say, “Yep. Time to wear that for 60-70% of my life while doing my crime things”? These are questions Gotham has set out to answer.
Gotham is yet another series running or planned by DC to flood the small screen with their properties (along with the CW’s Flash and Arrow, NBC’s Constantine, and the CBS’s recently greenlit Supergirl) either in an attempt to dominate one medium Marvel hasn’t fully conquered yet or to saturate it so bad that no one will look to Marvel for television show ideas because everyone will be sick of superheroes. The difference between this show and the others is that there is no hero here. There is no Batman.
“The devil, you say!” I hear you. While Christopher Nolan’s recent trilogy and Bats’s upcoming movie screen showing with Supes might have sated you with a healthy diet of the Dark Knight, a weekly Batman series might have been cool. And harkened back to the old days of Batman: The Animated Series, the show that hit heights of which no Batman property has ever approached. And I’ll defend that position. And when my debating skills prove lacking, I’ll get Noel to help me. And then you’ll be in trouble.
But Batman Minus Batman is also a decent idea in its own right. A prequel about how Gotham got to so desperate a place through the eyes of its only innocent man, Jim Gordon, is almost inspired. It’s a way to do a gritty crime procedural and still pack in a built in audience. Because even though Bruce Wayne is still a but a babe, you get to see the young adult versions of rising killers and uber-criminals interact with society and, eventually, crave vengeance for what’s it’s done to each of them individually. It’s a way to broaden a comic book empire without turning off the true believers.
The pilot of Gotham puts those pieces in place immediately. The name checks start early and often for everyone from Oswold Copperpot (the Penguin) to Edward Nigma (the Riddler), who inhabits the role of the quirky head of forensics cop procedurals seem to love (though I like him for that role here), to even Don Falcone and Renee Montoya (the Question). In fact, the name checks are so blatant that even the casual fan can pick up that these characters already exist in the Bat-Universe. They’re also so blatant that it can become an eye-rolling affair for the more-than-casual fan. It ceases to interesting and starts to feel like incessant name-dropping.
The origin story starts pre-credits and, within ten minutes, we already get whiffs of Selina Kyle (Catwoman), Jim Gordon, the crookedest of cops Harvey Bullock, Alfred Pennyworth, and the fact that Batman is really just a PSA for people dripping in pearls while wearing tuxedos and gowns to not walk down dark alleys in bad parts of a corrupt town. We check in with Bruce every once in a while during the episode but we already know he’s mouldering into a pile of fear-conquering vengeance masquerading as a sense of justice. This is really Jim Gordon’s story.
The commissioner that would eventually hope to clean up the police force but leans somewhat heavily on a dude in a cape that asks to be called by spotlight has to start somewhere and, here, it’s as a war veteran turned detective. If you smell noir, you know exactly what Gotham is going for. A corrupt city, plenty of leggy dames, and detectives with enough grit and PTSD to get them lost in that great, gray sea of morality, Gotham chases that prize of respectability with every shot and every line. But it never really gets there.
Our films and television have struggled with chasing noir for decades now and it’s because, most of the time, they miss the mark for why it was special. Somehow, we mistake noir in things like Nolan’s trilogy or Sin City or any number of people trying to ape the quick-wit, rapid-fire, sometimes cornball dialogue of the 1940s and it feels even more out of place in Gotham, even though that might be the kind of dialogue that finds a place in the comics. Despite a promising premise, it’s repeatedly stepped on by the show’s need to stay true to that format rather than just write a gritty and compelling crime drama involving the genesis of well-known characters.
I mean, Donal Logue is right there. Just watch a few episodes of Terriers for how to make it sound good and continue your high concept everywhere else.
If that can get worked out, the show demonstrates to be tight thematically. Sometimes it hits you over the head with a hammer the same way it name-drops but, overall, it does a good job of setting up the city’s corruption, how easily it infects, the difference between doing what’s good for the individual and doing what’s good for a consensus, and the damaging effects of both. There will be a lot of hay made about its coincidentally prescient cornerstone (a corrupt police force killing an innocent man) though it’s slightly clouded by the fact that they ended up killing a career criminal and a man prone to domestic violence. But that’s mostly how they made it okay for Bullock to kill that guy and not be deemed an immediate villain. Otherwise, the pilot hits the thematic beats fairly well.
It’s not perfect. Pilots are hard. And the cornball moments (like Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney telling Jim Gordon in her smooth-as-silk voice that he’s a “tall glass of milk”) might make you surrender immediately. But it’s worth a couple more episodes for them to find their voice. And to maybe tell us why people would continue to live in Gotham City. Did you see how many brazen petty thieves and career criminals walk the streets there? Just move, you guys. I don’t care what Mayor Richard Kind tells you. It doesn’t get better from here.
- It’s a very earnest show so there are one-liner drops that sound more like they belong in an after-school special than in something made for grown-ups. These are actually lines lifted from the Batman comics and manipulated for their purposes. While they stick out like a sore thumbs, they are the “with great power comes great responsibility” kind of lines that are so important to bridging themes from one medium to the next. They’re not going to stop and they don’t seem skilled enough to make them sound more natural. You’re just going to have to roll with it.
- Maybe I’m not as familiar with the deep cuts of the Batman series but I don’t think I remember Barb Gordon having lesbian dalliances with anyone, particularly with Renee Montoya. But I’m willing to accept that.
- With Richard Kind as mayor, I’m starting to think that Gotham is just an extension of Spin City where Paul Lassiter rises to be mayor and this exactly what would happen to New York if he were in charge.
- Maybe it was just the screener but they seemed to use a lot of Dead Weather for the soundtrack. I guess Alison Mosshart is the voice of the gritty streets.
- Crispus Allen is in Gotham, too, though I don’t see him becoming the The Spectre like he does in the comics. Unless Gotham is planning on going full-on Ravenswood with this show.
- “In bocca al lupo,” Falcone says to prove that he’s Italian. I would wish the wolf dead (“crepi il lupo”) except I’m not sure I don’t want the wolf to eat all of this first and then die. I guess I’ll let you know in three more episodes.
- September 23, 2014