Summary: A stylish but somewhat hollow first installment that feels a bit too much like the building blocks of a series and less an engaging opening chapter to a story.
If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
Influential Gotham citizens Thomas and Martha Wayne are killed in front of their young son, Bruce. Rookie detective Jim Gordon takes the case, much to the chagrin of his burly partner Harvey Bullock, who sees an investigation as stepping on the toes of a number of ingrained criminal elements in the city. Bullock takes Gordon to see Fish Mooney, a club owner and minor crime boss in the Falcone family, to get a lead on the Wayne case. Mooney points them to a low-level thug who Bullock kills to protect Gordon following a physical pursuit. With the Wayne case seemingly solved, Gordon and Bullock are heralded. Mooney’s underling, Oswald Cobblepot, informs detectives with the Major Case Unit that the thug was a frame job by Mooney, in the hopes of getting her out of the way for his own ambitions. MCU confronts Gordon, who questions Mooney about the frame. He’s captured and when Bullock threatens Mooney to get Gordon free, he’s tied up as well. Just as both cops are going to be executed, Carmine Falcone and his men save them. Falcone tells Gordon he knew his father and they both want to pick Gotham up. Mooney confronts Oswald about his snitching, and eventually he passes to Bullock through Falcone. Bullock tells Gordon he has to kill Oswald if he wants any chance to stick around. Gordon fakes shooting Oswald and dumps him in the river to escape. Oswald swims to safety and prepares to return to Gotham to exact his revenge. Gordon tells Bruce Wayne that he failed in not getting the man who killed his parents but to keep it quiet so that he can find the man and clean up the corruption in the GCPD. Bruce agrees and confesses that he’s happy Gordon didn’t catch and kill the real killer; he wants the chance to meet him again someday.
Though much is made of the Rogues of the Flash and the various villains and characters that populate Spider-Man’s world, there is perhaps no greater supporting cast to come out of comics, even all of fiction, than the denizens of Gotham City. So vast and varied are the people of the sprawling city that all manner of stories have been told, from superheroics to gangland epics to westerns and horror fables. It really came as little surprise, then, that a television series would be borne from this source material. After watching this pilot episode, it remains to be seen if it will be a good one.
The main job of a pilot episode of a television series is to communicate the basics while setting them off on an intriguing path that should keep viewers interested week in and week out. Some pilots choose to adhere to the spirit of that idea, subtly revealing their base genetic material through an hour that sweeps the audience along through an exhilarating ride or captivating puzzle. Some pilots dump all elements out in the opening salvo like a kid pouring a box of Legos on his bedroom floor, showing all the parts they can play with so they don’t have to start from scratch in setting them up later on. Gotham, unfortunately, goes with the latter, somewhat to its detriment.
They kick off the pilot with the defining moment of Bruce Wayne’s life, the murders of his parents before him in a dark alley. It’s a natural place to start and a singular event around which to spin everyone and cause them to interact. It’s such a familiar moment and we know what we’re expected to feel during it. And yet, it read hollow. There seemed to be little life and all motion through the whole sequence. It was a curious way to start and seemed to filter on through the entire hour, with a few exceptions.
Sadly, that caused a number of events to follow to ring false. Not in what occurred, as it all logically fit, but that there seemed to be very loose connections between it all, at least to find fulfilling as an audience member. Gordon making his promise to Bruce to catch the Waynes’ killer, Bullock not wanting to touch the case because of all the various trappings an investigation would lead them through, even Alfred’s gruffness toward Bruce and the police, all felt like they were supposed to happen because the writers wanted them to and less a natural outcropping of an event that should’ve stayed with us emotionally throughout at least the hour, if not the whole series.
That’s truly odd because the look, feel, and texture of the show seems like a very natural and organic extension of the comics. The various component events also seemed solidly told and established. Yet, without those tendons between, it felt like watching an outline of a story more than the story itself. Yes, it’s only the start, and the show can now settle and grow in ways that can match its inherent potential, but I couldn’t help but feel fairly disinterested by the ending credits. And with a guaranteed commitment to sixteen episodes, one would’ve hoped they would have better used that space and assurance to tell a story that lives and breathes to capture its sampling audience.
Returning for a second helping is almost a given, though, as the series is not without its strong points. Fox reportedly paid a king’s ransom to secure the rights to pretty much the majority of the Batman material to be able to tell as comprehensive a story as possible. The very first character we are introduced to is the young Selina Kyle, who will eventually become Catwoman, as if to underline that this isn’t a Batman story. At least, not as its central focus. It’s one of a series of smart choices that fills the series with a lot of potential.
Nearly 15 years ago, Warner Bros. set about bringing Bruce Wayne’s origin story to the small screen, following the disastrous Batman & Robin that all but made the property toxic on film. The series never went through, as WB always felt Batman was one of its most lucrative big screen franchises, and eventually morphed into what became Smallville, the Superman series of similar premise. The idea of origin informed Christopher Nolan’s resurrection of the character in 2005’s Batman Begins, which made initial reaction to a Gotham-based series somewhat mixed. We’d just seen this, right?
Yet, the smartest choice of the series was to go back to the beginning and set up the crucible that forms Batman, to tell just how this city goes so awry that costumed villains and vigilantes could so readily walk its streets one day. It’s the reasons for his origin, by way of other characters’ stories, rather than the how-done-it that leads to the cape and cowl. It’s fair to say that many are growing tired of the “prequel” concept, yet so much of what “is to come” is well-covered ground. The beginning, which has surprisingly been only lightly sketched at in the 75 years the Dark Knight has existed, is fertile soil. Putting intrepid lawman Jim Gordon and his fellow officers and detectives of the GCPD at its center solidly grounds the events to unfold before the storm of crazy erupts around them.
The Batman story is, at its heart, a crime story. As fantastical as everything gets, it’s essentially the campaign of one man to thwart crime that has corrupted this city that his family has given so much to over generations. It’s why Nolan’s version worked so well, even if there are those who felt that it leaned too hard on “realism.” It also makes this series’ take on the material very honest to its source. There’s a moment, a discussion between mob boss Carmine Falcone — after years of hearing the name mispronounced on film, it was nice to hear it properly spoken — and Gordon about the detective’s deceased District Attorney father and both working to reclaim the glory of Gotham from different sides. It was the best single moment of the episode and gave hope that there was something to hang this enterprise upon. Another was the fireside chat between young Bruce and Gordon where they both essentially commit to the paths that their lives will take for the rest of their days. It offered the emotion that was sadly lacking through most of everything else.
There are solid performances throughout that helped to keep the various events somewhat engaging, anchored by a dependable, if slightly bland, turn from Ben McKenzie as Gordon. It’s an honest performance and quickly makes clear just how much wear we will see as the city imposes itself upon this good man. The standouts, though, are Donal Logue and Robin Lord Taylor. Logue’s grizzled Harvey Bullock is the perfect yang to Gordon’s idealism, and though the writing somewhat lets him down at numerous points throughout the hour, he really sells the product of Gotham. It seems fairly obvious that they’re going to play to some deep seated good man strings in the hardened cop as Gordon’s initiative to clean up corruption sweeps him along. Yet, there’s a dangerous quality to Logue that gives just enough proper doubt that his Bullock could be turned at any point. Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot is the fun, loopy side of Gotham that flits just around the edges, speaking to the future that awaits. It’s a fully-invested performance that should provide good dividends as the series moves forward.
Either by its nature or perhaps the weight of the whole endeavor, there can’t help but be some camp that seeps into the show. The big offenders here are Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney, a character created specifically for the series, and Sean Pertwee as Alfred. As a fan of both actors, and knowing what they are capable of, I had to find their choices to play somewhat over the top were disappointing. Again, the environment offers such a choice, but rather than surviving getting swallowed up by going big, they both stand out in somewhat grating ways. Alfred, in particular, comes across unlikeable in the brief moments were get to see and hear from him. One can only hope that their performances get ironed out as the show smooths out its story.
That is the biggest takeaway from this first hour. Now that they have all of the pieces dumped out on the floor, it’s time to smoothly connect everything into a engaging narrative whole. That should help with performances, but more importantly, it should help the audience connect to what we’re watching. Otherwise, Fox will have paid a pretty penny for a stylish, occasionally enchanting live-action Wikipedia synopsis.
ODDS & ENDS
- A fun, if a bit campy, cameo by Edward Nygma, the man who will one day become the Riddler. The best moment of his brief appearance was when Gordon quickly answered his riddle and the crushing detest on his face from it.
- Likely a few other references I might have missed, but on of the more obscure was Bullock asking Gordon to meet him at 4th & Grundy, likely a reference to Solomon Grundy.
- Just what is Barbara’s and Renee’s past? It plays a bit dark and criminal, but given Renee Montoya’s personal proclivities in the comics, was this an allusion to a romantic past shared between the two?
- I can’t help but feel that it might have been more effective to introduce this world Jim Gordon has to navigate and then end the hour with the Waynes’ murder as the hook to the continuing narrative of the series going forward. I get that they were using it as a hub to tie everyone, but something could’ve been done in the hour to make that scene play much better.