We live in changing times. Superheroes, once seen as the subjects of comic books; sometimes misnamed and sometimes well-named, and equally varied derivative cartoons and video games, were a stereotypically nerdy subject for a long time, but lately, there’s been a turnaround. Charismatic, character-driven live-action takes on the likes of Iron Man and Green Arrow have captured mainstream attention, and thanks to Christopher Nolan’s weighty trilogy, Batman is as popular now as he ever was. Still, the concept of a Batman show without Batman sounds questionable on paper; can other aspects of his mythos sustain a show? Based on this pilot, they have a fighting chance.
The first thing to know is that Bruce Wayne (David Mazous) is in this pilot; not for very long, but nonetheless playing the important role in Gotham City’s collective morality that longtime fans have come to expect. This sets the tone for what may well be, at least for said fans, the most impressive part of this pilot; at least ten recognizable Batman characters are packed into one hour. One of them doesn’t really work; at least at the moment, and that (and also, curiously, the first character to appear in the episode) is future-Catwoman, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who isn’t referred to as either here, but it’s obviously her based on her behavior. Kyle repeatedly watches young Bruce Wayne’s traumatizing experiences for a reason that is never really explained, and though that will definitely come later, at this point, her presence is just distracting. Fortunately, everyone else works extremely well to set the stage.
Gotham’s approach to fanservice is impressively precise; references to beloved lore abound to keep the inevitable demographic of Batman fans smiling, but each is light enough that newcomers will be able to enjoy them as simply entertaining performances in themselves. The viewer doesn’t need to recognize the protagonists, Detectives James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) as an iconic “good cop” and “bad cop”, for them to be a compelling example of the trope, and in fact, they’re compelling enough to sustain the whole episode. Bullock is a friendly enough mentor, but he starts the series resigned to the corruption that pervades his city, and his brand of friendly behavior towards his new partner entails constantly persuading him to compromise his ideals for his own safety. (It is interesting that past depictions of Bullock have depicted him as an angsty but incorruptible cop, but there’s still time for him to grow into that role.)
Hence, when a high-profile murder case comes up involving Gotham’s richest family, Bullock wants to defer to higher authorities, but Gordon, an idealistic war veteran who has met the grieving Bruce Wayne face-to-face, insists on shouldering the load. Little does Gordon realize that here in Gotham, police investigations take the form of leveling with, rather than interrogating, known mobsters, and soon after the detectives’ first lead ends in disaster, they find themselves embroiled in an immense conspiracy linking organized crime and politics, in the process running across such well-known personalities as future-Riddler Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), currently a forensics officer who’s dutiful, but a bit too perky given a murder just occurred (but for him that’s appropriate), future-Penguin Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Taylor), who’s played entertainingly devious but appropriately timid at this young age, and even future-Poison Ivy (Clare Foley), whose real-name has been changed from Pamela Isley to Ivy Pepper, but we already see her get a dramatic origin story; setting her up to be another epic character, if not necessarily the one we know. As mentioned above, knowing about these characters can make them more appealing, but they still work for those who don’t yet; a testament to writer Bruno Heller’s ability to build from scratch.
Batman himself may be absent, but Gotham tows the line nicely with his ongoing moral theme of self-indulgence versus serving the greater good. In that regard, James Gordon is definitely the “Batman” of this story; though he’s not a rich industrialist, he is shown as being well-off with a loving fiancé, and the threat of him losing these assets from following his conscience against the established powers is well-established. Fans can also expect no shortage of chases, fisticuffs, bullets and blades raging throughout the episode. The villains have brought their A-game, and seeing how two normal cops can stand up to a threat that we’re used to a superhero facing portends quite a thrill. Penguin in particular looks to be a big menace.
Should you watch Gotham? While it might not be an ideal show for people who hate violence, police-and-crime-drama, or action in general, or weighty moral themes, it otherwise has a lot to offer to everyone with its wide-sweeping, but still focused premise. For existing fans of Batman, this is a delightful foray into parts of his universe that haven’t yet been well-explored. For those who aren’t yet caught up in the spell of his famous modern epic, there may be no greater introduction than this.
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