Should we care about Gotham City without its Caped Crusader? Can a pre-commissioner, mustache-less James Gordon carry an hour-long drama, even with help from the baby versions of Batman's long line of fanciful villains?
We're about to find out.
Fox's comic-book gamble Gotham opens on Selina Kyle, the teenage proto-Catwoman scampering across darkened rooftops and snatching milk (and wallets) from civilians in Chinatown. She’s our window onto the fated murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne — billionaire philanthropists, linchpins of the city, and parents of Bruce Wayne. It's a scene any Bat-fan knows by heart, and there are no surprises in its umpteenth retelling, except for young master Bruce calling the evening’s entertainment "kinda lame." It's modern times in Gotham, although anachronistic dress and architecture fills every frame, and beautifully so. This show’s deco-noir sets, costume design, and sweeping city shots are top-notch. It looks, sounds, and feels like classic comic-book Batman.
We don’t know much about the man who sets the Dark Knight’s origin story in motion, and neither do the cops. The shooter has a gruff voice, he might be a little chubby (he’s covered in thick outerwear), and he has eyes. That's it. Bruce observes that he was “tall" and wore “shiny shoes." Whether this version’s killer is the Joker or not remains to be seen.
The mystery of the Wayne murders is Gotham’s primary plot engine. A clean-cut, brutally earnest and honest Detective Jim Gordon promises Bruce he’ll bring the culprit to justice. "However dark and scary the world may be right now, there will be light," the detective says, going so far as to repeat the last bit. If there’s one thing this pilot wants us to be sure of, it’s Gordon’s goodness.
But can capital-G Good prevail in a cynical town that’s only several years away from costumed supervillains running amok? Does that quality even exist here? Look past Gordon the war hero and you’ll find no markedly decent humans in Gotham City. Jim’s partner, Harvey Bullock (Terriers’ Donal Logue) — a staple of the Batman comics being characterized in live-action for the first time — is a lazy drunk who’d rather pass the Wayne case to the city’s major crimes unit. He mingles with crooks and flashes stubbled sneers at Gordon’s morality. MCU detectives Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen have sinisterness to spare, and even Gordon’s fiancé Barbara seems to have a potentially dark secret in her past.
Balancing out the conflicted good guys are the murky baddies. Fish Mooney, a new character concocted for the show and played by Jada Pinkett Smith, is a crimelord who seems to have a beneficent side despite committing a brutal act virtually every time she’s on camera. Mooney is looking to usurp mob boss Carmine Falcone, a calm man who saves Jim Gordon from a hulking butcher and makes veiled threats immediately after. "Gotham is on a knife edge," Falcone says in response to Gordon's noble intentions. "What do you suppose bringing down City Hall and the police force will do, even if you could? Would it make things better?" Gordon’s father, the city's district attorney, was friendly with Falcone, and smart enough to understand that Gotham's corruption runs too deep to carve out.
The most sadistic man in Gotham might be Oswald Cobblepot, already known to some, pejoratively, as the Penguin. He’s working for Fish Mooney when we meet him, but he’s also the one to tell the cops she framed an innocent man for the Wayne murders. Facing death later on, he warns Gordon of an impending war in typical Batman grandiosity — “there will be chaos, rivers of blood in the streets." Gordon, more or less incapable of cold-blooded murder, makes it look like Cobblepot is dead while letting him escape. The future Penguin pays it forward by stabbing a fisherman over a sandwich. Robin Lord Taylor’s performance is magnetic, and the villian is shaping up to be a true monster.
Cop shows — especially network ones — can fall prey to the Problem of the Week format, tidy little single-serving narratives that diminish the overarching story and lessen the stakes. It’s not clear yet if Gotham will go there, although the pilot’s blessedly free of any such nuisance. The first hour is somewhat scattershot, but it’s got a big city and a lot of players to introduce. We get glimpses of a young Ivy Pepper (destined to become Poison Ivy) and a working-for-the-good-guys Edward Nygma (the Riddler). Next week’s installment is titled “Selina Kyle." This 16-episode debut season will be able, if it so chooses, to take its time painting nuanced portraits of how Batman’s biggest foes came to be. (And just imagine the prospects for time-jumps in the upcoming seasons.)
Over the summer, a report came in saying the show would play coy with its Joker, offering a new potential candidate each week. This time it’s a comedian performing for Fish Mooney, a timid, awkward fellow in a dark, glittering suit. “I wanna die how much my father died, peacefully, in his sleep," the comic says, “not like his screaming, terrified passengers." While we’re Joker-hunting, though, how about Mooney’s goon Butch Gilzean? He’s a grinner, and his shape might match that of the alleyway gunman.
At Wayne Manor at the pilot's end, Bruce is perched on the roof's edge, already striving to master his fears. Gordon offers Bruce his badge, sad to say that the headline news about the Waynes' murder being solved was a sham. Bruce is glad, in his somber, grim way. He wants to handle the killer himself, and he wants Gordon's help. The boy hands back the badge; Gordon’s got a city to straighten out.