You have to be fairly careful drawing too many conclusions from pilot episodes. In the US, these are primarily used to put in front of network commissioning executives in order to get the green light to go to a full series, and as such they’re a sales pitch and highlights reel designed to lay out all that the show intends to do in terms of plot, character and approach if only they are handed the requisite funding. It’s not necessarily anything like the show will eventually turn out to be if it settles down and gets a decent run, so we must be careful not to read too much into one 45-minute offering, or be either too ecstatic or too critical about what’s initially on display.
Actually Gotham – a sort-of Batman prequel/origins story – is one of the better US pilots I’ve seen of late. It’s nonetheless still overcooked in its manic efforts to grab and keep the commissioners’ attentions, and rather throws away iconic moments from the comic books such as the death of young Bruce Wayne’s parents. It also tosses in a cavalcade of immediate cameos from young versions from most of the canon’s best known villains including Catwoman, Poison Ivy, the Riddler and the Penguin. No Joker yet, however – they’re holding that one back at least.
In fact, the show is actually not really about Batman or Bruce Wayne or even the villains: instead, creator and writer Bruno Heller (Rome, The Mentalist) is telling the tale of an idealistic new detective by the name of James Gordon on his first day at Gotham City Police Department. He quickly realises that he is the lone white hat working in a sea of corruption at every civic level, right up to the Mayor’s office, and so there is immediate pressure on him to check his principles at the door and just keep his head down and get on with working in the gutter like everyone else. A strong performance from Ben McKenzie (Southland, The OC) ensures that the honourable and decent Gordon doesn’t become an uninteresting, one-dimensional role and he even has a good line in deadpan gallows humour, although it’s Sean Pertwee as the Wayne’s streetwise Cockney butler Alfred Pennyworth who is graced with most of the pilot episode’s few laugh-out-loud lines despite limited screen time.
However it’s Robin Lord Taylor’s show-stealing turn as proto-Penguin Oswald Cobblepot that really catches the eye in every scene in which he appears. Channelling just enough of Danny de Vito’s performance from Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel Batman Return before going off in a completely new and spectacular direction, it’s the stand-out performance of the pilot. Given more screen time I suspect that Cory Michael Smith could give him a run for his money as the police forensic expert Edward Nygma; it’s harder to tell how Camren Bicondova’s Selina Kyle will fare as she wasn’t allowed a speaking role in the pilot, as she went about slinking over rooftops and liberating a carton of milk to feed the local street cats.
The trouble with the Batman universe is that these famous villains are so powerful that they rather overshadow the show’s attempts to establish new characters into the mix, most of whom you feel will be first up against the wall when some dramatic plot twists and unexpected deaths are needed to spice things up later in the season. Donal Logue is fine but hardly subtle as Gordon’s corrupt partner, celebrated detective Harvey Bullock; Erin Richards has a rather clichéd role as Gordon’s practically perfect fiancée Barbara Kean; Jada Pinkett Smith tries her best as crime boss Fish Mooney but has little of scenery-chewing substance to get her teeth into; and John Doman puts in his usual reliable albeit familiar performance as Mafia don Carmine Falcone. As the young Bruce Wayne, 13-year-old David Mazouz does a nice job in a relatively small role as he hints at the growing darkness within that will eventually manifest itself in Bat-like qualities as a grown-up.
If the show has a potential problem, it’s how free Heller will be to take the entire Batman mythos in a completely new direction. If he tries to remain true to what’s happened in the comic books and the Christopher Nolan/Tim Burton movies then it’s hard to see how the show will spark into life, since we know Gordon’s struggles to clean up the city won’t bear any notable fruit until Wayne is old enough to bring Batman to life. Similarly there’s only so much you can do with those famous villains before running into what’s already been established for them in Batman lore. Heller’s most fruitful path is surely to throw away the constraints of what’s supposedly been laid down and embark on his own new spin-off parallel universe, rather like JJ Abram’s Star Trek movies did, or Bryan Fuller has done in the Hannibal TV series, both of which take themes and characters from their original sources but then send them off into whole new story trajectories and be damned with any inconsistencies that arise as a result.
There’s also an issue with the pilot being seemingly unsure what it’s trying to be as a stylistic whole. For the most part it presents itself as a updated visit to the world of classic film noir, pitched somewhere mid-way between the earnest but misguided Mob City and the absurd wild fantasy of Sin City. As much as the show strives for a certain authentic 1940s/50s feel to it at times, it’s equally happy to drop in the casual use of a modern mobile phone when it’s needed – rather the way that Burton freely mashed things up in his Batman movies. At the same time there’s also a very comic book tinge to a lot of scenes, both to the cinematography and the production as a whole, as well as in how it treats the iconic rogues gallery, all of which rather cuts across the noir realism used for Jim Gordon’s role. It makes for a rather odd combination, but that’s not to say it’s a mistake or that it’s unintended – or indeed unwelcome, since it adds a distinctively different and slightly dangerous edge to something that could easily have been played very safe and boring. Not being sure of where or how a show will develop beyond its pilot episode is just as it should be, since a series that shows its entire hand at the first opportunity is going to struggle to maintain any level of interest for long. Heller and his pilot director, fellow ex-pat Danny Cannon (who was behind a lot of the early work establishing CSI’s look and feel) certainly have the pedigree to know what they’re doing and what they have in mind, which is why I’m keen to settle back and see where it all goes before coming to any definite conclusions about whether this will be a long-time keeper.
It needs to be quick about it, however, because there’s an awful lot of competition from superhero-sourced TV shows this season including Arrow and its new spin-off The Flash, not to mention the cascade of superhero franchises pumping out new movie releases seemingly every week. I confess I’m getting a little overwhelmed and rather tired of all these comic book shows at the moment – a little goes a long way, and when you have the mind-scrambling situation where Channel 5’s airing of Gotham “is brought to you by the X-Men” then you have a bizarre crossover that even DC and Marvel never saw coming, and you’re surely close to achieving Peak Superhero. That’s a far cry from how it was just 13 years ago when the creators of Smallville felt that the only way of getting their Superman-prequel on screen was to keep its comic book roots and superpowers carefully hidden under a soapy Dawson’s Creek patina.
All that said, Gotham certainly makes for a much more immediately compelling proposition than the disappointingly flaccid first half-season of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” did last year, so it’s already ahead on points. Let’s see where it goes from here.
Gotham continues in the UK on Channel 5 at 9pm on Mondays. Series 1 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in summer 2015.