Gotham Pilot Review (Spoiler-Free)

Is Fox's Batman prequel, Gotham, worthy of the legend of the Dark Knight? Read our spoiler-free review of the first episode.

This is a spoiler-free Gotham review. We have a somewhat more detailed version of it here.

I will get this out of the way right up front so that there is no confusion. If you’ve read my TV ramblings in the past, you may already know where this is going. You can’t (with rare exceptions) judge a TV show by its pilot. There’s too much heavy-lifting that has to be done. If the show is particularly high concept (as Gotham is), there’s an even steeper hill to climb. When it’s a show that has some extra baggage that comes with it (of the bat-winged variety that Gotham has), then those problems will be magnified.

With that in mind, the Gotham pilot (directed by Danny Cannon) becomes even more difficult to judge. When it works, it works very well. But when it doesn’t, there are moments that land with resounding thuds so heavy that you almost expect them to appear in technicolor, Batman ’66 style, on screen. There’s some real promise here, though, but the show will have to get out of its own way first.

If you’re reading this, you’re already familiar with the basic concept of Gotham.¬†Essentially, “Gotham City before Batman and/or the Rise of Jim Gordon.” If you’re at all familiar with recent iterations of Batman’s origin stories from the films or the comics, you know the basics, and Gotham is fairly faithful to what you’ve come to expect. Young Detective James Gordon, newcomer to the Gotham City Police Department, quickly establishes himself as the one good cop in a city rapidly losing its soul. Along the way we meet familiar characters like Oswald Cobblepot, Edward Nygma, Selina Kyle, Harvey Bullock, Alfred Pennyworth, and, of course, young Bruce Wayne.

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For one thing, the cast, at least those that we get to spend any significant amount of time with, is excellent. In particular, Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon and Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock work very well, which is a good thing, considering that the show will ultimately stand or fall on their chemistry. As far as other “established” characters in this world, it may be worth paying special attention to Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot, and David Mazouz’s Bruce Wayne, as well. Jada Pinkett Smith, who may have the toughest job of the lot playing a character with no real ties to established Batman lore, Fish Mooney, stands out nicely.

Along with these performances, Gotham looks great, although there’s an element of inconsistency here, too. Just as the show can’t seem to decide whether it wants to play it straight as a crime drama that just happens to feature familiar elements (the wiser, albeit riskier choice) and a broader, more explicitly comic book style adaptation, so does its production design. Scenes fluctuate between a very recognizable New York City, to more stylized sets and lighting choices. It’s a little jarring, and it’s just another symptom of Gotham‘s larger identity crisis. There are some sledgehammer subtle moments of foreshadowing and symbolism that took me right out of the show, and they need to work a little harder to make us care about these characters on the terms they’re establishing, not on the future we know is in store.

That identity crisis has an unfortunate habit of manifesting itself in a number of forced, awkward character moments that fall somewhere on the spectrum between the expected pilot problem of characters explaining who they are to each other and some rather desperate attempts to appeal both to hardcore comic book scholars and more casual Batman fans. The good news is, these clunkers are (mostly) offset with a few moments and performances that could feel right at home in any big-screen version of the Batman legend. Your mileage may vary, though.

The plot doesn’t do the show any favors, either. This one falls victim to a fairly thin story, even by police procedural standards, and I do fear that if every episode follows this same formula, Gotham may get tired really fast. On the other hand, future episodes won’t have to do the same gymnastics that this one did to put all the familiar pieces in place, and I imagine I should have more faith in Bruno Heller (Rome).

In a TV landscape that now brings us an expanded DC Universe every single week on Arrow (and soon to be twice a week when The Flash arrives), Gotham‘s superhero sleight-of-hand suddenly feels a little old-fashioned, like a throwback to Smallville‘s too cool for its own good “no tights, no flights” edict. On the other hand, if Gotham quickly picks a direction and runs with it, and perhaps doubles down on its commitment to not be a Batman show, but rather a strict police procedural that just happens to be set in Gotham City, there’s a chance this could develop into something fascinating. It will have to be better than this pilot, but then again, you could say that about most shows.

Gotham premieres on Fox on Monday, September 22nd at 8 pm.

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