While Marvel may be domination big screen heroics, it’s DC that seems to be taking over the small screen. The latest show based on its characters has an intriguing twist: this is the Batman story that takes place in the years between the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents and his decision to don the cape and cowl. Instead of concentrating on Bruce, we get to see Gotham descending into chaos from a young James Gordon’s point of view – long before he becomes Commissioner – as he struggles to make a difference to Gotham’s crooked police department as the only detective who cares.
We also get to see embryonic versions of the famous villains too – the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, Poison Ivy and presumably many more to come.
Which all sounds very enticing, right? But what tone does the show take? The grimness of the Dark Knight trilogy? The campness of the ‘60s show? The cosy melodrama of Smallville? The gritty action of Arrow?
To be honest, after this pilot it’s difficult to tell. Because there are two main problems with this debut episode, and one is that it doesn’t actually seem to have a tone. It’s all very low key, and timid, as if it’s scared to play with the premise.
Which is a shame, because there are hints that this show could be lots of fun. The foreshadowing of the villains is hardly subtle (Edward Nygma loves speaking in riddles; a little girl called Ivy rubs the leaves of a house plant) but they remain the most interesting aspect of this pilot (well, along with the magnificent GCPD precinct set). In fact, Robin Lord Taylor practically steals the show as Oswald Cobblepot, a simmering psycho barely able to contain his near-orgasmic delight at killing and maiming. The future Catwoman is wonderful too; Carmen Bicondova may not have been required to do much acting yet, but she certainly slinks through scenes in a manner appropriate for the character.
Also providing entertaining back-up turns are Sean Pertwee as Michael Caine playing Alfred as Alfie (if you see what we mean), and Donal Logue as Gordon’s crooked cop partner Harvey Bullock. Harvey may be a bit of a cliché – grizzled, drunken, fist-first, backhander-happy gumshoe – but Logue delivers the lines with relish.
Gotham developer Bruno Heller is also the showrunner on The Mentalist, while the pilot’s director Danny Cannon’s career survived the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd movie to become celebrated for establishing the visual style of the CSI series.
Gotham itself is well realised too, not so much in terms of production design (the streets are fairly generic city-in-decay stuff) but the way the writers have set it up as a veritable hive of scum and villainy, where everyone is crooked and no one can be trusted. It’s a satisfyingly complex playground for the writers to enjoy themselves in.
It’s a pity series developer Bruno Heller doesn’t have much fun with this pilot, though. There’s a whiff of familiarity and predictability to the plotting. Any police procedural that hinges on “shiny shoes” isn’t going to challenge CSI for ingenious cases.
Which bring us to the second main problem with the show: James Gordon, both as written and portrayed by Ben McKenzie. He’s a dreary, two-dimensional do-gooder, a character so familiar from US drama you can practically predict his lines and actions in any given situation. Sure, Gordon has to be the moral anchor at the heart of the show, but that doesn’t mean he has to be so damned rigid and stiff. But McKenzie seems to have taken “rigid and stiff” as his motivating characteristics; he plays Gordon with all the charm and energy of a deflated balloon with a face felt-tipped onto it. There’s no spark, no charisma, no sense that here’s a guy who wants to make a difference, let alone has the ability to achieve it. When he sits down to give Bruce a pep talk and starts, “When I was about your age, a drunk driver hit our car. Killed my dad,” it sounds more like he’s playing a game of grief one-upmanship.
Also letting the side down are an incredibly bland Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), Gordon’s future wife and biggest cheerleader, and gangster boss Fish, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, who seems to think that twiddling her fingers like she’s playing an invisible game of cat’s cradle, while over-enunciating every single syllable, makes her a hard-ass.
So, for the moment, it’s “jury’s out” for Gotham. A black hole at its centre and some clunky, by-the-numbers plotting is balanced out by some lively support characters, slick production values and a basic premise that has enough potential to make you want to tune in for a few more episodes at least, to see if it finds its feet. Cross your fingers.
Here’s a screen grab of the police precinct set, purely because it’s very impressive, though we’re not sure about the wisdom of putting villains in jail cells where they can overhear police conversations about their operations.
There’s a very odd set of shots when Gordon is chasing Pepper which brings to mind the “drug-experience” shots made famous by director Darren Aronofsky in Requiem For A Dream. Is Gotham director Danny Cannon suggesting that Gordon is hooked on catching villains? Whatever the intention, it’s distracting to watch.
Considering Gotham is shown on Fox in the States, what are we to make of a tomb that bears the inscription “FOX” in the graveyard where the Waynes are buried (It’s very clear on a high-def TV)? That’s one bizarre in-joke.
Gotham airs on Monday nights on Channel 5 in the UK, and on Fox in the US.