Some of the best Batman stories hardly involve the Dark Knight at all. They rely on the character’s immense presence and ability to instill fear into those that call Gotham home. These issues (a recent example of which is Batman #12 from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s incredible run) work well, in part, because readers know the genuine article will eventually appear. This Fall, Fox is betting big that the world of Batman can exist without a man in a cape. That Gotham, with its crackpots and crooked cops, can be enough to keep viewers tuned for months.
It was a solid—if at times bumbling and awkward—start for the show. I was fully anticipating disappointment going into last night’s premiere of Gotham. Knowing the pilot centered around the murder of the Waynes, a scene depicted ad nauseam in Batman stories over the years, I feared the show would waste the opportunity it had afforded itself, giving more clout to a young Bruce Wayne than should be allowed. While I readily admit that the infamous crux upon which Batman was born is a natural place for the series to begin, it is also the easy place. Using that moment allowed the show to open on familiar ground, instead of creating a distinct world and atmosphere from the outset.
However, the way in which the murder and subsequent investigation was handled caught me, happily, off guard. Gotham makes no concessions that this show is about Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), not the vigilante for whom he’ll eventually put a signal in the sky. Bruce appears on screen a handful of times, and there are awkward moments of foreshadowing, such as the first handshake between Gordon and Bruce, given decidedly more visual importance than necessary, but otherwise the show does a nice job of distancing itself from Batman’s history.
The episode was well-paced and entertaining, with more than a pinch of intrigue. Fan service was kept to a minimum, save for the inclusion of Selina Kyle, whose presence was befuddling at best—wholly unnecessary at worst. The oddest moments struck in the action sequences, which felt chaotic and uncoordinated. Some shots were from a camera placed, somehow, directly in front of McKenzie’s face while he ran, so as to capture what I’m sure were expected to be glorious in-motion shots. What resulted proved to be nothing more than comically jarring. Ben McKenzie (Southland, The O.C.) saw a rocky beginning, thanks, in no small part, to occasionally sub-par writing that overshadowed anything a performer could have done (although it grew stronger throughout the hour). The rest of the cast fared much the same, with a particularly nice performance from Robin Taylor who, as Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin), seemed the most comfortable in his role and the most sure of his moves. He displayed the perfect mix of intelligence and sociopathy needed to embody the villain.
On the opposite end of the acting spectrum sat Erin Richards as Barbara Kean (Gordon’s love interest and a shell of a character who had nothing of import to do or say but is certainly hiding something), and Jada Pinkett Smith as mob boss Fish Mooney. A creation solely for Gotham, Mooney is a character to be feared, an up-and-comer in the organized crime world with sights on Carmine Falcone’s (John Doman) empire—or so the show would like you to believe. In reality, Smith is not the least bit intimidating or powerful in her portrayal of Mooney. She may dabble in violence, commit heinous acts, but it is near impossible to truly believe Mooney as a fearful character. Instead, she seems just a very small fish (sorry) in a very large pond.
The fear I have now is wholly different from the one I had at the start of last night’s premiere. Take away Bruce Wayne, take away the occasional glimpse of young Poison Ivy or Edward Nygma (The Riddler) and Gotham is no more than a common police procedural. The show finds itself in uncommon territory being set in a comic book universe, though, allowing it to distance itself from the Law & Orders of the TV world. Gotham can get weird and bizarre and dark, if it dares. The writers would be wise to push the show in that direction, instead of dwelling entirely on organized crime and those that desire the power it yields. Longevity is not a fear here, as is often the case with new series. The opening hour raised genuinely interesting questions regarding Barbara’s secret, Oswald’s future, Gordon’s quest to clean up Gotham PD and others that are best left unwritten.
Thanks to creative maneuvering, showrunner Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome) and his team have essentially freed themselves of 75 years of lore and mythos. Not much is known about the early years (before their relationship to the bat came to define them) of Commissioner Gordon, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Catwoman and others. And what is known is often indefinite, or at the very least equivocal in a way that Bruce Wayne’s journey is not. This groove of time, after the murder of Bruce’s parents but before he donned the cape, could allow Gotham to build its own universe, to tell new stories to Batman fans, to thrive in its own way. The pilot was, assuredly, a good first step for Gotham, now it’s time to see what Heller has in his utility belt.
Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can find more of his work on his website.