TV’s Gotham – Dark city, bright future

  • TV
  • Tuesday, 30 Sep 2014

Gotham confidential: Ben McKenzie's James Gordon not only drives the main storyline forward, he also inspires one of Gotham's most famous citizens - Bruce Wayne.

In darkest night, a bright knight arrives to save crime-ridden Gotham City in this promising new series.

ON paper, the new crime-drama Gotham seemed to have had a couple of strikes against it even before its pilot aired last week.

For one thing, it’s set in Gotham City, one of the most famous superhero stomping grounds in pulp and popcorn fiction, a place that is inextricably tied to Batman ... and yet there’s NO Batman in it.

Then, the creative team was perpetually dropping hints of all those tantalising guest appearances by iconic villains from the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery – BEFORE they became the colourful criminals we know and love to loathe.

So how’s an expensive-looking show like this going to thrive, if it’s basically one big prequel/tease? Remember how Smallville quickly wore out its welcome by refusing to let Clark Kent fly for 10 seasons and serving up pathetic versions of such titanic villains as Doomsday and Darkseid?

Having watched the Gotham pilot, I can only say that ... I’m impressed. Mainly by how respectful showrunner Bruno Heller (The Mentalist) and his collaborators have been to the nature and spirit of these characters. None of the corner-cutting, dumbing down and cheapening that many adaptations have committed in the past.

Batman is still “merely” bereaved 12-year-old Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz of The Touch) in this series, so the task of carrying Gotham falls squarely on the shoulders of one of his most trusted allies in the war on crime: James Gordon, in his pre-Commissioner, rookie detective days. Played with a no-nonsense earnestness by Ben McKenzie (Southland and, for trivia buffs, the voice of Batman in the animated film Batman: Year One), Gordon is thrust into the Batman mythos in the pilot when he investigates the murder of Bruce’s parents.

His partner: the cynical, possibly mob-connected Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), another key supporting character from the comics. The case brings them in contact with such individuals as Gotham City PD technician Edward Nygma (eventually, The Riddler); gangster Oswald Cobblepot (later, The Penguin); and a little girl named Ivy who loves plants (name yer Poison).

There’s also a cat-loving, agile little girl/thief who loves spying on people and proceedings (duh). Big, bad crime boss Falcone makes a well-timed appearance; while new to the Batverse is fellow mobster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith).

And, sorry, but it’s quite likely that the nervous standup comedian who auditions at Fish’s club is NOT The Joker before he took a chemical bath.

In a curious move, two characters from GCPD’s Major Crimes unit – principal characters in the really excellent Gotham Central comic-book – have been yanked from “contemporary” comics continuity into this prequel setting: Renee Montoya and her partner Crispus Allen. A hint of scandal is tossed our way when it is hinted that Renee once had “something” going on with Jim Gordon’s fiancee Barbara Kean, too.

Gotham introduces us to these characters, and more, over the course of its deliberately paced and quite enthralling pilot. And, as stated earlier, it’s all done with a great deal of respect for them.

Nygma, for example, can’t resist phrasing every statement like a question; his look of surprise, mixed in with disbelief and a little disgust, when Gordon nails one of his riddles without blinking, is subtle and quite priceless.

The episode MVP, though, has to be Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot. Both a sadistic, ambitious skulker in Fish Mooney’s gang and an informant for Major Crimes, the Penguin-to-be is a perfect microcosm of Bat-villainy: edgy, unique, and – in one startling moment – a merciless killer.

As the apparent backbone of the show, McKenzie and Logue also do terrific jobs, flavouring their dynamic duo’s respective idealism and cynicism with an unhealthy (for their partnership) dose of deceit.

I mostly knew of Logue as a good comic actor (Grounded For Life) but lately, he’s been proving he has good dramatic chops first in his semi-regular role on Law & Order: SVU and now, here.

I haven’t watched Southland but McKenzie’s idealistic man of action and honour reminded me a lot of Russell Crowe’s Bud White from LA Confidential – only not as volatile.

Bruce Wayne and faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) are shaping up to be another prominent pair on the show, but there’s not enough of them in the pilot to form an opinion yet (though I would have preferred to see Alfred deliver some choice, snide asides rather than be the gruff drill-sergeant type that he was here).

While the pilot delivered enough intrigue, action and promise to induce me to stick around for more, one aspect struck me only some time after watching it. You may wonder why, in the pilot, Gordon makes such a big deal of delivering news to and seeking “approval” from Bruce with regard to his parents’ murder investigation.

Well, it reinforces that Gordon is an honourable man, sure; but in a way, these are actions by a bright knight that will help shape and inspire the future dark knight. Whoa.

Gotham airs every Thursday at 9pm on Warner TV (HyppTV Ch 613).

Related stories:
A Gotham without Batman is still worth checking out
Jada Pinkett Smith believes in the power of stillness

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