“There are rules,” mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Doman) says to rookie detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) at the end of Gotham’s first episode. Falcone’s warning gives the show’s pilot its flimsy thematic hook: Rules may have been everything in a pre-Batman Gotham City, but they’re broken throughout “Pilot.” So while Gordon tries to clean up the police department, wannabe thug Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) tries to steal control of the city’s theater district away from comically named gangster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith).
Change is a constant in Gotham City, and so far, that’s the show’s biggest problem. It’s hard to enjoy a table-setting episode that, as Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in his review, expectantly winks at viewers for recognizing characters they’ve already been introduced to several times (example: “Yeah, take it easy, Penguin!”). But it’s even harder to care when characters tell you who they are and their creators don’t seem to care. If there are rules in “Pilot,” they’re only enforced whenever it’s convenient.
“Pilot” tellingly begins with a shortcut. Episode writer and series creator Bruno Heller tries to hastily establish Gotham City as a familiar but distinct setting by having young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) witness the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, Thomas and Martha. This will presumably matter more next week, in an episode cryptically titled “Selina Kyle.” Still, Kyle’s presence adds nothing meaningful to “Pilot,” since Kyle mostly disappears after the Waynes’ die and Bruce (David Mazouz) sulks his way through five or six lines of dialogue. Still, the fact that Heller (The Mentalist, Rome) added this twist says a lot about Gotham’s cart/horse relationship: If there’s going to be a Smallville-esque show about Batman — one that exists in a world that already has Batman: Year One and Batman Begins — then it might as well prioritize the reintroduction of familiar
properties characters, then secondarily elaborate on the episode’s plot.
The best example of this shortcoming is Gordon, the show’s hero, and the character with the most frustrating character arc in “Pilot.” Being a brash cop who is later described by fiancé Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) as “the most honest man I’ve ever met,” Gordon introduces himself to viewers by restraining an armed prisoner at Gotham police headquarters. Gordon throws himself in front of a room full of armed cops and demands that they hold their fire. Everyone listens in spite of the fact that Gordon is still learning the ropes and is therefore probably not so well-known. But hey, a random kid said to not shoot? Well, okay!
We’re supposed to believe that Gordon’s declarative actions and statements define him, but inconsistencies in the way people interact with him crop up throughout “Pilot,” like when Gordon promises Bruce that he’ll catch his parents’ killers. This is one of those selfish promises that accents the I in “I’ll help you,” but only because we’re not presented with a believable reason for Gordon’s altruism. We know that Gordon feels bad about Bruce because of the things he does, not how he does them. He wanly sulks to Barbara about failing to honor his promise to Bruce and later attends the Waynes’ funeral, where Bruce thanks him for keeping his promise. But there’s no emotional connection between Bruce and Gordon, especially not when Gordon tries to comfort Bat-scamp by saying, “I know how dark and scary the world seems right now. But there will be light. There will be light, Bruce.” Beyond hand-holding, Gordon never never even hints at why he’s so obsessed with Bruce’s case. Which is a problem since the police-corruption and mob ties he summarily uncovers lead to a personal crusade to clean up Gotham. Bruce’s case just seems to fall into Gordon’s lap, and it hooks him because it has heavy implications. Too bad Heller prioritized giving McKenzie more opportunities to smolder than convincingly dig into his role.
Donal Logue’s performance as Harvey Bullock, Gordon’s status-quo-preferring partner, is similarly underserved. Bullock’s character arc has its moments, like when he gets beaten up after trying to stand up for Gordon. But Gordon doesn’t even glower sexily when Bullock forces him to pick up a gun and pull the trigger. And the camera always seems to cut away from Logue’s face right before he gets to do anything memorable. Logue may be a terrific character actor, but the show’s arrhythmic pacing does him no favors. If he’s McKenzie’s foil, it’s no wonder that Gordon’s so boring.
Admittedly, Bullock is the most consistently well-defined character in the show. We don’t really see him struggle with alcoholism in “Pilot,” though he does whip out a flask and pound down some booze at a crowded bar. But Bullock does teach Gordon to know when to shoot someone. First, he admonishes Gordon for not firing at the above-mentioned prisoner: “Next time, shoot the son of a bitch.” Then he plugs Mario Pepper (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a suspect that Mooney sets up for the Waynes’ murder. Finally, Bullock forces Gordon to assassinate Cobblepot, and the choice Gordon makes defines him more than any premature statement of intent could.
Bullock brings a little consistency to a show that otherwise has none. Every time a new character shows up, you half expect them to lamely break the fourth wall after announcing, “You’ll make us all go as mad as a hatter, Gordon,” or “Quit fooling around, you joker!” There’s no other narrative-based reason for Kyle to be in “Pilot,” and the same is true of Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), who gives Bullock and Gordon information through riddles. Cobblepot’s the worst example of this trend since he’s the busiest of these supporting characters. While Cobblepot is featured in a handful of scenes, he’s basically a throwaway character. We know he’s oversensitive and lusts after power. But Cobblepot’s limitations as a character become obvious in the scene where he tells detectives Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones) that Fish Mooney — what a name! — is behind the Waynes’ murder. Cobblepot says his piece, is baldly dismissed by Allen for wanting Mooney’s turf, then leaves Montoya and Allen’s car without so much as a warning. Oh, you know, fingering the culprit of a highly publicized double homicide, gotta go, bye!
Cobblepot’s character is annoying, but he’s not as tedious as Smith’s simultaneously joyless and hammy performance. Still, Gordon’s story is the weakest aspect of “Pilot.” In Gordon’s big scene, he has to decide whether he’s going to help Bullock maintain the status quo. He makes his choices and lets Cobblepot live. But again, it’s unclear why. Because Cobblepot’s whimpering, and in Gordon’s face about an impending gang war? Because murder is icky? Or because killing is wrong? It could be all or none of these things, since Heller doesn’t take time enough to establish Gordon as a thinking, feeling hero. He makes several life-altering decisions, and they all seem to be for the right reasons. But really, he could also be a guy who makes big promises to strange children and hates shooting albinos under duress. There are hints of a fun, pulpy show in Gotham’s debut, but only when characters are defined well enough that they don’t vanish between scenes.
- Montoya’s warning to Kean is an oddly chaste way to suggest that Montoya is either a lesbian or bisexual. If this were Fox in the ‘90s, there’d be nothing to guess, just a hungry lip-lock and a disingenuous protest. But if this were Fox in the ‘90s, Gotham would be Melrose Bat, and … hey, now there’s an idea.
- Fish Mooney: can’t — nay, won’t — stop saying it.
- Gordon to Bullock: “Sorry, this is where the action is. You’ll get used to me.” Gosh, I hope not.
- Allen to Bullock: “Just trying to be collegial.” Couldn’t they have come up with a more memorable line to set Bullock off? Just a thought, but how about: “Your hat sucks, and your partner looks funny!” Better already, no?
- Poison Ivy’s dad was abusive: What a twist!
- I bet Jaden Smith saying “punk-ass” would be more intimidating than Jada Pinkett Smith saying “punk-ass.” Heck, Eddie Deezen could do it better.
- Kean to Gordon: “Look at you in your excellent suit.” Waves of passive aggression roll off you, Barbara Kean, swoon.