If you’re looking for a handsomely produced cop show set in a Blade Runner–ish world gone to hell, Gotham will give you what you crave. Created by Bruno Heller, who gave us CBS’s The Mentalist, it’s certainly the best-looking new series on network television: The dystopian cityscapes are feature-film quality.
Be warned, though: There’s no superhero action as established in the movies without whose massive box-office hauls Gotham would not exist. The saga starts by reenacting the murder of future Batman Bruce Wayne’s parents and touches on other aspects of DC Comics mythology along the way, but this is mostly a realistic, or “realistic,” story. The cops and crooks dress with flair, but nobody’s dolled up like it’s Halloween yet. There are no capes, no cowls, no Batmobile chases, nada. If it weren’t for the Batman Babies aspect of this show — i.e., “Hey, that’s the lady who’s gonna be Poison Ivy!” and “That’s the guy who’ll turn into Penguin someday!” — it would be easy to mistake it for a kid gloves’ version of Wiseguy or Crime Story, albeit with violence that’s probably a bit too savage for younger viewers, but not “hardcore” enough to please those for whom Christopher Nolan set the once and future standard. More troubling is the show’s undercurrent of utter confidence, which sits uncomfortably with the clunky drama and borrowed style onscreen. Its best moments are carried by the actors; its worst might give you the disquieting impression that the makers of Gotham think you’ll watch pretty much anything if the characters have the same names as characters from the DC universe.
Ben McKenzie plays the future Commissioner Gordon, who dedicates himself toward getting to the bottom of the conspiracy that he assumes resulted in Mr. and Mrs. Wayne’s death; his rock-solid, old-movie decency, last displayed on the late, lamented Southland, is expertly calibrated, and might be the glue holding the entire contraption together. Donal Logue complements him as Gordon’s partner, Harvey Bullock, the man Gordon will one day replace: There’s a Serpico quality to Bullock’s casual acceptance of the police department’s corruption culture and the peevish resentment that boils up inside him whenever the status quo is questioned.
Swirling about this duo is a constellation of DC Universe stars, including young Master Wayne (David Mazouz), his caretaker and surrogate dad Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee), future Catwoman Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), future Penguin Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor, the show’s other MVP), and a solid half-dozen others, many of whom seem to be in the pilot mainly to congratulate diehards for knowing their mythology. Does Gotham err by packing so many of them into it first episode? I think it does. The house is not on fire, folks; you don’t need to stuff everything you own into one suitcase.
The visually hyperactive style is also disappointing. Rather than find a different way to present these characters and situations, the filmmakers have settled on a mishmash of current action and comic-book-movie clichés (there’s even a distractingly bizarre angle of Gordon chasing a perp through a kitchen that looks like one of Spike Lee’s “people mover” shots). A lot of the introductions and expository signposts seem to have been wedged into the script, there are a number of outright cheesy moments, and the whole pilot raises the question of whether we really want to know every detail of how these beloved characters finally ended up doing the things we love to watch them do. (The final shot of the entire series will surely be young Bruce donning the first version of the Batsuit; cut to black, roll credits.) Patton Oswalt did a scalding routine about the prequel mentality: Do we really want to see Darth Vader and Boba Fett as kids? I suppose the answer is yes (at least from the standpoint of News Corp.’s accountants), otherwise Gotham wouldn’t have gotten a green light to begin with. It’s not a terrible show, and if you grade on the superhero curve, which holds that anything not terrible is good, then I guess this show is good. Still, you’ve got to have a lot of faith in the innate fascinations of this particular universe to watch the Gotham pilot and not worry that its creators have mistaken brand loyalty for a blank check.