Fox is one of several networks entering the small-screen superhero fray this fall but their comic-book adaptation stands apart from the rest by shifting the focus off the headliner and onto the supporting cast. Bruce Wayne's tragic beginning is only the catalyst for Gotham to show how the DC Comics' city known for corruption and criminality got its start. It's the origin story to end all origin stories. As for the show's beginnings - to put it in Bat-terms - the series premiere is a lot like Two-Face; it's half-good and half-bad.
Like the critically acclaimed comic-book series "Gotham Central," Bruno Heller's Gotham uses Batman's deteriorating city as the setting for a police procedural. Only this time, the caped crusader isn't fighting in the shadows, he's just Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), a 12-year-old kid who watches his parents get murdered in cold blood. Investigating the crime for the GCPD are rookie-detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), his shady but street-smart partner. Also spotted in the pilot are several characters familiar to comic-book, cartoon and/or film fans, like Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), Ivy Pepper (Clare Foley) and Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith). In case you don't know, that's the future Catwoman, Penguin, Poison Ivy and Riddler.
Then there's still the big bads, gang boss Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) and mob kingpin Carmine Falcone (John Doman), and all the other police officers, either in homicide under Police Captain Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara) or in the Major Crimes Unit like Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart Jones). And I haven't even mentioned Bruce's butler Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) or Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), Gordon's fiancée. Are you starting to sense what might be one of the main problems with the pilot? There are so many Gothamites introduced in the first episode that none of them feel like characters, they're simply comic-book nods and/or cop TV show types.
And yet, the referential shorthand works in certain situations, with some character introductions occurring rather gracefully. The short scene with Smith's Nygma comes to mind; he's the standard 'CSI guy' found in any police procedural except that he delivers lab results in the form of riddles. Other times, these sort of sly substitutes for building characters don't work at all resulting in some silly scenarios and truly terrible dialogue. Taylor's Penguin in particular suffers from being poorly realized. It's almost an even split; I don't like McKenzie's Gordon but I like Logue's Bullock. I don't like Fish Mooney but I like Carmine Falcone. Don't like Alfred, like Bruce. Really don't like the stuff with Barbara. Really like how they used Selina.
Like I said at beginning, Gotham is both good and bad. And that applies to almost every aspect of the comic-book adaptation, not just the performances and characterization but the dialogue and storytelling as well. One second, I'm admiring the way Heller manages to make the well-worn story of Martha and Thomas Wayne's murder seem fresh, the next I'm rolling my eyes at the painful exchange between Gordon and Bruce. I'm hoping that the man behind Rome and The Mentalist, two excellent series, will craft more admirable moments (and less eye-rollers) as the series progresses.
The one thing that I am absolutely not torn on is how great Gotham looks. The city is distinct, like none other on television, and really makes its presence felt. Unlike Arrow's Starling (and Flash's Central), which could be any major city in the US, Heller's Gotham has an aesthetic all its own. It pops and glows and smokes. It's like a comic-book come to life. A world where zeppelins patrol the sky and goons are all the same size. (Huge.) It's probably raining. And this unique sense of place is why I'll be back next week. Not everything in the show's world is up to snuff (yet) but Gotham itself is worth a visit. So the question now becomes, how long should I stay? I'll know more after Episode 2 next week. Same Goth-time, same Goth-channel.
Gotham airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on FOX. Created by Bruno Heller (and based on characters from DC Comics), the series stars Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue, Jada Pinkett Smith, Robin Lord Taylor, Erin Richards, David Mazouz, Camren Bicondova, Cory Michael Smith and John Doman.