gotham-red

From a marketing standpoint, Fox’s Gotham already had the deck stacked heavily in its favor. It’s a gritty superhero origin story, at a time when gritty superhero origin stories are doing massive business. And the superhero in question isn’t some indie-comic third-stringer, but one of the most iconic, most beloved superheroes of all time. Those facts alone would be enough to make Gotham one of the most buzzed-about new shows of the 2014-2015 season, even without a seasoned, capable creator (Bruno Heller, of Rome and The Mentalist) and a thoroughly solid cast (Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue, Jada Pinkett-Smith).

But from a creative standpoint, that very same advantage — Gotham‘s familiarity — proves to be a major liability. It’s an antihero crime drama in a pop culture landscape already saturated with antihero crime dramas, and these particular antiheroes are already extremely well known. By the show’s very nature, there’s little question as to where most of its characters will end up, which drastically lowers the dramatic tension. Were Gotham not a Batman prequel, we might be left wondering whether Jim Gordon (McKenzie) could possibly make good on his promise to clean up the city, or whether Bruce Wayne’s traumatic childhood would forge a hero or a villain. As it is, we already know exactly what the answers are.

Gotham‘s challenge, then, is to raise other questions that we care enough about to want to see answered. In the premiere, it proves only halfway successful. By far the most intriguing character is Pinkett-Smith’s Fish Mooney, and much of that has to do with the fact that she’s the only significant Gotham character without a pretedermined fate. It’s fascinating to watch her flirt with a cop or threaten an underling, because we genuinely don’t know what she’s capable of.

On the flip side, Robin Taylor gives a standout performance as Oswald Cobblepot, but the future Penguin might be even more fascinating if, well, we didn’t already know he was the future Penguin. Not helping matters is the fact that the show goes to great lengths to make sure you know he’s the future Penguin, having characters refer to him by that name on multiple occasions. There’s a similarly groan-inducing scene where Edward Nygma is told by an impatient detective to stop with the riddles already, because he’s the future Riddler, get it?

In fairness, however, these are understandable missteps for a TV pilot — which as a category tend to be rather uneven anyway. Gotham is banking on the audience’s desire to hang out with Batman’s rogues gallery, so it’s no wonder it wants to make sure those viewers knows it plans to deliver. If it introduces too many embryonic supervillains in the first hour, that’s only because it’s so eager to please. There are worse problems for a first episode to have.

Indeed, if Gotham ever decides to come out from under the great, looming Bat-shadow and establish itself as a dramatic saga in its own right, it’ll find it already has a strong foundation to build from. Heller has done an admirable job of creating his own Bat-universe. The neon-soaked, contrast-heavy look nods at both the franchise’s noir influences and its comic book roots, and lends a welcome specificity to the setting. Among an enjoyably colorful cast, McKenzie proves an excellent anchor — tough and sincere, stolid but not boring.

Moreover, Gotham does have a rich opportunity to explore the Bat-universe from entirely new angles. For example, the pilot implicitly (and probably unintentionally) suggests that well-meaning Jim Gordon will only make Gotham City more hellish for its citizens. After all, we already know that there are far more supervillains in the town’s future than there are in the present, and that the crime situation gets so bad that the city’s only hope for salvation is an emotionally stunted billionaire who dons a Halloween costume to dole out vigilante justice.

Or even if Gotham doesn’t want to go quite that sideways, it could always throw Bat-fans for a loop by shaking up its contents. While I’m not usually a fan of shock for its own sake, a major, irrevocable deviation from the source material would go a long way toward establishing Gotham as its own fresh spin on 75 years of source material.

For now, however, Gotham seems content sticking on the straight and narrow path toward the more familiar parts of the Bat-tale. It’s tough to blame them, really. That way lies greatness, as we’ve already seen in other Batman books, films, and shows. Plus, there’s something to be said for comfort-food TV — shows that deliver exactly what you know they will, no more and no less. But if Gotham ever wants to achieve greatness on its own, it’ll need to avert its eyes from the destination, and focus on the journey.

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