I went into the “Gotham” pilot kicking and screaming. Comics are absurdly important to me, and Batman adaptations have a surprisingly sordid history (Clooney Bat-nipples, anyone?), so it’s rare that I’m anything but disappointed after a viewing. “Gotham” had me especially nervous, because the CW has a good thing going with DC Comics adaptations right now (“The Flash,” “Arrow”), and giving one of DC’s three flagship characters to FOX and making it a prequel is like a slap in the face to all that.
But I sucked it up and gave the pilot my best attempt at going in with no expectations, and, surprise:
It was good.
I mean, really good — genuinely enjoyable.
Ben McKenzie as Detective James Gordon is a strong protagonist, doing a really decent attempt at playing the character as that good balance between Tough Guy Cop and White Knight. Cory Michael Smith is a surprisingly quirky (in a good way) Edward Nygma – he who will later go on to become The Riddler.
Of course, the real star of the pilot (indeed, of the first three episodes) is Robin Lord Taylor, as low level (but ruthless) criminal Oswald Cobblepot…AKA The Penguin. Seriously, I cannot give enough accolades to Taylor on this one — stunning. The supporting cast gets honorable mentions as well — Camren Bicondova (Det. Renee Montoya, with the major crimes unit and Gotham’s token queer character), Erin Richards (Barbara McKean as Gordon’s fiancée, who inexplicably has a sordid past with Montoya) and John Doman (Don Falcone, resident crimelord) all do some solid work.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. Donal Logue’s Harvey Bullock has no idea just how corrupt his character should be. Jada Pinkett Smith gives a surprisingly lackluster performance as Fish Mooney, upstart criminal underlord. Sean Pertwee’s gruff, Cockney Alfred the Butler (a la Geoff Johns’ Batmn: Earth One) is utterly stilted and out of place when coupled with David Mazouz’s quasi-emo young Bruce Wayne. And don’t even get me started on why young Selina Kyle (Catwoman) is just hanging around in the background of half the scenes with stupid fucking steampunk goggles around her neck.
Unfortunately, the show’s second episode, “Selina Kyle,” did absolutely nothing to dissuade my fears about the show. Indeed, the second episode was easily some of the worst television I’ve ever seen.
Young Bruce Wayne listening to power metal while drawing morbid doodles in a gray knit cardigan was some of the most extraneous and upsetting moments of comic book television history. Whoa, 2edgy4me there, Lil’ Dark Knight. Furthermore, name dropping “The Dollmaker” doesn’t make his crummy supposed henchmen any better — especially with the show writers dropping dialogue like: “Some day soon, I swear on my sainted mother’s grave, I am going to kill that old man with my bare hands and my teeth,” “I’m not going to prison because a few dumb bus drivers and stupid old ladies lost their pensions!”
Luckily, although the premise of the show’s third episode, “Balloonman,” is utterly fucking ridiculous, it actually manages a few cool sequences (most of them involving Penguin, but hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). Suffice to say, however much cool rhetoric you give him, a Golden-Age-style vigilante strapping weather balloons to corrupt politicians to float them to death doesn’t really make for riveting television.
But for all its myriad failings, “Gotham” still manages to hold interest, because under its surface, good things are happening. The notion of the city itself as a character, choking under greed and corruption, evolving as it wades through anarchy and vigilantism, poverty and organized crime, holds fast and firm — even through the garbage that was episode two.
The characters that started strong — Edward Nygma, James Gordon, the incomparable Oswald Cobblepot — have stayed strong, and the future for them only seems brighter (or darker, given the setting). It’s worth watching, and I’m reminded of reading a particularly bad stretch of issues in an actual comic book — yeah, most of these issues may be cringe-worthy, and there may be moments so contrived you want to tear your hair out, but underneath it all you can feel the characters growing and the plot building up to something that, maybe — if there is justice — won’t actually suck.
RECOMMENDED: Despite its shortcomings in terms of some uneven acting and characterization, “Gotham” is a promising exploration of a pre-Batman Gotham City.