A prequel that doesn’t feature the most popular comics character possibly ever created? A show focused on a supporting character in no way as popular as that other, incredibly popular character? Starring that kid from The O.C.? What’s up with that and who the heck thought it would work?
What’s up is called Gotham – and it works like crazy.
True confession: I expected to loathe this show, because the premise sounded both uninteresting to me (NO BATMAN? C’mon!) and the look and feel felt far too violent. The show IS violent, in a far more real way than the comics or even movies have ever been – and it both fits and works. As for uninteresting, well, that was handled within about a minute of the pilot.
Starting pretty much when Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered in front of him (and someone else), Gotham takes place a good couple of decades before Batman exists. While we see Young Master Bruce (aka the Once and Future Batman) and Alfred, the focus is on the idealistic young James Gordon, well before he’s the Commissioner – in fact, he’s just made detective. We follow Jim as he fights with and learns from his partner, Harvey Bullock, within and around the corruption that is Gotham City’s natural state of being.
This has easily moved into my very limited “shows I don’t miss” list, and it’s due to three things – the sets and look of the show, the writing, and the actors.
The look for Gotham is amazing – the closest I’ve seen to the look from Batman: The Animated Series (which remains my favorite Batman out of all TV, comic, and movie choices so far). It’s a gritty, pre-Disney version of New York City, with architecture, clothes, and other aspects that let the show exist in a time that could be now, could be 20 years ago, could be 10 years in the future. If there’s any justice out there, this show should be up for Emmys for set design, costume design, and makeup.
The writing is consistent and consistently good. There’s a lot going on – varieties of conspiracies, once and future crime bosses fighting and being created, good desperately trying to overcome evil – and a large cast, but the characters are distinct and well fleshed out, and the storylines are compelling. No one feels like anyone else, and, so far, no character is outstaying their welcome on screen.
But a show like this survives or fails on the acting, and the acting is stellar.
Donal Logue as Bullock is amazing, but he’s always amazing. That’s not meant to diminish his acting here, because without him being great, this show would flounder. But you kind of expect Logue to be fantastic in any role he has by now.
Ben McKenzie as Gordon, however, was the revelation for me. Part of why I wasn’t excited about this show was because I didn’t think I’d be able to see McKenzie as anything other than his character from The O.C. I was wrong. He’s fantastic, showing Gordon’s innate decency and determination warring with self-preservation and the realization that he’s going to have to do bad things to help good have a fighting chance. He holds and commands the screen and you feel every decision he makes – good or bad.
Jada Pinkett-Smith is also beyond fantastic as Fish Mooney. She’s all sweet menace and vicious smarts and without her, the rest of the villains wouldn’t work as well. Yes, she’s made up for the TV show. And good for the writers for going there – life happens before and after Batman shows up on the scene, and of course there are villains, and heroes, we haven’t “seen” in the comics, because they were there before Batman grew up. It’s called expanding the world and it’s done very well on this show.
However, the Rogue’s Gallery is in attendance, or at least some of them. The series’ focus – rightly, based on the casting of Robin Lord-Taylor – is on Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin. Lord-Taylor plays Penguin as a sort of sweet psychotic with delusions of grandeur and an obsequious manner that hides the fact that he’s got plans in place just like the “real” crime bosses do. The show does a great job of making the Penguin almost as sympathetic as Gordon – you don’t want to root for him, but you feel for him, because who hasn’t been bullied in some way by someone stronger, but definitely not smarter, than they are?
In addition to the Penguin, we have a young Catwoman and the pre-Riddler Edward Nygma, both doing fine with small but pivotal parts, as well as the usual mob bosses who help make Gotham City what it is. Part of the fun of the show is seeing when, where, and how one of the other multitude of Batvillains shows up – there’s no way we’ve seen all of them yet, but it’s a good bet we’ve seen more of them than we realize.
But there IS a giant bat in the room, and it’s the question of how this works within the overall mythology, especially since we have young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and Alfred (Sean Pertwee) hanging about. Frankly, it works well. We’re shown how this incident, and Gordon himself, affect Bruce Wayne and turn him into the World’s Greatest Detective. Gordon is also affected by Bruce – he swears to the boy that he’s going to find the person who murdered his parents, and he’s unflinchingly honest with Bruce at all times.
The relationship between Bruce and Alfred is also well done, since Alfred is NOT yet the parental figure he ultimately becomes – right now, he’s the grownup who’s not Bruce’s mom or dad who has to try to handle a grieving and driven young boy who has the right, as his employer, to tell him to bugger off. Pertwee (so awesome as Lestrade on Elementary) is excellent at showing how awkward all of this is for Alfred – he’s a single man who, up until this tragedy, was just happily going about being the butler for the city’s wealthiest family, and now he’s stuck in a role he’s not ready for and he’s desperately trying to keep himself and his charge afloat.
I’ve seen a lot of negative comments about Gotham on Twitter and I’m not sure why, since none of those I’ve seen mention what’s turned them off of the show. There IS a lot of violence and, because it’s done realistically, it can be too much for those who prefer their violence on an A-Team level. Otherwise, if your complaint is that Batman isn’t here, you are, like I was, missing the point – this is the story of why and how Batman had to show up, of why and how Gotham City became the cesspool of crime and criminal insanity that we know and love, and how one man standing up against evil can make a difference, even if he doesn’t have a snazzy suit.
This is a show with Easter Eggs in every episode, meaning it’s a show that’s going to bear re-watching, so be sure to put the 1st season DVD onto your Christmas lists. It’s definitely on mine.
editor’s note: and it was just announced today that Morena Baccarin has been added to Gotham as a recurring character this season.