Fox's Gotham is arguably the most anticipated new show of the fall season, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's destined to become a hit.
The new drama, created by The Mentalist's Bruno Heller examines the city protected by Batman long before the Dark Knight was around to protect it. Stepping in as the city's hero is rookie detective (and future police commissioner) Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) who, along with his cynical partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), encounter nascent versions of the Batman franchise's villains, including The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), Catwoman (Camren Bicondova) and The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), while investigating the murders of the parents of a 12-year-old Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz).
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But as anyone who watched the first two-thirds of ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — last season's buzziest new show — knows, creating a superhero TV series without a superhero can be tricky business. However, based on the show's pilot alone, we like (most) of what Gotham has to offer. So, can the show live up to its weighty hype? Read on to see what the show has going for it — as well as a couple red flags.
1. It makes the city the star. Although the show plans to avoid its baby Batman problem by focusing on the origins of Jim Gordon and the various villains, the creative team wisely has given lots of thought as to what kind of corrupt city would breed such outsized personalities."How do you do a story in that world without people in tights and capes?" Heller says of his initial dilemma when conceiving the show. "How do you strip away everything everybody already knows and find a way to tell this story fresh? This world has to be more about the city."
Director and executive producer Danny Cannon ran with that notion and has created a visually engaging version of Gotham that's both vibrant and decaying and is purposefully stylized to represent multiple time periods as way to add to the show's noir element. "We spoke about a city needing a hero — how it's a city collapsing upon itself," Cannon says. "Straight away we thought of New York in the '70s. We thought about a world that wasn't being saved by a Mayor Koch or Mayor Giuliani. It's a city that fell upon itself. It's stuck in time. It's beautiful because of that but also dangerous and unpredictable."
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2. The casting is excellent. McKenzie proved he could play a square-jawed hero on Southland and his chemistry with Logue's jaded, ethically challenged Bullock makes for a delightfully dysfunctional duo. But the real standout thus far is Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot, a low-level mob thug whose ambition (and a run-in with Gordon) begin to reveal the twisted genius beneath his unique physical characteristics. (Just don't call him "Penguin.") "He is interested in becoming a powerful person," Taylor says. "He's spent most of his life not in power. He was a small, bullied kid who was beat up for being artistic, strange, different. [By the end of the pilot], I think he refuses to feel powerless ever again."
3. The show isn't afraid to go its own way. While Batfans will have to sit through yet another version of the Waynes being murdered in a back alley, the show isn't necessarily chained to the source material. In fact, Jada Pinkett Smith's mid-level mob boss Fish Mooney is a completely new creation. The colorful character plays an instrumental role in the Penguin's transformation and although Smith is completely over the top, she adds a nice spark to the otherwise grim proceedings. Additonally, Sean Pertwee's Alfred Pennyworth is more than Master Wayne's dutiful butler. He's a sarcastic hard-ass who takes an almost military approach to turning Bruce into a man — something rarely seen in other live-action versions of the character.
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4. The show is happy to take its time. Although at first glance Gotham might feel overstuffed with villains (there's also a young Poison Ivy and a quick appearance by John Doman as head mobster Carmine Falcone in the pilot), Heller plans to give each bad guy his or her time in the spotlight. While Season 1 will track the Penguin's ascension, The Riddler/Edward Nygma will work as a CSI-type with Gordon and Bullock at the GCPD and the teenaged Catwoman/Selina Kyle will bond with Bruce Wayne over the loss of their respective families. "The Penguin is a ground-floor villain," Heller says. "He's colorful and he's someone everybody knows, but he's a thinking villain. He's not a crazy person. He's someone you can build from. The Joker is much more someone who blows sh-- up, and that's a challenge for down the road."
5. It works for viewers who don't know Batman at all. If you take away all the comic book trappings, Gotham is still a solidly built cop procedural. As he did with The Mentalist's Red John, Heller intends to weave a serialized story through case-of-the-week challenges for Gordon and Bullock. "[Batman] gives you a framework and it gives you map, but it can take any number of byways and detours," Heller says. "The show is about getting there, but we can get there any way we like." That said, there are plenty of easter eggs for those fanboys paying attention to the origin stories. " I'm excited by the responsibility," Smith says. "It's nice to have an audience of people who love this story and can be genuinely curious about how people get there. If offers an opportunity to answer questions. The "a-ha" moments are bigger than they would be otherwise."
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6. Gordon's more relatable because he's not a superhero. McKenzie's Jim Gordon is no antihero, but he's certainly conflicted about his role in a city as corrupt as Gotham. "Jim's going to be struggling the whole time trying to be the morally upstanding person in a city that's fallen apart," McKenzie says. "Being a man — not being able to put on a cape and fly away and not having any superpower — grounds the show in a sense of reality and hopefully a sense of stakes for the audience. In any given moment, Jim, because he's fallible, can make mistakes, can trust the wrong people, can fail on his mission."
All of that said, Gotham isn't perfect. We hope future episodes address these issues quickly:
1. The tone is a little unbalanced. Although the show is much darker than you might expect from network TV, when Gotham tries to lighten things up, it feels like it's borrowing from the 1960s series starring Adam West. Some of the performances start off way too broad, and one character refers to a rival as a "pill head loony bird" at one point. Not exactly the hard-boiled dialogue the show's setting deserves.
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2. The show needs to trust its audience. Although we said the show works for those viewers who don't know the source material, we anticipate much of the audience for the show does. So, it becomes increasingly frustrating when a third character points out that Oswald Cobblepot looks like a penguin. Or when Harvey Bullock tells Edward Nygma to stop speaking in riddles. Do the writers think we can't figure these things out?
3. Gordon is doomed to fail. Since we know that eventually Batman comes to the rescue, that doesn't leave a lot of hope for Jim Gordon's crusade to clean up the city. Although that's actually a part of the show we find most fascinating, it's a bleak worldview that doesn't often make it in network TV. That's our cause for concern: that Fox won't allow Heller & Co. to stick to that plan. For now, however, the producers seem committed. "Jim Gordon is the moral center of the show," Heller says. "He is an undersold character in the Batman mythology because he essentially symbolizes law and order and righteousness. He basically gives license for Batman to exist. His journey is the critical story to tell. He is our Dante, if you like, taking us down this road."
And rest assured, Gordon will have some victories. "Whilst this is heading toward Batman in the future, there will be triumphs along the way," Heller says. Adds Cannon: "Even the smallest victory can start that ripple in the ocean. The mere fact that Gordon tries to maintain his integrity is a victory. He's learning that he can survive it. He finds a way, not to control it, but he learns what Gotham is. It's this vast machine and its internal engines are driven by corruption and have been since the beginning of time. Gordon has to change in order for that machine to not break down."
Gotham premieres Monday at 8/7c on Fox. Below, see how McKenzie feels about re-imagining Commissioner Gordon and see why Gotham is one of our editors' picks.