Gotham Pilot Episode: The Review
Gotham is the new television series telling the story of some of the most infamous inhabitants of that city before the appearance of Batman. From over seventy years of comics and movies audiences are pretty familiar with the origin story of Batman. A young boys parents murdered in front of his eyes becoming the reason for him to dedicate himself to a life of fighting crime.
So how can a new spin be put on this most familiar of stories? By shifting the focus to the character of Police Commissioner James Gordon who at this stage is a young detective while Batman is still a twelve year old Bruce Wayne. The pilot opens with the murder of the Wayne’s (after a brief glimpse of young Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman) and in a pleasing wink to the comics young Bruce kneels between their corpses in a close recreation of a classic comic cover. The scene is effectively told but with it being so well known it’s a sensible decision to get it out of the way early.
At the Police Station we are introduced to James Gordon (played by Ben McKenzie) and his older borderline alcoholic partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). Gordon manages to disarm a suspect who has grabbed another officer and in the first hint that things are not right in this department a group of cops lay into the suspect while restraining him.
So far this pilot episode has hit on a lot of familiar story beats, young idealistic detective, older more cynical partner and a case that has great implications with pressure to close it quickly. Bullock it turns out has one foot in the corruption that is rife in the department as he takes his young partner to meet gang boss Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith) the murder having occurred on her territory. Gordon encounters one of her henchmen the young Oswald Cobblepot who will go on the become the Penguin (a derisory nickname foisted on him by fellow gangsters). He is all gleeful menace as he batters a man with a baseball bat obviously enjoying the power afforded to him actor Robin Lord Taylor suggesting that a childhood of trauma and bullying has bought out a desire to revenge himself on those who may have taunted him when he was younger.
As pilots go it’s a bit of a whirlwind as we are introduced to younger versions of Alfred, Poison Ivy, Edward Nygma (the future Riddler) and possibly the Joker. This is a potentially thorny issue that the programme makers are going to have to try very hard to get right. The Joker for many years in comics had no origin story, no real name or secret identity. He simply was the Joker. The 1988 comic The Killing Joke gave him a possible back story but even he doubts how accurate it is. The 1989 Batman movie caused controversy by suggesting that before he was the Joker he was the thug that murdered the Wayne’s. Shrinking the fictional universe of the film considerably (but more on that later). The 2008 film The Dark Knight finally gave audiences a screen version of the Joker that portrayed him as a man with no name or background just a primal force of chaos.
As mentioned above the want to tie everything together is a bizarre affliction of writers and film makers. For examples of this look at Star Wars where the prequels tell us Anakin is from the same planet as his famous offspring, that he builds the droid C-3PO. The point with Batman is that if he and the Joker grow up in the same place it invalidates the theory that crazy people are drawn to Gotham because Batman represents to them a place people can be crazy.
Very little of the pilot is spent with young Bruce Wayne which is fortunate as child versions of characters rarely do justice to their adult selves and can cheapen established mythology (of course the writers will be trying to establish their own mythology but they are working within such a well known universe it will be interesting to see how far they can push new ideas). The recent Doctor Who story “Listen” which was on its way to becoming a classic entry in the long running series until undoing all its good work by showing a glimpse of the title character as a young child and setting the scene in a location that would be reused by the same character hundreds of years in the future. It’s time like this that you want to grab the writers and shake them while shouting “Stop making everything so small when you can make it bigger and richer!”
Production wise Gotham looks fantastic, the city is vast and while you do get a sense of scale future episodes need to explore different areas of the city to show that its not all gloomy buildings and dangerous alleyways. A brief sojourn to Wayne Manor is fine but shows us the schools, the malls, suburban neighbourhoods and office blocks. Even in a city as corrupt as this there has to be something to contrast the endless line of gangsters and scumbags against.
So does Gotham offer innovation anywhere? Gordon is a involved in a foot chase with a suspect and the audience is dropped into the moment with shots looking directly at the young officer as he tears through buildings, presumably achieved by strapping a camera to the actor. This really caught the eye and if the directors are encouraged to try dynamic ideas like this it could make the programme stand out from all the other US crime dramas that are so prolific right now.
One area that does need significant improvement from the pilot is the relationship between Gordon and his girlfriend. The scenes with them together at home have absolutely no emotion and come across as two beautiful people reciting their lines on a set that has come straight out of a designer home catalogue.
The real highlight of the pilot was the performance of actor Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald. He runs a huge spectrum of emotions from sadist to snitch, to overconfident to terrified and finally reborn from a watery grave more violent than ever. His brutal murder of a fisherman and glimpses of further violent behaviour in the trailer for episode 2 show he could be a strong version of a character that has been hard for audiences to take seriously over the years due to prior versions being so comedic (excluding the wonderfully grotesque take on him from 1992’s Batman Returns). Making him a central figure in Gotham’s criminal underworld would be a fresh take and certainly a welcome one.
So a good start and once the business of establishing the characters is out of the way hopefully the early plot strands such as Harvey’s mob ties, Oswald’s rise to power and Gordon’s crusade to clean the police department up can bring the audience some rich drama.
Gotham is broadcast Monday nights at 9pm on Channel 5.