Welcome to the first TV review of the new fall season, as we kick things off with FOX’s “Gotham.” While next week we will resume the 5 Thoughts format prevalent to TV reviews on this site, we decided it would be nice to kick off such a momentous pilot occasion with a full blown review. And, as a note, mild spoilers for the episode are unavoidably discussed.
It seems that Gotham City is the central character of this new series. In this particular depiction the city seems to be a vibrant combination of various versions of itself over time. The setting is timeless, it is impossible to pin down the exact moment this is story is set in. The cars are vintage, the fashions timeless, and the technology modern. This intentional ambiguity works to isolate the world of “Gotham” from our own. From the visually stunning opening scene forward, the city springs to life. A young Selina Kyle surveys bustling Gotham City from a rooftop, the scorching neon of Crime Alley below her. Through her eyes we learn that Gotham is a dangerous place, volatile and violent, utterly devoid of compassion or conscience.
The series focuses heavily on the Gotham City Police Department in the middle of a massive crime wave. We meet this world’s version of several well-known law enforcement characters including Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, Renee Montoya, Crispus Allen, and Sarah Essen. The precinct set is gorgeously designed and has a beautiful life to it onscreen. Amid the hum of procedure, we find the detectives taking a variety of positions in regard to the city’s criminal element. Ranging from outright corruption, to complete indifference, to an sincere interest in eradicating the problems, the attitudes and motives of the detectives of GCPD illustrate that there is no cut-and-dry way to deal with the challenges facing the city.
Set in the wake of the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the series delves into the struggle for control in the Gotham underworld. Crime boss Carmine Falcone, portrayed brilliantly by John Doman, represents the old guard, the established order. Fish Mooney is the rogue element. She is the herald of change and coming chaos. She is challenging Falcone for dominance. The infighting with the crime families causes one layer of conflict while in the background the truly nefarious forces, the villains of Gotham, begin to come into focus in their own right. We are hurled into the city in the wake of a crime that will have consequences for years to come.
The Wayne Murder is one of the most iconic moments in comic culture, so how did “Gotham” fair in its representation of this event? It was incredibly well executed. A gorgeous testament to the powerlessness that Bruce Wayne felt in that moment, the lack of agency that eventually drives him to put on the cowl comes through. David Mazouz gives a sophisticated and mature performance in this scene, indeed throughout the entire episode. The boy stares at the killer for a long moment, but cannot ascertain anything about him or stop him. The thoughtful scripting of this scene accounts for everything. We get the moment in which Martha’s pearls break and hit the pavement that we as fans need. Cleverly, the necklace has four strands, some of which remain intact, so that it can come back into play later. That is the level of attention to detail that seems evident throughout the first episode of this series. That is the kind of minutiae that makes me excited to see what will come next. It is illustrative of a reverence that seems necessary for a project like this one.
The pilot episode of “Gotham” does an incredible job establishing the unique bond between James Gordon and Bruce Wayne. From Jim’s revelation that he survived a similar experience, shared at a time of extreme trauma, to his promise to Bruce that he will find his parents’ killer, the pair play off each other very well. By the end of this episode we see Bruce and Jim come together to step outside the law in the interest of doing good for the first time. This subtle moment in Wayne Manor is a commendable set-up for the nature of the eventual cooperation between the two of them.Continued below
The characters are the heart of this new series, and with stories as well established as these, it is impossible not to compare the traditions surrounding them. Let’s start by looking at Detective James Gordon. In this incarnation of the Bat-verse he is a young man, idealistic, but not naive. Ben McKenzie gives a grounded performance. He allows the character to be just charming enough, just witty enough, to draw us in. However, he retains a humanity that prevents viewers from idolizing him. We are meant to identify with Gordon, not worship him. McKenzie strikes a balance between tough and thoughtful that feels right for the character.
This version of Gordon is a little more sleek, more of a leading man, as is to be expected. Gone are the glasses and the mustache that make him look like everyone’s friend’s dad. We are encountering a man in his prime, before his relentless pursuit of justice caught up with him. Also notably absent from this depiction of Gordon is his smoking habit. Smoking has always been a symbol of Gordon’s humanity, his vice, the thing that separates him from the superheroes. It seems the writers are trying to build a poor diet as a poor substitute, but that hardly has the same taboo.
That being said, “Gotham” gets a lot of things right in regard to this character. Gordon is relentlessly noble. He puts himself in harms way throughout the episode in hopes of being some force for justice. He’s an eloquent speaker; a badass with a big vocabulary. He acts fast, but not hastily; he is always thinking ten steps ahead. Gordon’s complete lack of ego is on point in this pilot episode. He remains completely outwardly focused, never compromising his integrity, but eventually acknowledging the importance of the appearance of playing the game; the character’s response to moral quandary seems true to tradition.
Alongside Gordon is his grizzled partner, Detective Harvey Bullock. This is the first time this staple character is being depicted in a live action Batman story. You may be asking yourself why that is. The answer is simple: Donal Logue was not ready to play him until now. Logue as Bullock is perfection. His portrayal of Bullock is pitiable, humorous, daft and sympathetic. He serves as a fantastic guide to the city and all of its flaws and fascinations. Bullock comes across as the laziest, most indifferent detective in Gotham City. He is representative of the passivity that keeps the bad guys in business. Against Gordon’s compulsion to act, his complacency creates a problem/solution dichotomy. I already love this interpretation of the character. It’s not that Harvey is a bad guy, it’s just his moral compass is at the bottom of his backpack and he doesn’t feel like digging for it. He doesn’t have the initiative to be evil, nor does he possess the fortitude to challenge the established order.
If Bullock is the other side of the coin in regards to Gordon, Fish Mooney is a completely foreign currency. The central antagonist, created for this series and played by Jada Pinkett Smith, is a ruthless and cunning mafiosa crime boss. Smith’s depiction of this vicious character is gorgeous. She walks the line between sassy and savage, playing both equally convincingly. She’s a glamorous creature who is nothing but appetite. Craving more power, more influence, more entertainment, more good food, more, more, more; she begins the process of upending the current order of the Gotham underworld in this episode.
I love this character. She is powerful, because she demands to be. She doesn’t hide behind henchman. She is willing to do the dirty work herself, and to do so absolutely fiercely. Three times in this pilot episode we see her physically challenge a male character, and each time, she emerges from the confrontation unscathed. She’s a fighter in a literal and figurative sense. She creates the perfect counterpoint for the altruistic, selfless Gordon.
Mooney’s relationship with her henchman Oswald Copplepot is extraordinarily interesting. She is at once nurturing and cruel to him. Robin Lord Taylor takes Copplepot to a depraved and dark place early on. Oswald’s taste for violence is apparent, he is exhilarated by it during his first appearance on screen. Taylor captures something truly unsettling here. Oswald looks positively joyous when presented with the opportunity to inflict pain on another human being. Throughout the pilot, Oswald shows that he is willing to exploit and manipulate every situation, no matter the circumstances. Mooney seems to be a maternal figure for him, and yet he intentionally betrays her in an attempt to better his own lot in life. His attempts to usurp her burgeoning power illustrate just how driven he is to find his place in the underworld. Penguins do eat fish, after all.Continued below
Oswald’s actions in this episode tell us something important about the tone that will be adopted by this series. He crosses the line, killing a man before the credits role. We as viewers now know that the boundaries of the bad guys essentially do not exist. Mooney may be bad, but Oswald seems evil.
The supporting cast introduced in this episode is incredible. Somewhere a Fox Network casting director has dropped the mic and walked off stage. We are introduced to rogue’s gallery: juvenile court edition. That being said, I totally want to join that detention center’s Breakfast Club. In this first episode alone we meet Selina Kyle, Edward E. Nygma, Ivy Pepper (proxy for Pamela Isley) and Oswald Copplepot; interestingly, a young comedian makes an appearance at Fish Mooney’s club. This could be the first of many “Joker” references over the series, though personally, I don’t expect to see anything concrete in regard to that character for a long while yet. There are some nice moments in which each would-be nemeses is shown with their iconography: Oswald has his umbrella, Selina her cats, Edward his notebook and Ivy her plants. This is a nice little wink at the informed fan base. Oh, I love all these dastardly little villain seeds that are just waiting for the right catalyst to come along.
In fact, everything about “Gotham” feels primed with possibility. The tension is building; by the end of the episode you will find yourself wondering how the city can possibly survive without the Bat Man until young Master Wayne is old enough to put on the cowl. It is dire, and the promise that things are going to get worse makes it seem that the series is going to continue to get better and better.