Can we be optimistic about Fox’s Gotham?
Fox’s new series Gotham debuts this fall, and for those who aren’t already in the know, the show takes place in Batman’s stomping ground of Gotham City long before the existence of Batman. Per the promos, the series kicks off with the murder of Bruce’s parents, which becomes the first case for a young detective named James Gordon (Ben McKenzie). Gordon is an idealistic rookie dealing with organized crime as well as corruption within his own department, mostly in the form of his mentor/partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), a hardened cop who doesn’t always do things by the book. Along the way, Gordon has run-ins with some of the criminals destined to become Batman’s future rogues’ gallery, as well as a new crime boss character named Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith).
Apparently, the network had so much confidence in Gotham and its creator/producer Bruno Heller (Rome, The Mentalist) that they bypassed the pilot phase and went straight to a series order. But there are already signs that this Batman-without-Batman show may not live up to the hype, or at the very least get off to a rocky start.
It’s fairly obvious why they came up with this concept in the first place. Batman is a major revenue stream for Warner Brothers, but the actual character is tied up in feature films from now until the end of time. So it was really only a matter of time before they came up with the idea of a live-action Batman TV show that doesn’t have Batman in it.
Actually, this isn’t the first time Warners flirted with the concept. Back in 2008, the CW was developing a show focusing on Dick Grayson before he became Robin. No pilot script was ever written or shot, and there were some rumblings that Christopher Nolan was unhappy with a Batman-themed show airing at the same time as his films. The idea didn’t get very far, and thankfully so, because I can’t fathom what a Dick Grayson show would even be about from week to week.
But now, the concept has surfaced again, this time as a police procedural set in the Batman universe. Despite being a much more workable premise, the show has already earned plenty of scorn from Batman fans. After all, what possible reason could there be to make a superhero show without the superhero, other than as a shameless cash-in? And even worse, it evokes memories of the last time Warners made a Batman show without Batman: Birds of Prey. And we all know that turned out (and if you don’t, you can watch reviews of every single episode right here on this website).
But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Gotham; In the right hands, the idea could be the basis for a pretty solid cop drama. After all, we know that by the time Batman arrives on the scene, Gotham City is already a crime-ridden cesspool, and there’s certainly dramatic material to be mined from an entire city’s descent into moral decay, as well as seeing everyday cops attempt to deal with increasingly outlandish criminals.
Also, this type of “lower decks” series has been done plenty of times in the comics, usually to positive critical acclaim. Gotham Central has nearly the same concept as the Gotham TV show, with the main difference being that it takes place in present-day continuity and features Batman himself as a peripheral character. Powers is another well-received comic book series about superheroes and super-villains as seen through the eyes of ordinary cops (and in fact, Powers is also being adapted into a TV series to air/stream later this year on the PlayStation network).
And really, what is Agents of SHIELD, if not an Avengers TV show without the Avengers? Yes, that series started out pretty weak, but by all accounts it hit its stride towards the end of the season (though admittedly, after reviewing the first six episodes, I have yet to work up the motivation to watch the remaining 16 currently taking up space on my DVR).
So a series focusing on a legendary character’s supporting cast and rogues’ gallery definitely has promise. In the case of Gotham, all the show has to do is primarily be a compelling drama about a cop taking on the mob and flamboyant criminals and police corruption, and just let all the Batman stuff be icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be what they’re going for here. Rather than simply tell the story of Jim Gordon fighting the growing criminal influence in Gotham City, it appears they’re going to load the show up with all sorts of winks and nods to the Batman mythos.
According to a review of the pilot script, the show features a younger version of Oswald Cobblepot, and in every single scene he’s in, someone remarks that he “looks like a penguin”. (Though, other sources suggest this has been dialed down in the finished pilot, and he’s now a henchman who’s already earned the nickname of “Penguin”.)
Then there’s a younger version of Edward Nygma, who’s a forensic pathologist who gives his reports in the form of riddles, mostly making me wonder how he remains gainfully employed.
We also get the 15-year-old version of Selina Kyle, already doing her cat-burglar thing as she witnesses the murder of Bruce’s parents. Though I have to wonder if the character was only added to the show because 15 years ago, someone was able to successfully clone Michelle Pfeiffer, and then prep this clone (codenamed “Camren Bicondova”) for a career in showbiz.
And at one point in the pilot, the cops meet a little girl named Ivy tending to her plants, who we’re clearly supposed to assume is the future Poison Ivy. Except in the comics, the character’s real name is Pamela Isley. But obviously, having her say her name is “Pamela” wouldn’t do much to help incessantly remind us that we’re watching a Batman-inspired show.
On top of all that, apparently the plan is for every episode to introduce a new character who might potentially be the future Joker, just to keep people guessing. Reportedly, the pilot includes a standup comedian who never factors into the plot, and every subsequent episode will include another bit player who happens to share some characteristic with the Joker. I dunno, guys. Each and every episode? I can see this gimmick getting annoying fast. And it kind of screams out “we have no clue what to do about the Joker, so we’ll just keep throwing out actors until one of them catches on, maybe?”
It feels a bit like the producers of Gotham are already terrified that if they don’t constantly reference Batman in some way, people will get bored. What may end up being this show’s downfall is not the fact that it’s a Batman series without Batman, but rather that it’s a prequel series. And prequels seem obliged to lay it on thick when it comes to referencing established aspects of the franchise. My gut tells me Gotham is going to have the same issues as another prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise, which spent far too many episodes showing us the origins of every insignificant detail of the Star Trek universe.
But ultimately, the biggest red flags so far have been the various trailers for the show that don’t look all that promising. The show looks pretty flat and cheap and lacking in subtlety (in terms of both story and visuals). The shots alternate between a too-brightly-lit noir drama and what looks like bad cosplay. Given the premise, you’d think this show might be The Shield (as in, Vic Mackey, not Agents of) meets Training Day infused with aspects of the Nolan movies and the Tim Burton movies. Instead, it comes off like a rather run-of-the-mill cop drama that’s legally required to namedrop something Batman-related every five minutes.
But in spite of all that, I’m going to maintain my optimism about the show, at least until it airs. Because why not? It’s easy to be cynical about a show that apparently only exists to extend the Batman brand, but after all, the show is free to watch, and I’m free to give up on it if it doesn’t grab me after six episodes. I’m no huge Batman fan, but I’m still a sucker for an intriguing premise, and at least this isn’t yet another generic cop/lawyer/doctor show.