Well, we now have one of the best premieres of a comic book-based television series I've seen in a while. Gotham, which is more James Gordon-centered than Batman-centered, had a few hurdles to get through. In some ways, the Pilot threw a lot at us within its hour that might have worked better if spaced out a bit more. Still, on the whole the Pilot starts off the show in an excellent way.
James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is a war veteran and son of District Attorney who now is a detective at the Gotham City Police Department. His new partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is as shady and grizzled as Gordon is upright and dutiful. They find themselves now handling the biggest case in Gotham: the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, wealthy and respected members of the crumbling community. Only their son, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is left to tell the tale, although unknown to everyone, there was another witness to the killing, a young street urchin, whose name isn't given on the episode if memory serves correct, but who has excellent feline and theft skills, a girl named Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).
It's no surprise that in a town as corrupt and morally bankrupt as Gotham, the police don't shrink from being if not in bed with the criminal underworld, at least within kissing distance. Bullock has close ties to Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), a lieutenant in the Falcone Mob organization with eyes towards advancement. She runs a club where one of her minions, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), is completely subservient to her. He has a penchant for dressing well and has the pale skin and large nose that reminds people of a penguin, though he makes it clear he doesn't like that comparison.
Clues provided by Mooney's fence lead them to one Mario Pepper (Daniel Stewart Sherman), petty thief who may have Mrs. Wayne's necklace. He flees and is killed by Bullock to save Gordon. Cobblepot, who has his own eyes on the prize, turns informant to the Major Crimes Unit officers Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), and fingers Bullock and Gordon in a potential frame-up. Montoya and Allen, convinced Bullock's dirty and perhaps Gordon too, pursue an investigation, but Gordon tells them he'll investigate this himself.
As the investigation goes on, Gordon becomes more convinced Pepper was framed, but can't put Mooney and Bullock directly into this. Mooney isn't afraid to get dirty, coming close to killing Gordon to silence him. Bullock steps in, informing Mooney that it wasn't Gordon that is bringing the heat, but someone on her team who is coming close to connecting her with the Wayne killings. She instantly knows who that person could be: the only one who saw her with Mrs. Wayne's pearls, her little Penguin. She takes Cobblepot down hard, not caring that a poor stand-up comic (Jon Beavers) is watching while auditioning for her club, obviously upset at all this. She then orders her henchmen to take Gordon AND Bullock out, but in steps mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Doman), displeased Mooney is taking too much on herself, and begrudgingly recognizing that Gordon's father's memory still holds some sway with him.
"You can't have organized crime without law and order," Falcone tells Gordon. With that, the word comes down via Bullock: Gordon has to exterminate Cobblepot, or Bullock will have to kill both of them. A waddling Cobblepot pleads for his life, and Gordon is put in an impossible situation. He takes Oswald to the dock's edge, puts a gun to his head, then whispers to him to never return to Gotham before firing. Since Bullock is at a distance, it looks to him like Gordon went through with it, but in truth Gordon shot close to Oswald's head and let Oswald fall into the dock, where a shocked Cobblepot swims underwater for all its worth. Gordon returns to his fiancée Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), who is keeping secrets herself from Gordon. He also goes to visit Bruce, now cared for by family valet Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee), to tell him his parent's killers are still at large, and asks for a second chance to find them.
There just is so much pressure on Gotham. I don't think there has been this much scrutiny of a new series since perhaps Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and on the whole I think Gotham succeeded. What a pilot has to do is get the ball rolling, and that is what this one did. We get the traditional Batman elements (Bruce's parents killed) and a few that aren't part of the accepted Batman mythos; hearing Alfred shout when Bruce is standing on the ledge, "Oy, Master Bruce. Get your bloody ass down off there. Eyes forward!" is not what I think ANY version of Mr. Pennyworth, from the 1960's Batman of Alan Napier, to Burton/Schumacher's Michael Gough, and Nolan's Michael Caine would have dreamt of saying.
We also get a lot of the villains, perhaps too many in one outing. We see a quick glimpse of the GCPD's coroner, one Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), who enjoys speaking in riddles. We get Mario Pepper's angry young daughter, IVY Pepper (Clare Foley), who is fond of plants. We also get this cat-like Selina, who seems drawn to young Master Bruce.
A particularly interesting case is that of our poor stand-up comic, one whose bad jokes and poor, halting delivery nonetheless amuse Mooney (about the only original creation on the show). I don't know much about comic-book Batman, but I do know about The Killing Joke, a graphic novel in which we learn that a failed stand-up would become...The Joker! It's far too soon to say this is for certain, or even if this was planned. I think it's a great tease to bait the Batman fan-base, but it's fun to speculate on whether this is the future Clown Prince of Crime, or if he will yet appear and this is just a poor kid having to see a terrible, terrible crime in a city dominated by darkness.
However, in terms of performances, we have two standouts. While his screentime is limited, Mazouz is excellent as Bruce Wayne. The horror of his parent's murders before him, coupled with a steadiness to become a man who will conquer his fears are excellently rendered and are a highlight of Gotham. He shows a maturity in performance of someone twice his age, and it will be a great thing to see how he takes his Young Master Wayne into becoming The Dark Knight.
The prize for the best performance, however, goes to Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin.
From the moment we first see him, serving Fish Mooney, holding an umbrella over her head, Taylor so becomes the character sometimes it's almost frightening to see how he's turning into this master criminal. One wouldn't think he would, with his high voice and halting manner. However, as Gotham goes on, we see him as this shifty, opportunistic fellow, in turns terrified and terrifying. When Mooney coolly confronts him about his betrayal, we don't see his face, but his hands, the hands that had been rubbing Mooney's feet. They halt when we hear her talk about how she knows it was him, and they begin to tremble, for he and we know he's been found out.
As he pleads for his life, I felt a certain sympathy for this figure, but also recognizing that underneath that trembling figure and beak-like nose (enhanced by excellent make-up work), this man is ruthless and dangerous. Taylor is so powerful as the Penguin that if things go well (and I understand his rise will be one of the dominant threads in Season One), Robin Lord Taylor's interpretation of The Penguin may become the definitive version, supplanting both the camp of Burgess Meredith or the freak-show of Danny DeVito. Taylor's Penguin is human (his waddling a result of Mooney's brutal smack-down), but he is not one to be mocked...at least for long.
In terms of others, I hope Smith gets better things to do than his quick scene as Nygma. Though the Riddler is one of my favorite villains (behind Penguin), I wasn't too impressed with Smith. However, since he was there for about three to five minutes, it's hard to render a fair judgment. It was, however, nice to see Smith/Nygma's reaction to seeing that Gordon COULD solve his riddles easily. I think Pertwee's take on Alfred Pennyworth will be interesting to see: he won't be coddling Master Bruce, that's for sure. As for the two leads, McKenzie was all right if a bit bland as the earnest James Gordon, looking intense whenever he has to question someone and having flaring eyes to go with his righteousness. As much as I might dislike Logue, he was also effective as the more cynical and shady Bullock. One never knew how corrupt Bullock was, morally or professionally. I have to give him some credit: he did a good job (but I'm still not a fan).
As for Pinkett Smith, I think she knows Mooney is suppose to be a woman who relishes being evil, so while it might appear she's vamping it up, I grant a little leeway. Any woman who smugly tells Gordon that there's screaming out back because her 'boys' are watching a scary movie, then flat-out tells him the screams are a result of them beating someone's 'punk-ass' knows she's bad. Maybe a bit over-the-top, but just barely inside that line to make it pleasant to watch.
A thing that Gotham really got right was the look of the city. The cinematography makes this a dark, seedy world, one where the place is about to collapse on itself. The squalor of the Pepper's apartment, the cavernous police precinct, the elegance of Barbara's apartment, and the seediness of Mooney's club are all rendered to perfection. If there was justice, Gotham would be considered for an Outstanding Cinematography and/or Art Direction Emmy for next year regardless of how long it lasts.
It's just that impressive, the world the show builds up, a very noir world of darkness and danger at every turn.
If I were to criticize some things, it might be that there were too many villains popping in, rather than spacing them out a bit more. The story doesn't really deviate much from the 'good cop/bad cop'/'rookie cop/grizzled veteran' of a lot of programs. McKenzie's pronunciation of "Fish Mooney" was a bit odd: it kept coming off as one word, "Faschmuny", which made the villainess sound like a little old Jewish lady. I'm not going to criticize the dialogue or violence, saying only that it goes as far as network will allow it to (cable/satellite version of Gotham would be far darker and profanity-laden, I imagine). One thing that did displease me was the camera work when Gordon has to chase Pepper: the visuals looked bad with the camera so close to McKenzie's face it almost looked warped.
Gotham has such great promise. It has some great performances (Taylor better prepare himself to be part of many a cosplay tribute) and is extremely intriguing in how both Gordon and Bruce will become the men they will become to fight believable characters like The Penguin or The Riddler. Though not a perfect beginning, Gotham has me wanting to take a trip there.
Just avoid the alleys...
Next Episode: Selina Kyle