The ‘Gotham’ Pilot Can’t Decide What It Is, And What It Is Is Not Very Good [Review]
If you’re the kind of person who looks at Batman’s origin and thinks, “Hey, I wish this was more convoluted and made even less sense than it already does,” then I have some good news for you. Gotham, the upcoming DC Entertainment television show on Fox that focuses on Jim Gordon as a young detective with the GCPD and definitely isn’t a Batman show despite having Bruce Wayne, Catwoman, the Penguin and the Riddler in the first episode, made its debut last weekend at Comic-Con International when the pilot was screened for an audience of fans.
The short version is that it’s not very good. The longer version is that while it tries to do a lot of interesting and engaging things with its roster of characters, the end result is a show that’s not really sure whether it wants to be a stylish, gimmicky procedural about quirky characters in a city of comic book villainy, or a by-the-numbers TV cop drama. The end result is — barring major improvements — a project that doesn’t do enough with either to be worth watching.
So let’s start with the good parts: the actual acting from the lead characters is downright shockingly good. Ben McKenzie (who plays the lead role as a young Jim Gordon) is really enjoyable to watch, and there are several scenes where he takes lines would otherwise grate like fingernails on a chalkboard and sells them perfectly. There’s a scene where Gordon and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), visit a club run by a local mobster and Gordon wanders out back to find a bunch of thugs working someone over with a baseball bat that really shines. One of the gangsters cheerfully asks how he’s finding Gotham these days, and Gordon’s response is a flat, “Well enough.” It’s an awkward turn of phrase, but McKenzie sells it, delivering the line while biting back an incredible amount of disgust at what he’s seeing and his inability to actually do something about a crime that’s happening ten feet away from him, perpetrated by people who are fully aware of who he is. There are a lot of great moments like that with McKenzie, and even when he’s dealing with plots and dialogue that are weaker than a baby kitten, he’s doing his level best to make it work.
Logue’s in the same boat, although he is unfortunately saddled with a lot more dialogue that is truly, genuinely terrible, particularly because he’s called upon to talk the audience through a lot of the ridiculous contrivances that have been stitched together to form 44 minutes of television. Still, you can tell he’s putting his best effort in, and it pays off as often as it doesn’t.
One unexpected high point for me was Alfred, both in Sean Pertwee’s performance and in terms of how the character is portrayed on the show. It’s not surprising, since Alfred is legitimately one of my favorite characters — way back when Gotham was announced, my suggestion was to skip over the origin of Bruce Wayne and focus instead on Alfred in his days as a Shakespearean actor and SAS commando — but I really like how he turned out here. Pertwee’s performance is pretty clearly inspired by Michael Caine’s gruff take on Alfred from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films (a recent trend that continued through JB Blanc’s performance in the short-lived Beware the Batman animated series), and it works well. He’s only on the screen for about two minutes, but it’s two minutes of Alfred Pennyworth just not having anyone’s bullsh*t, whether it’s young Bruce’s or Jim Gordon’s.
Speaking of Young Bruce, David Mazouz is actually way more solid than I expected, too. After the initial scene with the Wayne Murders, where he has to deliver that clichéd fall-to-the-ground-scream-noooooooo reaction (which, to be fair, you kinda have to give to the show), he does a really nice job. I especially enjoyed the way that he shifts by the end of the episode — my concept of Bruce Wayne is that he’s pretty much Batman from the moment his parents get shot, and the show goes with that idea too, with Mazouz backing it up with a pretty intense performance at the end.
So here’s the bad part: As good as those performances are, they’re all performances by actors who are doing the best they can with bad material. Pilot episodes are frequently clunky and fake, but the dialogue in Gotham frequently verges on atrocious, with characters dumping information at each other and doing everything short of grabbing a crowbar and a hammer to jam in as many clumsy references to the source material as they can.
The most prominent problem with this first episode (and also the easiest to fix as it goes on, if you want to give the show the benefit of the doubt), is that everything is contrived to the point of hilarity. There is nothing in this show that happens for any reason other than to progress the plot, and the first few scenes are the biggest offenders by far. First, there’s the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, when the family just decides to walk down a dark alley “to hail an uptown cab” rather than staying on the busy street that they were already walking on. The only reason this happens is so that they can be mugged in an alley, and while versions like the one Nolan shows in Batman Begins actually gives them a reason to be in an unsafe space, Gotham just has them make a left turn purely for the purpose of getting shot.
Incidentally, here’s a protip for anyone out there planning on filming yet another adaptation of Batman’s origin: Crime Alley isn’t actually an alley. It’s the nickname of a street called Park Row, in a neighborhood that used to be nice but has started to go rotten in recent years when the Waynes find themselves going there to catch a movie. Just something to keep in mind if you’re having trouble figuring out a way to get three billionares into a pitch-black, soaking wet alley next to a pile of trash bags.
Even the murder itself is needlessly convoluted. Again, most versions of the story attempt to justify the Wayne murder by showing the mugger’s face, or by having Thomas try to protect his family. Here, the mugger is masked, with only his eyes showing, and Thomas and Martha immediately hand over the wallet and pearls as soon as they’re asked. It is an example of a mugging going as well as it possibly can… until the mugger remembers that this is Batman’s origin and the Waynes need to be shot or else we don’t have a TV show.
I can appreciate not showing the mugger’s face to keep the killer anonymous, and as much as I get that the show wants the “unsolved” mystery of who really killed the Waynes (and the idea that it may have been more than a simple mugging) to be an ongoing plot point, but in order for that to work, it would have to be interesting. It’s not, and that’s partially because the setup that we get here is handled in a really sloppy fashion that remains staunchly boring. And it’s only the beginning of the contrivances.
In the next scene, we’re introduced to Gordon, in the bullpen at GCPD headquarters, which was apparently designed by some forward-thinking architect who decided to put the holding cells right next to the detectives’ desks. Now, I am not a law enforcement expert by any means, but I’m pretty sure that outside of Mayberry, they don’t put the cells right next to the desks, for reasons that are obvious. And yet, that’s how they do it in Gotham City, so that we can have a scene where Gordon disarms a mentally ill perp while Bullock watches dispassionately from a few feet away. Again, feel free to contradict me on this, but seriously: If there is a major metropolitan police department that straight up drops a cage into the middle of its open-concept office space, then that place needs to get some tax money for a new floorplan toute de suite.
There are even more contrivances as the show goes on, but the show’s focus shifts to cramming in as many Batman references as it can, and there’s not a single one of them that isn’t distractingly nonsensical. The Penguin (Robin Taylor) is kind of charmingly awful with his delivery of, “You know I don’t like to be called that!” when his fellow thugs call him “the Penguin,” but the worst by far is Eddie Nygma’s (Cory Michael Smith) presence as a forensics expert. He of course presents his findings from an autopsy in the form of riddles, leading Logue’s Bullock to awkwardly snar,l “If I want riddles, I’ll read the funny pages.”
Quick sidenote: Are there actually riddles on the funny pages? Is this the first time a major network television program has ever referenced Slylock Fox?
It’s brazenly ham-fisted, and feels like the kind of thing Smallville would’ve been pulling in Season 9 once they’d completely given up on trying not to coast on putting things on TV that nerds recognize — but this is the first episode. I honestly expect Nygma to get shot and a subsequent reveal that he was Edwin Nygma, and his brother Edward is now swearing vengeance on the forces of law and order.
Renee Montoya and Cris Allen show up, hinting at more of the Gotham Central influence that forgets what Gotham Central was actually about. And there’s Catwoman — well, Cattween — and Li’l Poison Ivy thrown in for good measure. And incidentally, Ivy, who has been hilariously renamed “Ivy Pepper,” has a mandatory abusive father named Mario Pepper who gets implicated in the Wayne Murders.
Seriously. MARIO PEPPER. That is the name that they actually went with for the final shooting script. That’s the kind of name that you give as a placeholder for an Italian character so that you can go back and replace it with something that isn’t ridiculously stereotypical. I assume they just plum forgot that part.
The less said about the comedian who auditions in Fish Mooney’s club (using what I believe is a stolen Steven Wright joke), the better.
Beyond all that, there’s the standard pilot problems, mainly weird shifts in tone over the course of the show. There’s an attempt made to be visually engaging that I actually really liked, a montage where Gordon and Bullock are rousting muggers and questioning them in a dimly lit interrogation room, with a lamp overhead swinging around, and every time it swings back, it’s illuminating the face of a different crook. Realistically, it probably makes as much sense as the giant cage full of screaming robbers that’s right next to Jim Gordon’s desk, but it’s a nice way to take a piece of iconic Batman imagery (the climactic scene from the great “Almost Got ‘Im” episode of Batman: The Animated Series) and apply it to the cops. The thing is, it feels out of place with the rest of the show, where the only other interesting visuals come from the occasionally laughable CGI skyline used in the establishing shots.
Along the same lines, there seems to be an attempt to make a visual reference to the idea of the show as an origin story for characters that we already know by giving visual cues that it’s taking place in the past. Everyone drives around in gigantic Cadillacs from the ’70s and they all use flip phones, and while the effect is definitely anachronistic, it’s also not very consistent. I do appreciate any attempt to make the show visually engaging and distract from that awful CG, though.
The uneven tone, dodgy effects and inconsistent aesthetics will likely sort themselves out as Gotham proceeds to series, but the biggest sin it commits may be prove to be irredeemable: it’s boring. The show tries to set up multiple interesting plots to play out as it goes on, and despite the actors doing the best they can, it fails every time by offering scenes that are either cliché, bland, or just plain poorly written, all the while bouncing back and forth between something that seems to want to embrace the thrills that come from a superhero universe and something that wants to us to take the Riddler with dead serious dramatic tension.
In a time — heck, on the same network — that we have a show like Sleepy Hollow, which takes genre conventions and goes as far over the top with them as it can while relying on the chemistry and skill of the lead actors to sell these bizarre ideas, Gotham needs to pick a side and figure out how to do what it’s doing in a way that makes sense, if only by its own logic. And maybe get a better script. Right now, the show has done neither.