Pilotitis 2014: Gotham Looks to Take Flight

GOTHAM: Ben McKenzie as Detective James Gordon.
Gotham (Photo: Fox)

There’s a Die Fledermaus joke to be made here about Gotham, but I’m not finding it.

Show

Gotham, Mondays at 8/7c on Fox.

Premise

Seriously? You’re unaware of this thing that’s happening on the television screens? Okay, the nutshell – set in the Batman universe of which we’re all at least vaguely aware, this is a largely open-ended take on Gotham City, its cops, its criminals, its citizens, centered around the experiences of a rookie detective named Jim Gordon. Stylishly shot, mixing grit and noir with sweeping shots that mimic the painted beauty of a graphic novel, the pilot jumps right in with the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, the introduction of the real-world personas of various future Batman villains, and a whole lot of retconning. Let’s deal with that last part next:

Who is Gotham For?

It’s an understatement of ‘duh’ proportions to note that comic books are now mainstream. The Batman universe in particular has a ton of crossover appeal – with seven movies of very different styles over the last two decades, the spectacular animated series,1 and even the 1960s camp classic, plus its more human-level heroes and villains, the potential base it provides for Gotham is pretty broad. We’re also in an era where the comic property owners are freely expanding and remixing their series, looking to reach a wide audience at the movie theater while keeping the die-hard fans happy through more niche media. And we’re in an space where both the highly-stylized Sin City and the highly-shiny Pacific Rim did mucho business.

It’s easier, then, to say who Gotham might not be for. Please do not tune in if:

  1. You feel adrift from reality if your cop show doesn’t have the word ‘Blue’ in the title.2
  2. You find superheroes dumb, unbelieveable, and/or juvenile, and missed the fact that Gotham is not a superhero show.
  3. The prospect of a single character’s backstory drawing from Year One, the  broader canon, and the minds of the writers has just caused your brain to blue screen.

What Works

Most everyone else should find something to like in this Batman-less Gotham. When the series was announced I raised an eyebrow or two, expecting the pitch wouldn’t have the juice to endure. Sure it’s interesting to mull what Jim Gordon’s life must really have been like before Bruce Wayne grew up and donned the cape and cowl, but c’mon – it was dark and crime-filled and full of despair. Story over, bring on the Bat.

Wrong wrong wrong. After 44 minutes in Gotham I’m convinced that there’s a ton of room to tell origin stories other than Wayne’s; in fact, the best thing for this story is to tell it at this nascent level, where the bad guys and the good guys are starting out, making mistakes, and not yet devastating entire city blocks with armed gangs and rocket launchers.3

Overall the pilot is wonderfully shot – you can see planning in the direction, and for a show like this that’s absolutely crucial. Establishing and transition shots are moody and effective; the color palette dances from saturated to bleak and back again, but always with a purpose; nearly every shot is well framed and moves the action and story along.4 The show toys with its comic book roots, but blends in its high-contrast filters and post-production effects instead of shoving them in your face.

One scene stands out as tying all these pieces together. Bullock and Gordon pay a local crime boss a visit, interrupting her overseeing the fairly brutal beating of a thieving employee. She heads off to deal with the cops while her henchmen, including Oswald “Don’t Call Me Penguin” Cobblepot and a genially threatening brick-house named Gilzean, continue on. In ten seconds outside we get sharp dialogue delivered crisply in contrast with the blood and gloom, while inside Gordon matter of factly asks “Is that screaming we heard out back?” “Yes it is,” the crime boss deadpans in reply. “My boys are watching a scary movie.”

What Doesn’t Work

I love Donal Logue; Terriers was cut down well, well before its time. I bring this up because there he played a drunk ex-cop with wonderful shades of characterization all around and here he’s supposed to be playing a drunk cop with room for many interesting characterizations, but he’s just two steps off of Donal Logue. Of the main characters introduced in this episode, he was the flattest; I just want to see more, especially to give Ben McKenzie something from which to really build Gordon’s development.5

There was also this sense in the pilot of a… let’s call it a hesitancy with the writing. Not a whole lot really happened, certainly not much was played for high drama. This was a safe choice from the directing team, but it makes me pause and gnaw on my cheek, wondering if they really have stories to tell here, or if their plan is limited to taking these cool new takes on characters and moving them around on the very pretty backdrop they created. To their credit, they managed to write a pilot episode that established five-plus characters6 and sketched in some plot arcs without feeling compelled to write this chapter as a complete stand-alone.

Does This Pass the Bechdel Test?7

Nope, uh-uh, not in the slightest. True, it was only the pilot and a major female character (Selena Kyle) is barely seen and not at all heard, but this series isn’t even likely to head down this road. This is supposed to be Jim Gordon’s story above all else – everything and everyone ultimately runs through that character.

Plus they created a female villain and named her Fish, so…8

Verdict

My main concern is that Gotham becomes Sleepy Hollow, that the writing meanders for too long with villains-of-the-week plots, or the visual tone and overall aesthetic of the pilot practically disappear. My fingers are crossed, and I don’t think those risks are likely. You have one series creator here, so it shouldn’t be showrunning by committee. And the ‘next week on…’ clips suggest they’ll be sticking with a subset of the rogue’s gallery for the time being, probably focused on the gang war with Cobblepot as a wild card.

I am digging you, Gotham. Please don’t disappoint me.

  1. Note to self – purchase series, write off as business expense, maybe remember to review it for the site some day.  
  2. NYPD Blue, Rookie Blue, Blue Bloods…  
  3. I think it’s telling, and to the show’s credit, that The Joker hasn’t been teased to appear this season, if at all.  
  4. Frankie the butcher? Just wonderfully creepy, while remaining in line with the tone of the rest of the episode.  
  5. BTW, if you never saw Southland where McKenzie plays a smart, confident rookie cop being mentored by the gruff Michael Cudlitz (now of The Walking Dead) you should absolutely check it out.  
  6. Bullock, Gordon, Gordon’s fiance Barbara Kean, Cobblepot, and Fish Mooney got the most screen time, and most everyone else fit well in their scenes.  
  7. 1. Two named female characters 2. have a conversation 3. about something other than a man.  
  8. For the heck of it, here are two possible plotlines I could see happening that technically pass the test: 1) some time is spent on Gordon’s fiance’s work and workplace before the business or a gala or something becomes the target of a criminal thingie; it would be Bechdel-safe in the same way the water non-profit on House of Cards met the criteria. 2) Something with lesbians.  

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About Aaron Mucciolo 206 Articles
He does things. That's all we can say at this time. E-mail: mooch@whatelseison.tv