Gotham is a prequel series for the Batman universe that follows the exploits of a young detective Jim Gordon, seemingly the only good cop in Gotham City. In the pilot episode we see the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and are introduced to young versions of some of the villains we’re familiar with, including Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, and Poison Ivy. They don’t go by those names yet, but we know its them.
I never had a lot of enthusiasm for this show when it was being teased for months before the premier. I’m not generally a fan of prequels, and this seemed like a Warner Bros. cash grab. That said, I’ve now watched through the first four episodes, and it’s more interesting than I thought, though that’s largely due to me setting the bar pretty low in my own mind. I never have a lot of hope that a show like this will make it, but Gotham might just be the right balance between a genre show and a procedural drama. The fact that it features the origin story of one of the most popular comic book characters can’t hurt.
The biggest problem I have with the show is one of the biggest problems I have with most tellings of the Batman story: I can’t figure out why anyone would want to live in Gotham City. As presented in the show, Gotham is completely corrupt from top to bottom. The mob controls the mayor, the city council, and the police department. Police detectives are sometimes required to murder people for the mob. Jim Gordon is presented as seemingly the only decent person in the city, certainly the only good man on the police force. The characters ponder whether or not Gotham can be saved, but we’re never really shown any good reason why it should be saved. Apart from Jim Gordon we never see anything of virtue in the city. Even Bruce Wayne’s companion Alfred is occasionally abusive toward young Bruce! On top of that the show wants to work in comic-book style villains, some we’re all familiar with, most we’re not. I almost wonder if the campy 60’s Batman isn’t the only real way you can portray this kind of material onscreen. Comic books work well with abstraction and it doesn’t seem out of place to portray a city like Gotham or over-the-top characters like the traditional Batman villains. When you put a real city on screen and get real actors involved it’s very tough to make it work, and I’m not sure Gotham is pulling it off.
Honestly if I were running the show I would have the series start out as a pretty traditional procedural drama. Depict Gotham as being very close to real life New York. Make it gritty, but allow it to also feel realistic. And then slowly over the course of the series transform Gotham City into an ever more corrupt and violent environment. Let young Bruce Wayne see the city he loves descend into violent chaos to give him a reason to save the city and bring it back to what it once was. Instead, the show tells us that the big plan Bruce’s parents had to restore hope to the people of Gotham was to re-open an insane asylum! Seriously.
Oddly, the series makes it very vague as to what time period the show is set in. The cell phones you see look at least ten years old, and the detectives all use big, bulky CRT computer monitors. On the other hand, the cars all look like they’re from the 1970s and 80s. I’m not sure why they don’t just set it in the present day, unless they’re trying to foster the illusion that this is actually a prequel to the Christopher Nolan Batman movies.
The actors are mostly good, but Robin Lord Taylor, who plays the young version of The Penguin really steals the show. He’s sort of a mix between Joaquin Pheonix and Elijah Wood, and he’s consistently the most interesting character on screen. The others are mostly just depicting one archetype or another.
I can’t say I honestly recommend this show to anyone, but if you’re a big comic book fan or a fan of the Batman universe specifically, you’ll probably find some things to like. I plan to stick with it for now and see where they take it.