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It’s a little too easy and convenient — and ultimately unfair — to say that Fox’s buzz-heavy new series Gotham could face the same problems as last year’s buzz-heavy entry, ABC’s Agents of SHIELD. But they are being lumped together as examples of shows that are missing the core ingredient of what the audience really craves.
In Agents of SHIELD, that’s all the Marvel heroes from the popular movies — the series revolves around the actual agents, not the superheroes. In Gotham’s case, it’s being billed as a Batman series without Batman.
And while all of that is technically accurate, here’s the difference: Agents of SHIELD always felt like a series that was missing a center (those superheroes), and it took a lot of episodes for the series to even find its own way and establish its own characters as at least semi-interesting substitutes to what you got at the movies. Gotham, on the other hand, arrives as its own entity, a wholly realized universe, in a separate time and place, with enough intriguing characters and a stylized visual presence that is immediately intriguing.
It’s billed as “an origin story” that allows viewers to see Batman as a child traumatized by the murder of his parents, and the emergence of beloved/reviled peripheral characters in the Batman universe such as Catwoman, the Penguin, the Riddler, the Joker, Poison Ivy and Two-Face.
Only a person inept at grasping the concept would watch Gotham and complain about it not being a true Batman series. Gotham’s success is not in distracting viewers from what’s not there — which is what Agents of SHIELD does with its better episodes — but in creating a nascent world where familiar figures of yore are introduced. The pilot makes that world compelling. The writing and the actors make that world unique, a series unto itself, not a Batman series that doesn’t have Batman in it.
Creator, writer and executive producer Bruno Heller (Rome) deserves the bulk of the credit for crafting the mythology of invention here and not bristling at but rather embracing a Batman-less world. When he met with television critics in July, Heller said that’s what fueled his interest. Letting the fictional Gotham City creep daily into chaos, the forces of good struggling to save a city circling the drain without a miracle to beckon — the storytelling from that perspective seemed exciting. “That’s the situation the show is all about — is how do you deal with crime of this level when there are no superheroes, when there’s just ordinary, mortal men and women trying to solve these issues,” Heller said. “It’s as much about the hope and the struggle that they’re engaged in as waiting for a savior. It’s about men and women, not about superheroes, and to me that’s the more interesting story.”
Minus a grown, justice-and-revenge-fueled Batman, Gotham centers on rookie detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie of Southland), who is partnered with the more jaded veteran Det. Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), who has learned to survive in the ever-rotting Gotham City by being a little (fine, a lot) too close to organized crime.
This turns out to be a perfect pairing for the show (and for viewers). McKenzie gives off that rookie eagerness vibe while really nailing the fact that Gordon won’t let even a minor infraction go unpunished while Bullock’s line-crossing is rooted in a long history of trying to keep at least a glimmer of justice in play while the forces of evil grow unstoppable. Logue has that slimy-but-likable side to him in this role that jibes seamlessly with McKenzie’s wide-eyed Gordon.
The look of Gotham is also brilliantly realized — like a dirty pre-safe New York from the 1980s mixed with the dark hues of Blade Runner. It’s a mixture of realism and some kind of brutalized patina that really sets the show apart visually.
In addition to McKenzie and Logue, other immediate standouts include Jada Pinkett Smith as crime boss Fish Mooney, Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot, aka the future Penguin (who, in the pilot, is the most explored of the fledgling villains — others are introduced, but Heller says that was in service of the pilot and that he wants them all to roll out in surprising and more fully realized ways going forward). And even though we barely see him, Sean Pertwee establishes himself almost immediately as Alfred.
As for the young ones, David Mazouz is Bruce Wayne; Camren Bicondova is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman; Cory Michael Smith is Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler; Clare Foley is Ivy Pepper; more will emerge.
And emerge is a key word for this series, because everything we know about the Batman mythology has yet to happen, so Heller can write it pretty much any way he wants. Following the green Gordon as he comes face to face with evil and simultaneously understanding what triggered main characters like Catwoman to become who they eventually become is inherently interesting, primarily because it’s different.
Although critics saw only the pilot, and that’s always a dubious way to judge a series, at least Gotham was original and entertaining and gave enough hope that it can stand out as more than just “an origin story” about Batman, sans Batman.
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