Tuesday, September 23, 2014

DAMN Good Television -- GOTHAM: "Pilot"

At long last, the world of Batman finally returns to live-action television for the first time in about...oh, only fifty years.  Since the campy 1960s TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, Batman fans have had plenty of feature films and animated series to enjoy between weekly trips to the comic store, but certainly not a weekly Batman drama series.  Well, that's all changed with the arrival of the new Fox crime drama Gotham, but with the twist that Batman isn't actually Batman.  Not yet, anyway.

When this series was announced last September, fans were understandably skeptical.  A Batman show without Batman?  Not entirely unheard of though, considering Smallville was essentially a Superman show without Superman and that lasted ten seasons.  But instead of making just another cop drama with Gotham City as the setting and Jim Gordon as the lead, Gotham creator and executive producer Bruno Heller decided to make the series more interesting by using it to tell origins of some of Batman's biggest enemies as well as what happened with young Bruce Wayne in the days after his parents were murdered in Crime Alley.  That missing piece of Batman's life story is ripe with story potential, so we'll have to see if Heller and his staff of writers make the most of it.

This first episode, written by Heller and directed by co-executive producer Danny Cannon, opens with a young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) prowling the gothic rooftops of Gotham City at night.  She slides down a storefront awning, showing us that she's been at this for a little while, and proceeds to skillfully nick a half pint of milk and a man's wallet before being chased down an alley all too familiar to Batman fans.

From the shadows, Selina watches as her future love/enemy Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) walks down Crime Alley with his millionaire parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne, straight into a masked robber.  Once again, pieces of a pearl necklace fall to the pavement, two shots are fired, and the 12-year-old Bruce is suddenly an orphan shrieking in rage and horror.

Mazouz does an effective job selling such an important scene, which leads to the introduction of lead characters Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) as they arrive to the crime scene.  We immediately see the contrast between the two, as Bullock hopes to dump the important case on the GCPD's major crimes unit, while Gordon quickly reaches out to the grieving Bruce and vows to bring his parents' killer to justice.  It's an important moment that establishes the strong bond between Bruce and Gordon that will eventually carry into Bruce's adulthood as Batman.

The Crime Alley setting also introduces Sean Pertwee as Alfred Pennyworth, who comes to take Bruce home and serve as the boy's legal guardian.  Pertwee's Alfred is much closer in tone to Michael Caine's than Michael Gough's, a seemingly regular English bloke that uses words like "mate" instead of a droll, posh-sounding traditional butler.  Alfred doesn't get to do too much in this pilot episode, but his concern for Bruce's well-being is heartfelt and genuine, quickly proving himself as the mentor we know and love.

As the episode progresses, we're introduced to a number of other characters including the somewhat bland Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen from major crimes, the future Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) as a member of the GCPD, Gordon's fiancée Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) who is surprisingly bisexual, the young Poison Ivy (Clare Foley) who currently has the name of Ivy Pepper, and mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Doman) who is in danger of losing control of his criminal empire.

The major threat to Falcone is Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), a major player in Gotham's underworld with influence over Bullock and a fondness for music from The Dead Weather.  Smith tries hard to be intimidating as Fish, but is easily overshadowed by her underling Oswald Cobblepot, played rather brilliantly by Robin Lord Taylor.  The young Penguin is conniving and a bit psychotic, snitching to Montoya and Allen in the hopes of throwing Fish under the bus, until the move goes horribly wrong and leads to his exile.  The metaphor of a Penguin and a Fish seems to hint at Fish's quick exit, but for now, it's going to be interesting to see what Oswald does next.

All in all, Gotham seems like a very promising series, with the pilot setting the tone of a proper crime drama...as much as this series can being on Fox at 8 p.m. EST instead of on the more adult channel FX at 10 p.m.  Yes, there are some things that feel a bit Smallville (Bruce's gray sweaters with black pants that foreshadow his Batman costume, for example), but Gotham has far more going for it than Bruce pining for Selina from inside his father's study. 

The corruption running rampant through the GCPD along with an inevitable mob war should keep Gordon busy and constantly in danger, and the slow rise of Batman's worst enemies will definitely keep the series from becoming yet another cop show.  Gotham needs to keep stepping on the gas though, because The Flash and Constantine are coming up next.

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