When it was announced that there was to be a television series about Bruce Wayne before he became the Batman there was an understandable fear that it would be a rehash of Smallville, the ten year behemoth which starred Tom Welling as the young Clark Kent, although Welling was three years older than Brandon Routh when Superman Returns was made as Smallville finished its fifth season. Originally conceived as a series based around the young Master Wayne, Smallville was later reconceived as the Teenager of Steel, and the show achieved a ridiculous amount of success over the following decade, but now the pendulum has swung back to Gotham City, fears that the show would be full of teenage angst of a melancholy Bruce Wayne are unfounded, at least as far as can be told from the pilot.
Instead, the show focuses on Detective James Gordon, a new addition to the Gotham City Police Department and former war hero who also just happens to be the one of the few honest cops in a city of corruption, played by Southland’s Benjamin McKenzie with the earnest appeal of a man who just wants to do the right thing when everyone around him is succumbing to temptation. Officers beat already subdued criminals and take bribes as a matter of course; this includes Gordon’s partner Harvey Bullock (Sons of Anarchy‘s Donal Logue) who is none too pleased having a white knight at his side.
There was no real option other than to open with the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, but despite the familiarity of the iconic scene which has played the same way in every incarnation of Batman, it is a credit to director Danny Cannon (Judge Dredd, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) that despite the inevitability the swift and brutal scene still packs a punch, leaving the young Bruce (Touch’s David Mazouz) kneeling between his dead parents and screaming into the night as Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), feeding stray cats stolen milk, watches from above.
Bullock and Gordon’s investigation into the Wayne murder serves to introduce the viewer to an extraordinary number of characters from the Batman mythos. Based on his career to date McKenzie was a bold choice for Jim Gordon as his main exposure comes from a teen drama where he was appreciated for his pretty eyes rather than dramatic range, but any doubts about his casting are expelled within the first few minutes, and he is joined by so many familiar characters that it’s almost head spinning at times: Alfred Pennyworth, Sarah Essen, Ivy Pepper (formally known as Pamela Isley), Edward Nygma, Oswald Cobblepot, Barbara Kean, Renee Montoya, Crispus Allen and Carmine Falcone. Whilst not all of the characters might be familiar to those that have only seen the filmed versions fans of the comics will find Gotham is home to a deluge of recognisable characters.
And therein lies the only real problem with an otherwise great pilot which is well written, acted and fast moving, but where the sheer number of characters introduced seems unnecessary. Unlike some debut shows, Gotham wasn’t greenlit as a pilot with the option of turning it into a series, it was immediately given a sixteen episode order so already had breathing room to introduce characters over that run, and it’s likely it would have been more evenly paced had all of the characters not been thrown into the pot at the very beginning.
Already there’s Selena Kyle who flits silently in and out as she observes from a distance, there’s coroner Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), whose name is sufficient to trigger recognition without ham-fisted riddles, there’s an entirely unnecessary Ivy Pepper (Sinister’s Clare Foley) tending to plants in the background of a scene with no real contribution. More significant are the faces of the Major Crimes Unit, Montoya and Allen (Victoria Cartagena and Andrew Stewart-Jones), openly suspicious of the loyalties of Bullock and, by extension, his new partner Jim Gordon. The actors are uniformly well cast but because of the sheer number of them there is little in the way of immediate development for most of them, and it’s remarkable they manage to do so much with so little.
Quite sensibly Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth are absent for the majority of the episode, but Mazouz puts in an excellent performance as the orphaned Bruce, managing to convey grief and anger without swerving into melodrama. Those expecting the traditional Alfred as portrayed by Michael Gough in the Burton/Schumacher movies will be sorely disappointed, as Sean Pertwee manages to out-Cockney Michael Caine in the few lines that he has, his sarcastic, grumpy and humorous interpretation of the classic role becoming the highlight of the episode, and as this version of Alfred is reported to be ex-special forces it is possible his character might see action at some point.
The initial villain of the piece is Fish Mooney, played by The Matrix Reloaded’s Jada Pinkett Smith. With the vast majority of primary villains in television being male it is refreshing to see the creators of Gotham introduce a female antagonist for Gordon to rally against without the writers turning her into a masculine character. Fish commands loyalty and subservience through violence and domination, either with a baseball bat or demanding a foot massage. She also illustrates just how corrupt the GCPD is when she quite happily tells Gordon that she is having an employee beaten for stealing money, knowing full well that there is nothing that he can do about it. The ongoing conflict between Gordon, the only honourable detective in Gotham and Fish, a mob boss that is clearly above the law, will (hopefully) be addictive viewing.
Skulking in the background, however, is the true standout of the episode. Forget Gordon or Fish, ignore the minimal appearances of Alfred and Bruce, the character that sticks in the mind is portrayed by Another Earth’s Robin Lord Taylor, and his name is Oswald Cobblepot. A minor but ambitious player in Fish’s empire, nicknamed Penguin by his fellow thugs, Cobblepot is cowardly and calculating, willing to beg for his life or kill with ease as the situation demands, he is equally enthusiastic at inflicting violence as at informing the authorities about his employer activities.
Over the years the Penguin has grown from a fairly comical character to one that is a distinct threat, and rather than being propelled by madness Cobblepot is in pursuit of power and fuelled by greed which makes him unique in the rogues’ gallery that Batman regularly combats.
Despite being overloaded, the pilot succeeds in being an entertaining and welcome addition to the various interpretations of the Batman origin story. By focusing on James Gordon the audience will witness the development of Bruce Wayne without having to sit through what could amount to a sulky teenager craving revenge whilst at the same time exploring the crime ridden streets of the legendary Gotham City as Jim fights to end the corruption plaguing the city.
Sadly history indicates that his quest is already doomed as, if he was successful, there would be no need for the Batman.