Crime Alley, that dark and desolate place scorched into Batman’s memory. Two shots blam, blam. The cascading pearls ripped from a dying mother’s necklace. A hidden face behind a smoking barrel. The death of innocence and the birth of a legend. Welcome to Gotham.
Series creator Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome) wastes no time introducing his audience to the murderous underworld of Batman’s city, but this isn’t the time of the Dark Knight. Not yet. Instead Gotham is a series-long preamble to the superhero story we all know. This is an era where gangsters and thugs are known as “businessmen” and “associates,” where the line between cop and crook is just a matter of perspective, and where James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), a young fresh-faced detective, tries to make a difference in a city with a regular appetite for corruption and violence.
It’s in this kind of city where Gordon and the recently orphaned Bruce Wayne meet. As it plays out, the series’ opening scene isn’t very remarkable at first. Gordon’s rough-edged veteran partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), laments the amount of pressure unknowingly inherited from such a high-profile double homicide. As his grumblings recede, Gordon approaches Bruce to offer solace. He shares his own past, the death of his own father, as a way to establish some middle ground. Up to this point, the lighting, the acting, the pacing, and the writing is all too familiar with something you’d see on Law & Order or any version of NCIS or CSI. Seriously, take your pick.
But unlike those series, these characters have an unspoken history—decades of it—and in this scene Heller uses nuanced language to raise Gotham above being a typical cop/crime drama. As police poke and prod at his parents’ corpses, Bruce hates himself for feeling helpless. Then Jim speaks: “There was nothing you could have done to stop what happened, but there is something you can do now. You can be strong. Be strong.”
Those words hang in the air. You can feel their weight and what they mean for Bruce’s future. The eventual arrival of Alfred Pennyworth breaks up the conversation and Bruce disappears among a gathering crowd.
The scene shows exactly what Gotham is and what it isn’t. Hollywood is obsessed with superheroes. Film caught the spandex bug more than six years ago as Marvel fired up its film ambitions with the premiere of Iron Man. Now, television has caught the infection. Live-action superhero shows have always had a place on our TV sets, there’s just never been this many. This fall you can watch Arrow, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Constantine, and of course, Gotham, and each one is vying for your weekly viewing allegiance.
Luckily, they all offer something different. The CW delivers your traditional super-powered fix with a side of eye candy, S.H.I.E.L.D. acts as the narrative glue among Marvel’s blockbuster films, and Constantine is all tied up in the occult.
Gotham is none of those things. Yes, it’s filled with familiar characters and locations intimately tied with one of DC’s finest, but this opening scene makes a statement. This is Jim Gordon’s story. The time for superheroes is coming, but as Bruce disappears into the crowd, we know it’s not now.
NEXT: A different kind of crime-fighting duo