There’s a bat-shaped hole at the heart of Gotham, a crime serial set in the world of the Dark Knight years before Bruce Wayne decides to play superhero. The drama focuses on young detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), an honest cop trying to clean up a dirty town without soiling his soul, and tells the origin stories of the Caped Crusader’s signature adversaries—the best rogues’ gallery in superhero fiction. The Penguin is still Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), a misfit thug; the Riddler is still Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), a CSI who speaks in cryptograms; and Catwoman is still Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), a nimble urchin who steals milk for stray kitties. Their future nemesis is accounted for too: We meet young Bruce (David Mazouz) on the night his parents are murdered by a masked mugger.
And so the comic-book takeover of TV continues. This season, The Flash, Constantine, and Gotham join Arrow, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and The Walking Dead. Fanboy USA should feel flattered to be so coveted—and, perhaps, guilty for costing us more original ideas. Still, points to showrunner Bruno Heller (The Mentalist) for an inspired reorganization of Batman lore, which he uses to make something sufficiently and intriguingly different: a myth of innocence warped by a culture of violence and institutional injustice, and a dark drama that repudiates and tries to redeem an era lousy with antiheroes, even as it wallows in its bleakness.
It remains to be seen if Gotham can have it all ways—if it can be both hard-boiled heavy and why so serious? pulp. Director Danny Cannon creates a visual aesthetic that is superficially cinematic; his Gotham lacks the personality of Tim Burton’s and the grit of Christopher Nolan’s. But the show gets ample attitude from its villains, who are played bold and broad, although their pathologies are so fully formed, you wonder how much ”origin story” is left to tell.
McKenzie is a winning mix of cockiness and righteousness. Even better is Donal Logue as his partner, Harvey Bullock—salty, slovenly, cynical. They’re a dynamic dysfunctional duo. And while Jada Pinkett Smith’s underworld boss Fish Mooney is tonally wonky, she’s a bawdy blast nonetheless. The mystery of the Waynes’ killing and the drama of the Penguin’s ascendancy seem compelling fodder for season 1. The big picture suggests a new twist on Batman’s origin: How will Gordon’s success—or failure—as a moral lawman influence Bruce’s decision to go Batty? If it can hone the tone and aim higher than mere fan-service extravaganza, Gotham could be worth a long stay. B