There’s a critical trajectory that every first season of superhero-based TV shows seems to follow. Good premises and interesting casts that are forced to run in place for a half season until the show figures out what it wants to be or, in the case of Agents of SHIELD, the movie the show’s entire arc plot is dedicated to is finally released.
It’s a tough gig. James Gordon and Harvey Bullock should be used to those but, based on last night, Gotham is going to be a tough case to crack.
Let’s get the good stuff up front because it’s there and because it’s me. Ben Mackenzie is flat out brilliant as the young Detective James Gordon. There’s no ‘tache, no trench coat but there’s the world weary compassion of Jim Gordon’s later years in abundance. His quiet refusal to fire his weapon, his wounded idealism and the shit-eating smug look he gets when he’s outmaneuvered Bullock are all vintage Gordon. If the shows lasts the full 7-10, this is going to be the role that makes Mackenzie’s career in a way not even The OC managed. He’s tightly wound, slightly manic and extremely buttoned down. At one point he’s described as having a little danger in his eyes and that’s exactly what it is. Jim Gordon looks like he could start to enjoy himself in Gotham and has no idea whether or not that’s a bad thing.
Donal Logue, standing next to him, could have fallen back on the broad strokes of Harvey Bullock. There are plenty of them after all; smart mouth, bad attitude, high functioning alcoholic, health problems and a nodding acquaintance with protocol. Throw all of that under a prosthetic gut and a pork pie hat and you’ve got a character who’ll steal every scene he’s in.
But that isn’t what Logue does. His Bullock is grumpy, corrupt and clearly a drunk but none of it’s signposted. At one point he and Gordon go for breakfast at a diner and Bullock pulls out a bottle of Pepto Bismol and a hip flask, doctors his coffee and has at it. Later he and Gordon talk about his drinking in a conversation that lasts exactly two sentences. It’s all subtext and, right now, that’s all it needs to be. Logue’s world weary, crumpled Detective is far quieter and more aware than he lets on and he gets two of the best lines of the episode. His tired, but proud ‘Attaboy’ when Gordon apparently kills the Penguin is particularly great.
Elsewhere, Sean Pertwee is hugely impressive with around 15 lines of dialogue. His Alfred Pennyworth is dapper, pocket-watched and utterly cockney and the contrast is fascinating. This looks to be Alfred as former soldier/thug, something the Batman mythos has dabbled with before but never for such an extended period of time. Like Mackenzie and Logue, he underplays to great effect. His best line is when he and Gordon meet for the first time. Gordon swears to find the Wayne’s killers and Alfred’s response, ‘Good luck, mate’, is shot through with scepticism, regret and pity. It’s a brilliantly handled, desperately poignant moment made more so by the half-heard instructions he gives Bruce as he leads the boy away; ‘Stand up straight. Don’t let them see you cry.’
Those three men look set to be a rock solid foundation the rest of the show can build on. Based on the pilot, it’s going to need all of them.
Over the space of one episode, Gotham has introduced us to the future Catwoman, Riddler, Penguin and Poison Ivy. More are apparently to come. With the exception of the Penguin, absolutely none of them have the screen time they need to register. Catwoman witnesses the Wayne murder, the Riddler is a GCPD CSI and Ivy is the daughter of the initial suspect in the killings. Each one gets some screen time, the RIddler gets some dialogue and none of them bring anything to the table. I have no doubt they’ll all pay off down the line but by the time Bullock’s belittling Edward Nygma for everything being a RIDDLE you feel beaten round the head by the obvious stick. If the show wants to establish an identity, it can’t push the fan service button so hard the casing cracks every single week.
That sense of narrative architecture winning out over character is especially apparent with Detective Renee Montoya. Like Bullock she’s one of the most longstanding, and interesting, members of the Batman supporting cast. Unlike Bullock, she comes off poorer in the transition to TV. Repositioning her as a secret lover of Gordon’s fiancé feels like cackhanded soap opera that damages both characters very badly. Worse, in trying to address Montoya’s sexuality up front the show has, so far, sensationalized it. It’s early days, and Victoria Cartagena is great in the role but if the show needs a course correction it’s with the entire b plot involving Montoya and Barbara. Dealing with the former relationship honestly would be fascinating, dealing with it with this level of secrecy and faux intensity feels like Dynasty and damages everything involved, especially Montoya.
The hard charging nature of Gotham proves it has all the bustle and energy it needs but right now it’s all misdirected. Somehow the pilot manages to be both frantic and dull, the various plot elements stand next to each other rather than mesh and the whole thing feels disjointed. If it can get past the pathological need to cram Batman mythos down its viewers throats every quarter hour and focus on the characters it has huge potential. If it can’t, then it, like James Gordon, will need all the luck it can get.
Gotham airs at 9pm on Channel 5 in the UK.