Last night, Fox gathered members of the media for a special screening of the “Gotham” pilot, which is one of the fall’s most anticipated new shows. Created by Bruno Heller (“The Mentalist”), “Gotham’ explores Batman’s hometown many years before Bruce Wayne takes up his iconic identity. While Wayne is present in this series, the focus is largely on Detective James Gordon, as played by Ben McKenzie.
Fox has requested that major spoilers from the pilot not be revealed ahead of time, so this early review will avoid specifics about the plot twists. However, there may be some very minor spoilers ahead. So, consider yourself warned.
Very early on, it becomes clear that “Gotham” is at its best when Gordon and his partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) are at the center of the action. Despite the trappings of Batman’s origins, this is really Gordon’s show and McKenzie is well cast in the part. However, Gordon’s story never feels more alive than when he’s dealing with the veteran Detective Bullock, who would rather not be paired with his new partner.
Gordon and Bullock are called upon to handle the biggest case of their careers when Thomas and Martha Wayne are gunned down in front of their son, Bruce (David Mazouz). Gordon goes out of his way to comfort Bruce and he promises to find the man who killed his parents. It’s that promise that drives the entire pilot forward and it keeps Bruce alive within the story even though he’s largely absent for the bulk of the episode.
While McKenzie and Logue seem more than up to the task of maintaining the serious tone of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, Jada Pinkett Smith plays crime boss Fish Mooney as if she’s only a few steps removed from the ‘60s Batman TV series. It’s a very jarring performance from Pinkett Smith and she feels like she belongs in an entirely different series.
Gordon’s fiancee, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) is also somewhat problematic. Barbara Kean has never really been developed as a character in any of the previous film or TV adaptations of Batman. The writers of “Gotham” do add something new to Barbara’s backstory that wasn’t there before. But it’s not enough. Barbara still comes across as the typical cop wife or girlfriend that we’ve seen so many times before. If Barbara is going to be the female lead of this show, then she needs a lot more development.
“Gotham” also goes a little crazy with the Batman villain references. The two most effective turns are Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin), a member of Fish’s gang and Cory Michael Smith’s Edward Nygma, the future Riddler who is currently working for the Gotham police as a forensic scientist. Of the two, Cobblepot has a larger role in the pilot as his actions draw Gordon and Bullock back into something that they thought was settled. Nygma’s role is smaller, but it was one of the funnier moments in the pilot.
Future Catwoman, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) is largely an observer in this episode. Whatever role she’s going to play in the series will unfold in later episodes. Bizarrely, the writers force a reference to Poison Ivy by placing the very young Ivy Pepper (Clare Foley ) into two of the critical scenes of the pilot. Changing Pamela Isley’s name to Ivy Pepper is one of those head scratching moments where Hollywood seems to collectively think it can improve on the original material by making the point even more on the nose.
If Ivy grows up to be a doctor like her comic book counterpart, she’ll be Doctor Pepper. Worst. Product Placement. Ever.
Sean Pertwee is very good as Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family butler and Bruce’s guardian. Pertwee gives Alfred more of an edge by making him openly antagonistic with Gordon. And Alfred seems less than thrilled that Gordon is making an effort to stay involved with Bruce’s life.
The “Gotham” pilot seems like it’s an hour or so away from being a pretty good Batman movie. We’re just not going to get to the part where Batman Begins Again until perhaps the very end of this series. But director Danny Cannon gives “Gotham” an impressive scope and this feels like it could have been a theatrical release.
One of the more surprising aspects for me was how dark the pilot goes with one of the lead characters. Someone goes much farther than their comic book counterpart ever has, and it may be too far. I really liked that character, who could use a good redemption arc after that turn. But there were a handful of characters in this episode that I was invested in and that’s a good sign.
The biggest question for “Gotham” is whether the weekly TV series can maintain what it built up in the pilot episode. There’s a strong foundation here and “Gotham” could be a very good show if subsequent episodes can match what the pilot achieved.