GOTHAM Debriefing: Not your father’s comic book.

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Look at that: another season, another kick at the superhero can in the search for the next great television hit! Following in the steps of Arrow on the CW and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC, FOX enters the race with its own spin on the genre with Gotham. In a prequel to the Batman universe we all know and love, we get to follow the origin story, of sorts, of everyone’s favorite Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), here a rookie detective in the wildly corrupt city we’ve all grown up loving and fearing. Filled with familiar characters and stories, Gotham still manages to be a fresh take on one of the most enduring comic series in he world.

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Courtesy Fox

While the pilot opens with the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents — not unfamiliar to those who’ve seen Chris Nolan’s reboot of the film franchise in recent years — there’s no question Gordon is the driving force of this series. Instead of focusing on the genesis of a superhero, it’s centered firmly on the police work of the Gotham City PD. It’s almost like a film noir Law & Order, a police procedural that just happens to be set in a comic book universe. And that noir feel is absolutely exquisitely executed by director Danny Cannon: I can’t say enough about how the sets reflect the gritty, underworld atmosphere of Gotham. It’s obvious there was no skimping on the design budget for the show, heightening the cinematic feel already triggered by the content.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

I must confess I’m not a connoisseur of comics, or superhero series in general, so I might miss the nuances of the show, but even in my limited exposure to the genre, I appreciate the cast of characters that are included in the pilot. Along with Gordon’s partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), we meet future Penguin Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Taylor), Catwoman-in-training Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), pre-Riddler Edward Nygma (Corey Michael Smith), steadfast Wayne family butler Alfred (Sean Pertwee) and young master Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), among other recognizable faces. In addition to that, Gotham has introduced its own original characters, notably Jada Pinkett Smith’s gangster Fish Mooney, who seems to control the criminal element in Gotham without much more than a flick of her wrist — and inspires fear in her wake.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Make no mistake, though, the show doesn’t rest on its laurels by banking on the novelty of its established tropes to bring viewers in. Right off the bat, there’s a predictable, yet believable conflict between newcomer Gordon and force vet Bullock. Gordon is idealistic and clearly intended to be the moral compass of this corrupt town: he talks down suspects instead of shooting-first-and-ask-questions-later. He talks to traumatized witnesses instead of wiping his hands of a high-profile and messy cases. He tries to stop Fish’s gangsters from beating up their own henchmen, instead of turning a blind eye to their own brand of justice. McKenzie’s own perpetual baby face works in Gordon’s favor, highlighting the detective’s naivety and optimism amidst the chaos of his city.

Bullock is much more seasoned and jaded, and understands, as he says later, that “sometimes you gotta do a bad thing to be good.” Though he initially appears to be on the take, he’s really just practical, and has found his own way to navigate Gotham’s murky waters. He understands his role as a cog in the city’s wheel, and that the evil is more than one man can take on — so he plays by the city’s own rules. His methods may be unorthodox by real-life standards, but he also genuinely wants to stop bad guys. His methods are just a little more… permanent.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

The standoff over what to do with snitch Oswald in the end showcases the central conflict perfectly: Bullock wants to shoot him and dump the body for the greater good, Gordon wants to arrest him and let due process prevail. We think Gordon’s manipulation of the situation was the best of both worlds — preventing a murder (albeit of a known criminal), while maintaining the respect of his partner — but then Oswald’s final actions reveal that Bullock might not have been far off, either. It’s a gray area in a show that is unabashedly gray all over, in tone and in color, and that subtlety has certainly grabbed my attention. It certainly explains how Oswald becomes the Penguin we’ll know later on in this universe, and raises questions about who’s right, when nobody really wins.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

I didn’t know what to expect from Gotham, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how slick this pilot was. It’s not just how stylized it is visually; the story is tight — or as tight as it can be for a first episode, the characters are already well-defined, and there is definitely enough intrigue to keep me coming back for more. I wasn’t expecting it to lean closer to a cop drama than Dark Knight, but I’m definitely on board from now on. I can’t wait to see how they incorporate previously established characters into this new world, and if the pilot is any indication, we’re in for a wild ride.

Other random thoughts:

  • Oddly enough, the precinct set reminds me a bit of the Daily Planet set from Lois & Clark.
  • I didn’t mention Gordon’s sweetheart Barbara (Erin Richards) earlier, but it appears as though she’s got a shady past too, if her conversation with Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartegna) is any indication.
Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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