25 Sept 2014

Screen Time: GOTHAM: Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Pilot’

GOTHAM Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Pilot’
Cast: Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sean Pertwee, Robin Lloyd Talyor
Director: Danny Cannon

Matt C: There's a certain amount of dismissive snobbery these days when it comes to US network TV drama, as though it's inferior by default to cable TV programming, and it's not uncommon to hear something along the lines of, "It would be much better if it was on HBO." It's unarguable that the most critically revered shows are currently coming from cable companies like HBO, AMC and Showtime, but that doesn't mean that network TV has suddenly become a creatively barren zone devoid any intelligent and/or entertaining content. One has only to look to NBC's Hannibal to see a network show that's daring, artful and smart as sufficient evidence that even in a sphere where advertising contributions are integral to a show's success, great TV can still thrive. It may be a more difficult environment to achieve this, but it's still entirely possible.

Gotham, broadcast initially on Fox in the States (UK viewers can find it on Channel 5 soon) arrives with heavy expectations, tackling the Batman mythos long before Bruce Wayne puts on the iconic cape and cowl, the main focus becoming a young James Gordon (who's got a long way to go before becoming commissioner), with a supporting cast of characters who will go on to become far more familiar faces as time goes by. The network limitations mean that language and violence are toned down to PG-13 levels, but then, considering the source material, this isn’t really the kind of TV show you’d want with the freedom that cable provides. Sure, some may wish for a tough-as-nails take on the classic Gotham Central comic book series, but that would be a hard sell for a wider audience no matter who produced, having a Batman-themed TV series where the Dark Knight occasionally appears for fleeting cameos (and that comic existed in a market where Batman had at least two titles purely focused on him). With that in mind, it makes sense to take the character off the table completely, which is the option Gotham wisely goes with, having Wayne as a peripheral figure following the legendary encounter in Crime Alley.

This pilot episode is successful in some regards, unsuccessful in others. Perhaps the most successful aspect is that it shows there is genuine potential in focusing on this period in the legendary city’s history. There’s plenty of mileage in making the hero a cop who has to learn to navigate the sheer volume of corruption in Gotham Police Dept and beyond, and there are definite hints of Gordon’s appearance in Batman: Year One in the mix. Benjamin McKenzie is a solid choice for the man who realises it’ll be an uphill (impossible?) struggle to clean up the city, but at this stage it’s Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock, a cop who’s figured out how to survive in an immoral environment, who makes the biggest impact, blending natural charisma with a twist of danger. The tone of the show, or at least the tone it’s going for, is the right one, a dark, dangerous vibe that starts to cement itself as it goes along, even if that tone wobbles at some points, veering a little too far from heightened realism into more cartoonish territory.
Where doesn’t it work? For start, it’s not particularly smooth, various cuts and edits jarring rather than gripping, the pacing going off base on more than one occasion. There’s also the question of whether it’s entirely necessary to introduce so many recognizable characters at the stage – nearly half of Batman’s rogues gallery from the more popular end of the spectrum appear in some guise, although admittedly the layman may miss a few of the less obvious ones. This creates the worry that the show will become too reliant on sticking some characters front and centre way too early, as though the more fantastical elements outweigh in importance the need to develop an interesting dynamic between the main players, and instead foreshadowing because the order of the day. The main original addition to the cast, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney, is far too generic and two-dimensional to be truly effective, and perhaps runs the risk of inadvertently transforming into nemesis more befitting of Adam West’s Batman (although Robin Lord Taylor’s nervy turn as Oswald Cobblepot points the way to a far more suitable adversary).

Saying all that, the aforementioned potential is unavoidable, especially when there are hints that the chemistry between McKenzie and Logue has a real chance to develop. There’s no guarantee it’ll fulfil that potential, but with the mastermind behind Rome, Bruno Heller, in position as showrunner, there is reason to be hopeful. Network shows are often known for having shaky beginnings before they find their feet, and there’s a sense that Gotham could fit into that category if doesn’t become intent on chucking in as much of the Batman mythos as it can, and let’s itself become its own thing (one that doesn’t rely on the audience waiting impatiently for Wayne to grow up). No, it’s not Breaking Bad, it’s not True Detective, it’s not Boardwalk Empire (it's not trying to be), but while many superhero TV series based on DC properties don’t try to push the envelope, choosing to play things safe (and are frequently dull because of it), Gotham’s more serious, brooding tone could very well push it above its contemporaries, or just as easily see it fall flat on its face. Personally, this opener suggests the former’s the more likely scenario, but its early days. What Gotham does confirm (if it really needed confirming, of course) is that, even after so many differing iterations, the legend of the Dark Knight remains as potent as ever, which is why we keep coming back to it time and time again, looking for new angles to tell that oh-so-familiar story. 6/10

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