It’s the same old story – someone pitches an intriguing idea for a television pilot, and the next thing you know, a major network’s picked it up. Everything goes downhill from there. We’ve seen it with The Following, The Blacklist and a thousand other projects that had the nuts and bolts to be a contender. In the end these shows have all been ruined, decimated, dashed upon the rocks of network ethics. The goal is to present a highly-sanitized hour that poses little or no threat of offending anyone, or of making the general audience consider anything, for that matter.
Enter Gotham, a fiercely-anticipated drama that trades upon the rich back story of Batman, the twist here being there is no Batman, only a prepubescent Bruce Wayne. And while this could’ve – and probably should’ve – represented an innovative starting point, it inevitably winds up feeling like a letdown, the ultimate failure of which can be divided into quadrants:
1. The Writing. During the opening minutes of Gotham a big, bald, bearded thug is led into a city precinct. Before being forced into a cell, that thug manhandles an officer, stealing her glock, then holding her at gunpoint, while screaming, “Gimme my pills!” Detective Gordon, a lily-white rookie, takes control of the situation, declaring, “I got this.” Gordon talks the criminal down, then takes him down by temporarily convincing him a bottle of aspirin represents his “pills”.
This is what elitists think the criminal underbelly of any major metropolitan area looks like – big fat bald guys with beards and tattoos running around as if their brains have turned to mush. To write an opening beat like this for the show’s primary character is not only lazy, it’s indicative of what we’re dealing with – a writer’s room so gauche it wouldn’t hesitate to co-opt phrases like, “Stick ’em up,” or “Listen, rookie,” if it meant avoiding traffic. Gordon’s partner, Harvey Bullock, actually uses the terms “holmes,” “perps” and “mopes” in one sentence. One fucking sentence! Cheap dialogue that makes the entire storyline appear wooden … out of touch … more consumed with feeling clever than signifying depth.
2. The Characters. Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock, who gobble up the bulk of screen time throughout the pilot, are constructed like cliches: Gordon, the earnest, trench-coat crusader, and Bullock, the hard-drinking, straight-talking son-of-a-gun whose got your back, but just might stick a knife in it. It’s weak, and it leaves hardcore fans feeling less than intrigued. In one scene, Harvey Bullock is drinking Mylanta; two scenes later, he’s tugging on a flask. Detective Gordon, on the other hand, maintains a default expression that falls somewhere between confused and constipated. Regarding the remainder of the cast (AKA Gotham‘s burgeoning underground):
- Carmine Falcone. Well-cast, if not ridiculously introduced. Falcone’s character works, in large part, because he’s being played by veteran actor John Doman (one of two previous cast members from The Wire who are featured during this pilot). There’s nothing worth quibbling about when it comes to Falcone, and significant reason to believe he’ll play an integral role throughout the series stretch.
- Fish Mooney. No one sucks the air out of a room quite like Jada Pinkett Smith. You don’t buy her, and – what’s worse – you don’t even care. Regardless, Fish Mooney’s small potatoes, a character created specifically for The Penguin to triumph over. A fish, as we all know, represents the go-to prey of any penguin. It’s only a matter of time before Gotham cashes in upon that metaphor (In an eloquent way, it already has).
- Oswald Cobblepot (AKA The Penguin). Here we find one character whose arc comes fully-fleshed. In a handful of scenes, Oswald Cobblepot completes a transition from ambitious underling to power-hungry rogue. Writers sneak in references to The Penguin’s umbrella, his waddle, and even his diet. Cobblepot’s got unlimited power to expand at this point, and he’s played extremely well by Robin Lord Taylor. Expect a series-altering twist involving him toward the end of Season One.
- Edward Nygma (AKA The Riddler). The typecasting of Cory Smith in this role is indicative of a belief every genius needs to look and behave like a circus geek. It’s gross and annoying and not endearing in the least. In the case of Gotham, Smith approaches Edward Nygma as if he’s one hair shy of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory – a tail-chasing byproduct of major networks attempting to cannibalize each other based on
- Selina Kyle (AKA Catwoman). Kyle’s got no dialogue throughout the pilot. She just appears wherever the writers need her to appear, scaling walls and acting feline. While Episode Two promises to focus almost exclusively on her, it doesn’t change the fact Kyle’s back story appears flimsy – way too dressed up, way too sexed up, and way too agile for a teenager who’s been living on the streets.
3. The Pacing. Here is a recap of Gotham‘s 48-minute pilot:
- Selina Kyle does some calisthenics, robs two people, disappears into the shadows
- Thomas and Martha Wayne get murdered
- Detective Gordon wrestles a loaded gun from a much larger attacker
- Fish Mooney berates some guy while wielding a bat
- Detective Gordon has sex at his girlfriend’s apartment
- Detective Bullock continues drinking through the night
- Bullock meets Gordon at dawn. The two of them question a murder suspect who they later discover has been framed. This suspect, who has committed no crime, responds to a request to search his apartment by flipping a table, then escaping out the window with a gun. There’s a chase sequence that ends with Gordon taking on the suspect (a much larger attacker). Detective Bullock, who is drunk and has not slept in 24 hours, fatally shoots Gordon’s attacker in the heart. A grateful city applauds.
- Gordon confronts Fish Mooney, admitting he suspects she framed the guy who Detective Bullock just shot. Mooney has her (much larger) thugs manhandle Gordon, then hang him upside down from a meat hook in a warehouse. Bullock arrives, causes a stir. Mooney has her thugs hang Bullock upside down, as well. Mooney’s thugs are just about to murder both detectives when “Kazaam!” a boatload of ne’er-do-wells appear, opening fire on Fish Mooney’s crew. Bang-bang, pow-pow … the entire crew is dead. Bullock and Gordon escape.
- Mooney beats the shit out of Cobblepot, then dumps him into the trunk of a car, which Bullock and Gordon inexplicably take possession of. Bullock drives Gordon out to an abandoned dock where he instructs Gordon to murder Cobblepot because mafia. Gordon pulls some razzle-dazzle and Oswald Cobblepot escapes.
- Gordon drives to Wayne Manor, where he confesses to an eight-year-old Bruce Wayne (and his butler) that there is a far-reaching, city-wide conspiracy that might ultimately be connected to Bruce’s parents’ murder. It’s cool, though, Gordon explains. Just don’t tell anybody, OK?
- Cobblepot emerges from the river in an apparent act of baptism. Rechristened as The Penguin, Oswald kills a man, then eats a fish sandwich. Gotham‘s producers work themselves into a lather.
Apologists might defend this mess by insisting, “It’s a pilot. You’re saddled with the responsibility of covering a great deal of ground in a very limited amount of time.” To which I would reply, “You’re full of poppycock.”
Gotham blew its load a half-minute in. And it did so in such unremarkable fashion the audience never felt invested in anything. This is not good television. In fact, it’s not even sub-par community theater. This is a bunch of assholes sitting around in an air-conditioned room, insisting, “What if we make the daughter Poison Ivy?”, “What if we make The Joker a stand-up comedian?”, “What if we sneak an Easter Egg into Every. Single. Scene?”; a development which brings us to …
4. The Utter Lack of Intrigue. For everything that occurs during the Gotham pilot, nothing actually happens. With the exception of Oswald Cobblepot pleading for his life out on that dock, there is not one exchange that significantly raises the ante. Just a couple of detectives cracking wise as they whistle “These Are the People in Your Neighborhood” out on the block. Television has evolved beyond this. No, fuck that. Batman has evolved beyond this. Regardless, the Gotham pilot retains all the necessary ingredients of a keeper, which means it’ll kill it in the Nielsens for at least the next three seasons. This despite never exposing its mass audience to anything – an indictment of our culture which also serves to make the point.