A Review of “Gotham”, the Pilot Episode

I haven’t watched television in a while…I suppose it’s the “off-season,” or whatever you want to call the summer hiatus in which most of us spend more time in movie theatres than in front of a television. As you know, I’m quite…sparing…about what programs I’ll actually invest my time to watch, so there were a small handful of shows the premieres of which I eagerly awaited. One of these was Gotham.

Sort of a no-brainer, because I’m a long-time fan of the Batman mythology, and because of my well-known superhero infatuation in general. For all of my interest in the show, I was suspect, however, that it would receive a similarly tragic treatment to what has been done to other DC Universe characters such as Green Arrow (and, judging by the trailers, the Flash) by the CW. I held my skeptical nature at bay, however, and was quite looking forward to the pilot episode’s arrival on Hulu.

What the show did well was capture the uniqueness that is Gotham City. From a visual standpoint specifically, this was quite impeccable. I was impressed with the sweeping city-scape shots that set the stage for what we were about to witness.

The pilot episode leads, of course, with the shooting of Bruce Wayne’s parents in front of him, the horrendous event that we know will fracture him for life and lead him to become the Dark Night Detective. This scene was actually shaking in its realism, possibly the most violent rendering that I’ve watched of Batman’s origin…not so gruesome as to be off-putting, but jarring enough to set up what the program has the best opportunity to do: be a gritty police drama set in an early Gotham City that is struggling for its soul. The scene in which a young detective Jim Gordon sits and talks with Bruce Wayne at the scene of his parents’ murders, while slightly bogged down with dialogue that could have been fleshed out a bit, is still a very elegant scene within the context of the mythology, and does an outstanding job of drawing the viewer in.

There has been good work lately in the comic literature with the early history of Jim Gordon rising through, and cleaning up, a corrupt police department, which is what Gotham is trying to bring to the screen. Cliche aside, it showed some promise, but the story of the investigation of the Wayne murders unfolded with some loose connections that caused the story to nearly unravel at times.

And speaking of unraveling…what were they thinking with the shots of Gordon’s foot pursuit? Sheesh…

The writing of this first episode was, quite honestly, loose and disconnected. There were campy lines, tossed in with a dis-jointed plot, and too many characters being interwoven in too many ways that will be difficult to reconcile later…at least in a way that stays true to an established Batman mythos.

I can imagine the difficulty that the producers are facing here: keeping long-time fans with knowledge of the literature and new fans that have come aboard in recent films balanced enough to keep returning to watch. Even if you’re a casual fan, though, the sheer number of Easter eggs packed into one episode is sort of overwhelming. Edward Nigma sort of works as a crime lab technician…sort of. It looks like Oswald Cobblepot will play a central role in this season, but as we watch the events that will make him the Penguin unfold, we’re left with more than a bit of cognitive dissonance: the upcoming criminal a cowardly narc, who is traumatized enough by one forced swim to stalk out of the water in a seeming nod to the first three Batman films that we prefer to believe never happened, and then cut someone’s throat for…a sandwich? At least he begins in a nightclub, and that much of the character is historically true. And the young Catwoman? What exactly are they attempting to accomplish by her slinking around Gotham, already costumed, and witnessing these formative events in Bruce Wayne’s life?

What’s masterful about Gotham City in the DC Universe is it’s dark, horrific penchant for violence mixed with an insanity lurking beneath the surface, an insanity that produces a seeming carnival of villains that are as laughably odd as they are terrifyingly lethal. This is the world that spawns a fragmented, tortured hero such as Batman…the only world that could. If Gotham is doing what it’s name indicates, and focusing on the city that the Batman sacrificially defends…a city that is a character in its own right throughout the mythology…then we could do with significantly fewer attempts at early depictions of villains. This is obviously to be the story of Jim Gordon, the everyday hero that inspires the hero that the Batman will be. What Gotham should be…the area in which its strength and potential lies…is a violent police drama that chronicles the secondary characters, such as Bullock and Montoya, who are introduced here (the latter a bit heavy-handedly), but, with the exception of Bullock, lost among a growing list of shallow character depictions. Gordon and Bullock are off to a great start. Hopefully, the writers will focus on developing them further, along with Montoya, and tell us the story of how Gotham became what it is by the time we first see the Batman.

Overall, I left this first episode disappointed. Of course, pilot episodes are notoriously difficult to pull off, and historically bad, so I think the program should definitely be given the benefit of two or three episodes before rendering a definite opinion. In all honesty, though, I’ll watch the second episode because I’m a Batman fan, not because the pilot gave me much for which to return. This was largely an exercise in unfocused storytelling and unrealized potential.

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