There was a time when the city of Gotham was an even worse place, or so fans of the comics have long been told. Exploration into the period before Bruce Wayne fought his way to the top of Gotham’s underworld is rare outside of the comics though. In most cases, Wayne’s parents are shot and the story kicks into high gear with Bruce’s training to become the dark knight. “Gotham,” premiering on Sept. 22 on Fox, looks to change all that, and mostly succeeds.
Cinematography is the new series’ greatest achievement. The pilot episode flows seamlessly from one scene to the next over the course of its 50 minute run-time. What is nearly an hour of TV feels like half as much. The direction makes Gotham feel suffocating, packed with the kinds of back alleys a criminal underworld might adore, but never small.
“Gotham” shifts from the typical Batman formula in its focus on Jim Gordon, a then-rookie detective tasked with investigating the murder of Wayne’s parents. Gordon must do so in a police department as corrupt as the city it serves. It’s a strong premise for an alternative take on the Batman origin story, and following Gordon allows a focus on Gotham’s signature crime despite the rather distant future appearance of Batman.
A strong group of performances turns a slightly above average episode narrative into an interesting starting point for a new series. The performances of Jada Pinkett Smith and Robin Lord Taylor are especially impressive.
Pinkett Smith fills the role of Fish Mooney, an upstart mob boss looking to challenge the infamous Carmine Falcone for control of Gotham’s criminal underworld. Mooney fills the role of a likeable villain well, and Pinkett Smith nicely offsets her character’s violent habits with witty quips and charm.
Lord Taylor takes up the mantle of Oswald Cobblepot, the man who becomes Penguin as he works in Mooney’s crew. On the surface he’s an odd choice for the role of Cobblepot – tall and skinny, instead of Cobblepot’s trademark stout stature. Lord Taylor’s delivery is immaculate though, and he perfectly captures his character’s gleeful back-stabbing but ultimately weak-willed nature.
Where “Gotham” fumbles is in how it approaches the introduction of those who will become Gotham’s biggest players. Despite the episode’s strong direction, and acting, it makes Gotham feel socially small. The opening scene follows a young Selina Kyle, as she ends up on an alleyway fire escape just in time to witness the Wayne murders. A handful of other key introductions feel similarly contrived.
The format and setting, before the arrival of Batman, forces all of the characters to be connected to Gordon and Wayne in a way that feels unnatural. Everything seems a little too convenient, even for such an outlandish fiction. Similar problems in are common in many pilot episodes, so the slightly claustrophobic social scene isn’t necessarily something to worried about. There’s plenty of deliciously dark alleys of the Batman lore to stretch into, and “Gotham” definitely has the makings of another quality addition to the caped crusader’s utility belt.