Gotham's story is bigger than Batman himself. Don't get me wrong, I like the Caped Crusader as much as any middle-aged comic book nerd. But over time Gotham City has taken on its own life, especially since Alan Moore (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) penned the city's rich backstory in a 1986 issue of Swamp Thing. Frank Miller's Batman: Year One broke new ground by focusing as much on the hard choices made by Detective James Gordon as it did on the exploits of aspiring vigilante Bruce Wayne. Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker's merciless police procedural Gotham Central, which pushed the Dark Knight even further into the background by focusing tightly on a few good cops bucking a corrupt system. Gotham Central wasn't just a good comic, it was great crime fiction, and a TV show inspired by any one or all of these ideas could go in many fun directions, from classic noir to supernatural horror. But Gotham's pilot just confirmed the new FOX series is just another vehicle for something we don't need more of: predictable origin stories.
Did we need to see the usual horror in the eyes of young billionaire-to-be Bruce Wayne as his mother's mandatory pearls are ripped from her neck, sending beads bouncing across the blood-slick streets just as they've bounced across the pages of countless comic books and film adaptations? From secret societies, to scary asylums, to Golden Age superheroes like Green Lantern Alan Scott, there are a million stories in the city of ultimate corruption. Why rush to tell the one we already know by heart?
Gotham's stylistic problems are probably best exemplified in an Episode 2 scene where two detectives are interviewing the Penguin's mother, played by the ever-quirky Carol Kane. The cops look like they just walked out of an episode of Law & Order into a Tim Burton film. The trick of a show like Gotham is to make the more and less realistic aspects of the story make sense together. But Gotham can't seem to decide if it's an edgy crime drama or a campy romp through comic book history.
The overstuffed pilot episode introduced viewers to Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), a sexy crime boss looking to wrestle control from Carmine Falcone (John Doman), the Gotham City Godfather. There's a parade of characters destined to join Batman's rogues gallery: 15-year-old Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Camren Bicondova) scampering across rooftops; Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), a creepy forensics expert who likes to phrase his answers in the form of a question; a pre-teen Poison Ivy (Clare Foley) growing up in an abusive home with lots of plants. There's also a cameo by comedian with a morbid sense of humor. He's a real joker, and Fish Mooney loves him.
So far Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) is Gotham's best-developed character, and Taylor's pitch-perfect characterization calls to mind performances by Crispin Glover and Peter Lorre. In Gotham he's reimagined as a stool pigeon with a sadistic streak and delusions of grandeur.
Fish Mooney thinks Gordon assassinated Cobblepot to prove his loyalty. But Gordon faked it, and now has to share at least some responsibility for the psychotic killing and kidnapping the Penguin pulled off at the end of Episode 2. Although they may waddle, this storyline has legs.
Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue do their best to make the predictable good cop/bad cop relationship between Jim Gordon and his partner Harvey Bullock interesting. But there are other cops on this beat in Gotham with potentially interesting stories. Renee Montoya was created for Batman: The Animated Series and went on to become The Question, a conspiracy-obsessed super detective who was given her best life in the pages of Gotham Central. In "Half a Life" — one of the best story arcs the funny books have ever produced — Montoya's life unravels after a photograph of her kissing another woman is posted on a bulletin board at the police precinct. Hopefully Gotham can eventually tell stories like these with the detail and delicacy they deserve.
For all of its tonal problems and self-inflicted wounds, Gotham is still probably the best effort so far to adapt the superhero universe to the small screen where serialized storytelling really belongs. Hopefully, like Bruce Wayne, it will eventually grow into something other than what it appears to be on the surface.