FOX's “Gotham” is one of this fall's most intriguing pilots, but also one of its most confounding. On the one hand, it has the full weight of DC Comics behind it; an interesting cast that includes Benjamin McKenzie as a young Jim Gordon, Donal Logue as his cynical partner Harvey Bullock and Jada Pinkett Smith as local crime boss Fish Mooney; and a fascinating look created by director/producer Danny Cannon that evokes '70s cinema classics like “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The French Connection.” On the other hand, it is a Batman show that is never going to actually feature Batman, since the story begins with the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents, with Bruce played by 13-year-old David Mazouz, while the show will feature origin stories for classic Batman villains like the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), the Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) and Catwoman (Camren Bicondova), making it a story heavily weighted towards the decay of Gotham, without any promise of true redemption so long as Bruce remains out of costume.
So reporters and critics came to the “Gotham” press tour panel with equal parts enthusiasm and skepticism, and the cast and producers – especially showrunner Bruno Heller – did a very strong job of responding to the latter.
On doing a show filled with Batman villains but no Batman, Heller said, “That's the situation that the show is all about: how do you deal with crime at this level when there are no superheroes, and just ordinary mortal men and women trying to solve these issues. It's as much about the hope and struggle they are engaged in as waiting for savior. It's about men and women, and not about superheroes, and to me, that's a more interesting story.”
Heller also admitted that there are probably too many future villains in the pilot, which was a compromise made to help sell the show initially.
“You have to frontload the pilot with the best that you've got, because that's the way to open big,” he explained. “As the show rolls on, we'll be far more careful with how we roll out the villains. There'll be more fun and more surprises and tricky ways, rather than just presenting them.”
“To me, heroes are more interesting than superheroes,” Heller added later. “The difference is that superheroes do the impossible, and drama is really about the possible – the physically possible. So this is about people, people trying to overcome real problems as opposed to trying to learn how to fly.”
He acknowledged that a Batman-less “Gotham” might be off-putting to fans of the character, but hopes human characters like Gordon and Bullock, as well as the prototypical versions of Penguin, Catwoman and others, will be alluring enough on their own.
“It's a legit question: will the fanboys back away from it?” he acknowledged. “I don't think so. Certainly for me, the really interesting parts of these stories are the origin stories. As soon as you're into the capes and costumes, it's much less interesting than how they got there.”
Heller has had many discussions over the years with DC Comics, and recently with writer Geoff Johns, who's helping to organize this wave of DC-based TV shows (and is a more active participant in the CW's “The Flash”). “Gotham” toys with certain bits of the Batman mythos – in the revered “Batman: Year One,” for instance, Gordon arrives in Gotham just as an adult Bruce Wayne is beginning his career as Batman – while trying to to be faithful to the overall history.
“It's not a whole new mythology,” he said. “Mythology in the true sense of the word is when so many stories are created that none of them can be consonant with each other. When you have a mythological hero and there are many contradictions in the story, that's when you've reached the level of a genuine myth, that many stories can be told. What we won't do is break the canonical iron truths of the Batman story, but issues of chronology and who was there when and how, we will play with – in a fun way, not a disrespectful way.”
A critic noted that there are several scenes in the pilot where important characters' lives are in danger, and wondered whether the audience's knowledge of what's to come would rob those scenes of tension.
“It's a sad thing if you can only build tension by killing people,” Heller said with a shrug. “That's one of the great advantages of this world and this story, is that people do know where it's going. People are already invested in the story, and they feel like they already know aspects of it.”
McKenzie, who has clearly thought a lot about the character he's playing and the world he's about to inhabit, added, “Greek tragedy is often based on the notion of the Fates coming out and telling you what's going to happen.” (And with that, he also lined himself up to one day work with David Simon.)
Logue, meanwhile, didn't seem troubled by the notion that the series would depict Gordon and Bullock fighting a losing battle against the rising tide of supervillainy.
“To me,” said the “Terriers” alum, “whether or not Jake Gittes comes to a happy conclusion, 'Chinatown' is still a fascinating world to study. That's what we're in… There's moral relativism in this world. Whether it's diplomacy, you have to get in bed with some funky characters. There's big truths and little truths. sometimes, it's the devil you know, whether it's the detective or the gangster.”
Heller, who dealt with another city on the verge of ruin with his short-lived HBO series “Rome,” was excited about the chance to make Gotham itself such an important, if doomed, part of the show.
“There's victories along the way and there's hope along the way,” Heller said. “Me and Danny talked a lot about New York in the '70s as a kind of tone poem for what Gotham is. That was a time when the city was falling apart, but I remember going there, and it was precisely the decay and the decadence and the anarchy that was at the same time joyous and thrilling and exciting and scary and sexy. There is something about a great city as it falls apart that you are compelled to watch. Yeah, it's a story of downfall, but it's also a story of explosive growth and excitement.”
Cannon looked to not only classic '70s films about New York, but photo books about the punk rock scene of the period, and took inspiration for many of the costumes from there.
The setting is a mix of many different eras: characters use flip phones, but drive vintage cars and wear old-fashioned clothing.
“It's a mash-up, to use the modern phrase,” Heller said. “To the degree that, if today Batman exists, then this world is the past, but it's everybody's past: an 18-year-old's past and a 50-year-old's past. In your memory, the past is all mashed up together. In this Gotham, it's a timeless world: it's yesterday, today and tomorrow all at the same time. That's the world dreams live in.”
“Gotham” may turn out to be fundamentally unbalanced, but this was one of those panels where the people in front of and behind the camera had obviously thought through the implications of what they're doing.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org