A man who decides the best way to fight crime in his native city is to dress up as a giant bat has to be a severely damaged individual on some level. But think about how damaged the city itself has to be for the man to think that the bat costume is necessary.
FOX's new drama series “Gotham” (it debuts Monday at 8) wants to dramatize the crumbling infrastructure of Gotham City, which would eventually lead to Batman patrolling its streets. And it wants to play with the many wonderful toys available in that corner of the DC Universe, even if Batman himself can't be one of them, since the series begins with a 12-year-old Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) witnessing his parents' murder in a dark downtown alley.
DC been down this road before with “Smallville,” a show that took 10 seasons to let Clark Kent put on the red cape and blue tights, with many contortions along the way to delay the introduction of Superman. Given how young Bruce is here – and how hard it is for any TV show to run 10 years, let alone the 15 or so that would roughly take us to Bruce's actual age as Batman debuts – it seems unlikely that we'll ever see the famous cape, cowl and utility belt on “Gotham.”
As written by “Rome” creator Bruno Heller and directed by “CSI” vet Danny Cannon, the “Gotham” pilot suggests we may be okay without the Dark Knight Detective for a while. But I worry that by larding the show up with every significant aspect of the Batman mythos except Batman himself – the ensemble includes young versions of Commissioner Gordon, Catwoman, the Penguin and the Riddler, with more to come down the road – they've created both a universe and a show that's wildly unbalanced, and will only become moreso as time goes on.
Heller and Cannon have re-envisioned Gotham City as the hellish New York of iconic '70s cop films like “Serpico” and “The French Connection.”(*) The action centers around the unhappy partnership between Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), crew-cut, morally upright war hero, and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), whom Gordon describes as “a slovenly, lackadaisical cynic.” Both stars are excellent actors with cop show bonafides (McKenzie coming off of “Southland,” Logue off a recurring role on “Law & Order: SVU”), and they breathe new life into the familiar archetypes of the idealistic rookie and the jaded veteran. (It helps that on “Southland,” McKenzie got to make the transition from the former to the latter.) There have been plenty of fine stories told about what it's like to be an all-too-human cop in the Gotham insanity – including Frank Miller's “Batman: Year One,” which dealt with Gordon's arrival in Gotham, and Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker's “Gotham Central,” which loans out several of its characters to Heller and company – and the creative team and the two leads provide a strong infrastructure for such a show.
(*) Heller has described the show's ambiguous time period as, “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 54-year-old”s past.” So people use flip phones, but the clothes and cars seem out of the '60s or '70s.
And though it's long been a part of the Batman mythos that all these costumed monsters first appeared in response to his own debut, the bad guys didn't just spring into existence at that moment – they just evolved from the criminals they had previously been. So we get to meet Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) as an underage cat burglar, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) as a low-level wiseguy who mostly holds an umbrella for mob captain Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith, giving the liveliest performance of her career), and Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) as an unassuming man fond of speaking in riddles(**).
(**) Nygma's one notable scene features one character telling him, “If I want riddles, I'll read the funny papers.” It's a real groaner, and I fear Heller and company may want to be similarly cute when they introduce other future villains. “I always thought you was a straight shooter, Harvey, but it turns out you're just a two-face!” “What are you, some kinda joker?” “Hey, you love kites so much, we might as well call you Kite-Man!”
The pilot itself is among the best you'll see this fall. It looks great, the two leads have instant chemistry, and everything hums along nicely as a slightly larger-than-life crime saga. (John Doman from “The Wire” is terrific as local kingpin Carmine Falcone.) And the show does very well a recreating the one famous Batman sequence it's allowed to use, with the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne and its immediate aftermath. (Mazouz, who had a largely silent role as Kiefer Sutherland's son on “Touch,” has a very loud and powerful reaction to the crime.) What's in the first hour is more than enough to keep me watching for a while (and writing about the show each week, at least in the early going).
But late in the pilot, Gordon sits down with young master Wayne (and his butler/guardian Alfred, played by Sean Pertwee), and says, “I promise you, however dark and scary the world might be right now, there will be light. There will be light, Bruce.”
The problem is that the very design of “Gotham” means that there can't really be light until well after the show itself ends. Things in Gotham have to get staggeringly worse over the next-decade plus to convince an older Bruce that extreme measures are required to fight this crime epidemic that only deepened on Jim Gordon's watch. That means “Gotham” has to be a show where the cops are constantly fighting a losing battle.
There's a potentially great show to be made from that idea, and there have been, like “The Wire,” which overlapped with Heller's own “Rome.” “Rome” was more about the rise of an empire than its decline, but I know he can go very dark and despairing if he wants. The question is whether FOX and DC – which see “Gotham,” even with its blunt violence and at times blunter language, as a big-tent show that will draw in all the superhero movie fans even as it keeps its famous superhero as a grief-stricken kid – will allow him to embrace that pessimistic worldview the premise requires, and whether a network audience would want to watch a show like that for very long.
We know the cops have to lose, both to make Batman a reality and for Heller's hard-boiled vision for “Gotham” to win out. But will the large corporate entities involved let that happen?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com