During the season premiere of “Gotham,” Fox’s new crime drama with a comic book tint, lead actor Ben McKenzie rolls off the rug in front of a roaring fire, having presumably just satisfied his supportive girlfriend, Barbara. Reaching for his ringing phone, we see he’s wearing a white tank top more commonly known by its unfortunate pseudonym, the wife beater. For as much as McKenzie is a commanding and likable on-screen presence, he hasn’t developed much as a thespian since he first sported the identifying undergarment of the lower class on “The O.C.” in 2007. Then, he was playing a toughened teenager from the wrong side of town who was carrying a heart made of the right stuff. Now he’s an army veteran trying to tame the corrupt streets of Gotham with that same spotless moral code. He wasn’t bad then — he was good, even — and he’s still solid now. So while McKenzie may not excel when asked to balance the more nuanced moments of his role, he gets the job done — and somehow still holds promise for the future.
The same can be said for “Gotham” as a whole. Breaking it down to its most basic pitch, Fox’s new comic book adaptation is a Batman origin story without Batman at all. Sure, Bruce Wayne is there, but “The Dark Knight” didn’t make $1 billion because people wanted to see Christian Bale dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit. They wanted the batsuit, but they won’t get it in “Gotham.” Instead, we see young James Gordon, a fan favorite from the comics and movies, but still just a man whose story has to prove more compelling than that of an even younger Master Wayne, who will decide to become the Dark Knight while we watch Gordon try to straighten out a crooked town.
So where’s the appeal? Right there in the title. “Gotham” isn’t actually a Batman origin story — it’s an origin of the city itself. Framed through the reliable genre of a police drama, creator and executive producer Bruno Heller (“The Mentalist”) treats the comic book aspects as support for the core story, as opposed to the other way around. “Gotham” hasn’t been built around anything too pulpy, though it hasn’t abandoned the story’s origins either. In fact, “Gotham” is actually built quite well, with wildly lit sets boasting vivacious palettes. Visually, it’s a hybrid between Christopher Nolan’s gritty realism and Joel Schumacher’s neon-lit extravaganzas, while thematically it’s strictly Nolan-era. It’s an oddly perfect mix for TV, and one worth watching develop.
One can only hope the character development and plotting eventually follow their surrounding’s flashy lead. Each and every character introduced in the pilot — and there are many — carries promise, from McKenzie’s pure-of-heart Gordon to Cory Michael Smith’s game-loving, pre-Riddler Edward Nygma to Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney. Yes, Pinkett Smith’s villainous mob boss is named Fish Mooney. It’s one of the pulpiest parts, yet somehow Pinkett Smith pulls it off. She’s just the right balance between bonkers and cognizant, showing moments of welcomed self-aware comedy. The only actor to outshine her is Donal Logue, who gets an edge out the gate as he’s been perfectly cast to play the cynical and slightly corrupted Harvey Bullock. As Gordon’s established partner, he oozes self-loathing and masked hurt while selling himself as a know-it-all veteran of the force.
Yet some of these characters almost feel too well-defined, be it by prior knowledge from other mediums or cliched roles these characters just fall into. Gordon and Bullock aren’t the first partners to butt heads. Hell, it’s not even McKenzie’s first role as a young hotshot looking to fix a failing city (remember TNT’s “Southland”?). Yes, their dynamic is likable, but will it coast on cliche or build on the traits established so quickly in Episode 1? The partners’ predilections will be what to watch in the coming weeks.
While the pilot episode takes some time setting up what’s to come — Bruce’s development is the most drastic; the clashing morals between Gordon and Bullock the most enjoyable — there’s really no telling what will happen in Week 2. Searching for the Wayne’s killer was the “A” story this week, but will Heller and his writing staff stay committed to it in the coming weeks or let it fade into the background and only pull that plot thread when forced? Questions abound in “Gotham,” but there’s enough here to cling to the hope Gordon so firmly believes in already: that Gotham — and “Gotham” — can develop into something worth living in, or at least visiting on a weekly basis.
“Gotham” airs Monday nights at 9pm on FOX.
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