“Gotham,” Fox’s crowd-pleasing new police procedural/comic book mash-up, is a Batman origin story for viewers who don’t much care about Batman. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them.) In contrast to Christopher Nolan’s desolate “Dark Knight” trilogy, creator Bruno Heller’s treatment of the DC Comics universe marshals a colorful cast of characters and more than a little levity to imagine Bruce Wayne’s hometown as a garish funhouse rather than an apocalyptic hellscape, all of it sketched in the whiz-bang style of midcentury graphic art. It’s the perfect antidote to superhero fatigue.
The only superpower Det. James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) seems to possess is a firm moral compass, rare indeed in Gotham’s muddle of underworld figures and corrupt cops. As he investigates the cold-blooded murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, staged as a random robbery, Gordon confronts the city’s crooked reality — including his roguish, world-weary partner, Det. Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) — with stoic idealism, a useful respite from the genre’s growing ranks of tortured souls. Much of the series’ interest derives from the tension that arises when Gordon’s unflashy heroism collides with the pulpy villainy of Gotham’s many rakes, criminals, and lowlifes. “Well, aren’t you a cool glass of milk,” gangland boss Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith, in a glorious high camp performance) remarks upon seeing him for the first time, as if preparing to take a sip. Though “Gotham” may eventually allow a few of Gordon’s shadows to emerge, there’s dramatic potential in watching the city swallow the good guy whole.
Along the way, we catch glimpses of future DC Comics baddies, including Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), “Poison Ivy” Pepper (Clare Foley), and Selina “Catwoman” Kyle (Carmen Bicondova), all more or less already fallen through the cracks in Gotham’s social contract. The effect is more seedy than scary — Ivy, whose father is suspected of the double murder, tends her plants in a cramped, dim tenement — offering a glimmer of hope that Nolan’s descent into anarchy largely rejected. There’s a softness to “Gotham,” even in McKenzie’s wide, innocent eyes, that blurs the edges of its moral universe in compelling ways: both its heroes and villains are victims of circumstance, struggling against the city’s heedless machine and trying, perhaps, to write a different ending.
The bright, pop-inflected aesthetic, with urban backdrops that appear as though cut out from the panels of a comic book, similarly reflects the dime store irreverence that once made the art form an object of adult anxiety. A living room fireplace sends out intense waves of yellow light; a chase sequence captures Gordon head-on, almost bursting through the fourth wall; the skyline suggests the seething, slightly cartoonish megalopolis of childhood dreams rather than the cruel New York of Nolan’s nightmares. It’s a style suited to the youthful cast of characters, as to Gordon’s understanding that brute force is not necessarily the only path through Gotham’s twisted underbelly. We first meet him, after all, defusing a hostage crisis in the police precinct with sleight of hand instead of gunshots.
It’s no surprise, then, that the best moment of the pilot is a self-aware laugh line, one that works, like the episode itself, against TV drama’s most grim conventions: “Ma’am, was that screaming we heard back there?” Gordon asks Fish during their first encounter. “Yes,” she replies, in delicious deadpan. “My boys are watching a scary movie.” As in this light-hearted exchange, “Gotham” is great fun — in the ardent, sometimes goofy way of adolescence. It’s so unembarrassed by its playful, over-the-top tendencies that it invites you to join in on the game, and I’m glad I did.
“Gotham” premieres tonight at 8pm on FOX.