If looked at as a show that explores the origins of the Batman universe, Fox’s new crime drama Gotham can’t help but let the character’s die-hard fans down a bit. While this little piece will be free of any spoilers, the pilot episode does a lot in the forty-plus minutes it has to work with. In rapid succession, it introduces many characters familiar as well as those that are bit more obscure, and all of their various back-stories are all interwoven in ways that are both sensible and somehow all-too-convenient, and the show seems stripped of the pathos that made the film Batman Begins work right from the opening frames. Needless to say, many of Batman’s most adamant fans will be left scratching their heads as they try to sort out what worked and what didn’t. Why are the “villain” stories beginning so early, more than a decade before Bruce dons the cape and cowl? Will the series give Bruce the emotional trajectory needed for him to become the most well-known vigilante in popular culture? Will the show string it’s fans along for a long, predictable ride much the way Smallville did for Superman? Will it be interesting enough since the best part of the Batman franchise is Batman himself?
When viewed merely as a Batman series, Gotham does miss the mark, but it’s important to understand that its producers “missed” on purpose. After all, they chose to set the series when they did, and they chose to put the focus on James Gordon as a police detective instead of Bruce Wayne himself. It was a very deliberate decision, one that may be able to right a serious wrong that seems to be prevalent in police procedural shows that are on television these days: that those cases tell stories that are quickly forgotten and seem to go nowhere.
Such police shows, like CSI in all it’s various forms, do make for good television. Once an episode gets going, it can be difficult to look away. There’s always a need to see what they latest clue will bring the investigation, or what the next interview might reveal to the detectives, or just how the various legal hurdles will be overcome. Yet, once one of these episodes ends, it seems almost impossible to remember much of anything that actually transpired. These shows work in the moment only. If this week’s episode involved some prominent citizens being murdered, the viewer likely won’t remember the last name of the victims after the show ends, despite being constantly reminded of their importance at every opportunity. These shows tell viewers how to feel, what to feel, and when to feel. A show’s story doesn’t have to leave a lasting impression to be considered good television.
But what if it did?
Like those other shows, Gotham is a procedural show in which Gordon and his partner (who happens to have a name familiar to fans – Harvey Bolluck) must crack various cases on the streets of the fictional Gotham City. What they will find will likely take them to the heart of the city’s criminal underground and uncover conspiracies with the city’s government and police department. The pilot certainly established the ground rules for this.
Batman is one of the most well-known icons in popular culture, and his story is set against a very interesting canvas known as Gotham City. Almost everyone knows something of the back-story of this character, be it through reading the comics, watching the films, or through mere “pop culture osmosis.” Whatever pathos that back-story might have can only add to a show that is largely (and quite deliberately) a paint-by-numbers cop show. Case in point: the average viewer probably wouldn’t be invested in the double murder of two prominent citizens in any one of the cities used in an episode of CSI; he or she just want to see how the case is eventually solved. However, if those same citizens happen to be Bruce Wayne’s parents, then something amazing happens, and it can happen even with the average viewer who’s never read a Batman comic book: he or she knows who the Wayne’s are, and they find that their interest has been piqued.
The pilot episode doesn’t waste any time, as it sends Gordon and Bullock to that very alley where the Wayne’s were murdered and Bruce was left an orphan. How interesting that this seemingly “random” mugging lights a fire under the investigation because of who was murdered. By the end of the pilot, Gordon realizes that cracking the case may in fact fracture the entire city. What we know about Batman and his world before tuning into this show helps us appreciate the dilemma that Gordon finds himself in when he confronts Bruce near the end of the episode after promising to find the culprit at the outset. Yet, the pilot plays the police procedural card to a T in its approach, only this time, we actually care.
So, maybe it’s best not to look at the show as a prequel to the Batman story, at least it’s best not to look at it that way first. Maybe it’s better to simply tune in and watch two cops solve work to solve crimes, and then sit back and appreciate how it adds some depth to a fictional world we all know at least a little bit. By working as a tangent to mythology we already appreciate, Gotham seems less pretentious than its police procedural kin and becomes something that is actually quite interesting.
My rating: 3.9