Even more so than other projects targeted toward a large fanbase, Gotham was getting bad word of mouth as soon as the news of the series was announced. Of course there was the usual skepticism about prequels, but also the idea of a Batman series without Batman or of Smallville in Batman clothing. All things considered, though, Gotham is a stronger concept for a prequel than Smallville. Focusing on the rise of Detective Gordon through a decadent police department, on Gotham’s notorious corruption, and on the ugly transition from traditional organized crime to super-criminals is a much richer and more natural mine for stories than what Smallville had, which did draw from the teenage Lex Luthor-Clark Kent relationship but had to resort to monsters-of-the-week and later to shoveling in as many DC Comics characters as possible to generate episodes. It helps that the comics have already delved into most of these regions of the Batman mythos, with classic stories like Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween as well as a series focused on the Gotham police department, Batman: GCPD. Centering the series around an already weary but irrepressibly ethical James Gordon first getting his glimpse of the machinery of corruption that runs Gotham City was a wise move, providing lots of possibilities for story arcs that can touch on the mythos without turning the series into Young Batman versus Teen Joker.
That said, what did give me pause was the decision to include several members of the rogues gallery. I get that it was inevitable, necessary to please both fans and the studio. And I will admit that the debut of a young Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) as a lowly but ambitious mob lackey works quite organically, and the appearance of Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) (which here amounted to little more than a cameo) does promise some interesting developments later. Also it’s not a bad idea on the face of it to include an adolescent Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), especially if we get to follow her evolution as a master-thief, but already the pilot tries too hard to tie her in with Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz). Even worse is the inclusion of Poison Ivy (Clare Foley) as a little girl, who gets connected, albeit loosely, to the murders of Bruce Wayne’s parents in a way that begs suspension of disbelief even more than a millionaire who dresses in a bat-costume to fight genius psychopaths. It does make me fret that, especially if the series lasts for at least a few seasons, we’ll end up with the Scarecrow as Bruce Wayne’s child psychologist or the Mad Hatter as James Gordon’s eccentric neighbor.
Still, my overall view of the series is “cautiously optimistic”, largely because the pilot was pretty smartly written. There’s a few great little moments like Detective Bullock downing milk of magnesia while eating in a cafe and Edward Nygma having an elaborately scribbled notebook that hints at his insanity even more than his dialogue. But most of all was how well the characters who weren’t Bruce Wayne or Alfred or the future rogues were depicted. Jada Smith already looks like she’ll be a quality antagonist as the mob lieutenant Fish Mooney, even if the laws of the prequel indicate that she’ll be doomed eventually. Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is, like his comic counterpart, a good cop in a rotten department, but he’s also a character the script isn’t afraid to force into a few ugly choices. Probably the most surprisingly developed character is Harvey Bullock (Dolan Logue). In a lot of adaptations Bullock is at worst comic relief or at best a foil for Gordon and Batman, but here the script and Dolan Logue present him as a fundamentally well-meaning cop who nonetheless became fully integrated into the corrupt system long ago. Together with Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), one gets a portrait of a team of cops who are “good” in the sense that they want to do their jobs but who also see no alternatives to playing the system as it is, potentially making their dynamic with Gordon the would-be reformer even more interesting despite the fact that fans already know where all this is headed overall.
With the exception of Oswald Cobblepot, the appearances of the future rogues is still a weak point in an otherwise solid story, especially because the script is blatantly much more interested in how Gordon and Bullock handle the Wayne murders than in setting up the rogues or even spending much time with young Bruce Wayne. Still, that’s what having a television series is for, and despite my misgivings I will be tuning in (which may not be accurate technically but sounds so much better than “logging in to Hulu”) to see where this particular take on one of my own favorite franchises is headed.