‘Gotham’ Is No Place for Nice Guys

Gotham is off to a good start, so good that it's possible to watch the entire premiere without missing Batman one bit.

“You’re a nice guy,” veteran detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) tells rookie detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie). “This is not a city or a job for nice guys.”

The city in question is, of course, Gotham City, star of Fox’s new Batman prequel Gotham. The series begins with the infamous murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents; it’s the incident that puts the young Wayne (David Mazouz) on the road to becoming Batman. While most Batman stories skip ahead from the Wayne murders to Batman’s debut, Gotham stays put, attempting to fill the gap between the two. The premiere episode does so through the eyes of Gotham City police officers, as Bullock and Gordon try to solve the Wayne murders.

While this perspective is unusual, Gotham certainly isn’t the first time the fabled city has been brought to screen, and different artists have had wildly different visions of it. Gotham‘s executive producers Bruno Heller (of The Mentalist and Rome) and Danny Cannon (The Tomorrow People and Nikita) might have followed Tim Burton, who made the city loom large in its gothic darkness.

Or they could’ve followed Joel Schumacher, who made it more cartoonish and full of garish neon colors. Or they could’ve followed Christopher Nolan, whose most recent take on Gotham felt grittier and more familiar. Then again, they could’ve done the opposite, and made the city campy like the ’60s television series.

From the series premiere, it looks like Gotham fits somewhere between Burton’s and Nolan’s creations, not quite as stylized as the former, but not quite as contemporary as the latter. It’s dark — even the daytime scenes feel overcast — and the streets feature little retro touches, like checkered cabs. The striking visuals make clear that Gotham really is about the city first and foremost. While the first episode mostly follows Gordon, it does so to explore the city’s institutions (legal and illegal), how they overlap with each other, how each vies for control.

The institutions are premised on the individuals they affect as well as those who wield power. And, like most first episodes, this one offers a quick overview of the series’ players. Gotham feels like a fully populated town, almost akin to The Simpsons‘ Springfield. Batman fans will recognize a few of the names, like Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), Ivy Pepper (Clare Foley), and Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith). Since it’s too early in the Batman timeline for them to give in wholly to their villainous tendencies, right now they’re just townsfolk, however eccentric.

Some of the characters aren’t able to achieve the same balance between fantasy and realism as the rest of the show. Taylor’s Cobblepot is definitely an oddball, with a certain Crispin Glover-like strangeness too him. But his creepiness is noticed by those around him, and it bothers him, which helps us sympathize or at least try to understand. Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney (invented for the series) isn’t as successful. She’s much broader than anyone else on the show, and seems like she’d be a better fit for one of the Schumacher outings.

Thankfully, Mooney isn’t as central a figure here as Bullock or Gordon, who together are fully capable of carrying the series, even without young Bruce. Logue gives an especially strong performance as Bullock, an exhausted, veteran crime-fighter who remains likable and charismatic even as his various failings seem inevitable. Bullock’s a victim of circumstance as opposed to a villain.

McKenzie’s Gordon is less shaded, serving as a sort of straight man to all of Gotham City’s vibrant craziness. Gordon and Bullock’s partnership is a typical pairing of a cop who plays by the book and a cop who plays by his own rules, but the actors make it feel, if not fresh, than at least specific to this show.

Gotham‘s premiere covers a lot of ground, sketching characters and situations efficiently. Cannon, who directed the first episode, keeps everything in motion, swooping the camera across the skyline. Such mobile framing and noirish agitation, along with the people who can’t seem to stay still, invite us to feel involved and on edge, even when the cops are doing something routine like interviewing witnesses or talking on phones.

With a couple of handheld-looking action scenes in the mix, Gotham‘s premiere episode feels like a mini-summer blockbuster condensed for TV. With such a rich cast of characters and extensive history, the series has a lot to play with as Gordon and Bullock negotiate what look to be many levels of corruption, violence, and politics. It’s off to a good start, so good that it’s possible to watch the entire premiere without missing Batman one bit.

RATING 7 / 10