Great Batman stories are about archetypes and morality. Batman, a symbol of fear, justice and vengeance, faces off against mad men in tights to protect the innocent and do what the police can’t or won’t.
Gotham City exists in relation to this extreme figure. Sometimes Batman is the only sane man fighting the city’s chaotic underbelly. Sometimes he’s one more mad man in tights.
FOX’s “Gotham” is set before the Caped Crusader starts fighting crime. Instead we’re left with a duo of Gotham’s finest: a young Jim Gordon, played by Ben McKenzie, and Harvey Bullock, played by Donal Logue.
McKenzie’s Gordon is a war hero turned cop, bent on pulling up Gotham’s deep-rooted corruption. Logue’s Bullock is a cynical veteran cop who’s all-too comfortable with the often-criminal status quo.
The pilot is a fun watch, but its balance falters. The series makes numerous references to the history of Batman, and jokes reminiscent of the Adam West series slip into scenes that would otherwise be right at home in Nolan’s theatrical trilogy.
Jada Pinkett Smith stole every scene she was in as crime boss Fish Mooney. Mooney is reminiscent of Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman, though more real and much more dangerous.
David Mazouz plays a grave young Bruce Wayne, a convincing start for the future Dark Knight.
Occasionally, McKenzie’s Gordon is given lines that are too grand or philosophical for the scene. An otherwise plainspoken character suddenly sounds like a bad excuse for Shakespeare.
Logue’s Bullock seems to alternate between brooding pessimist and wisecracking cynic. Bullock is in turns overconfident, lazy, short-tempered and drunk. It seems the writers haven’t quite decided what to do with him yet, but Logue plays all these parts well.
It’s Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot, who rages at being called “the Penguin,” who reminds us this is a Batman story, even if Batman is still a child. Cobblepot delights in petty villainy. From the time he appears on screen, Cobblepot’s veneer of subservience is rubbing thin. Cobblepot is exactly the kind of psychopath that it takes the Batman to deal with.
“Gotham” is cleanly put together and easy on the eyes. However, Fish Mooney’s headquarters seem to be the only sets with real personality.
Gotham is no stranger to crime, but, as Carmine Falcone, the criminal kingpin played by John Doman, reminds us, there are rules. Never fans of these rules, Gordon and Cobblepot seem bent on changing them, but it will take more than a rookie cop and a psychopath in a suit to fight the status quo.
The success of “Gotham” relies on McKenzie. McKenzie’s first showing fell a little flat; at times he’s too intense, too hardened and then suddenly too naïve.
If he can convince audiences that Gordon is more than a man holding down the fort until Batman arrives, “Gotham” has a chance.
On that same note, “Gotham” needs to surprise us. The familiar story is that Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered in an alley and for a decade or more, Gotham slides further and further into a world of crime until Bruce Wayne dons the mantle of the Batman and saves the day.
“Gotham” exists in that decade or more of incredible decline, and it’s hard to see how Gordon can come out of that a true hero.
“Gotham” may also struggle with the large personalities of its fledgling super villains. Gordon’s own personality will have to be big enough to spearhead the fight.
“Gotham” is fun; it’s dark, sometimes funny, and it’s poised to become a thought-provoking series. It’s a police procedural in a world where the inmates run the asylum, but can it make that angle work?
“Gotham” premieres Monday, Sept. 22, on FOX.