In the end, we just couldn’t stop thinking of the Star Wars prequels. That may be a terrible way to open what we promise is a mostly positive review, but hear us out.
It’s hard for a nerdboy like Tom, who read his first Batman story during the Nixon administration, to approach a show like this, which is designed to do two contradictory things at once: dive head first into deep Batman lore while at the same time upending it and even contradicting it tremendously. He’s not opposed to the latter part, but the former has him scratching his head a little; at least in the case of this show. One question kept coming up as we watched the pilot: Why? What’s the point in depicting the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne again, if the story you’re telling supposedly isn’t about Batman, but about the city of Gotham in the decades before his arrival on the scene? Sure, it’s an event placed firmly within the time period you’re depicting, but why not just have it as a headline or news story playing in the background? Why make it the focus of the entire pilot? Lorenzo, who is not a nerd, and thus was more focussed on Jada Pinkett Smith’s costumes, turned to Tom at one point and said, “I don’t understand. Is this a new Batman show?”
We liked the sound of Gotham when it was pitched as a police procedural with Jim Gordon at the center of it and a whole bunch of Batman supporting characters at the periphery, but it turns out, all those Batman characters are much closer to the center of the story than we thought. In addition to Bruce Wayne and his butler Alfred, The soon-to-be Penguin played a central role, with an annoying-as-hell Riddler, silent Cat
womangirl, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Poison Ivy filling in the background. This isn’t a criticism – yet – but we were surprised at how much the pilot felt like the first 45 minutes of a Batman movie. It’s possible that the pilot was loaded down with Bat-flavoring just to set the scene and draw in the viewers and they’ll lay off those elements in coming weeks. We hope they keep the focus on Jim Gordon. A lot of the Batman-y stuff left us cold, but that scene on the dock at the end of the episode sold us. If it’s a show about Jim Gordon and his struggle to stay alive and fight corruption in a diseased city, we’re all for it. If it becomes a Smallville-esque show that’s essentially The Adventures of Pre-Batman, then we’ll probably bow out.
But there’s a problem inherent in a story like this – and in most prequels. We know that Jim Gordon will ultimately fail at turning the tide of crime and corruption in Gotham City. That’s the entire point of the story. It will take a Batman in twenty years to finally stand up and declare war on runaway crime. So we’re destined to watch our protagonist spin his wheels, if not make matters worse. That’s the end goal. That was one reason (among MANY others) that the Star Wars prequels didn’t work; because the entire point of the story is that evil triumphs over good and everyone knows it going into the story. It’s not that you can’t make an interesting story about good people failing, but it’s tough thing to expect an audience to tune into every week. At some point, the bleakness of it all just stops being fun.
We’d say the show has three big weapons to combat this: Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue, and Jada Pinkett Smith. All three of them anchor the show with absolutely fantastic performances; all three of them represent different shades of gray on the morality scale; all three of them have a distinct philosophy for survival in this world. If the show keeps the focus on these three actors, we find it hard to see how it could fail. The relationships and conflicts between all three characters are already riveting and like we said, they’re all doing bang-up work. McKenzie gets props for bringing a quiet, Gary Cooper/Gregory Peck heroic morality to the role while still having an intensity that rages just under the surface. But it’s Jada who steals this hour – and who will probably continue to steal the hours to come. It’s the best work we’ve seen her do in years. She’s always nailed that sexy/smart/dangerous thing, but she brilliantly filtered it this time through a purring Eartha Kitt acting style that brings the performance someplace unexpected. It’s camp, it’s drag, it’s badass, it’s chic, and it’s ultimately extremely entertaining. If nothing else, she looks amazing.
Which brings us to our next point: the whole hour looks beautiful onscreen. As cinematic a network show as we’ve ever seen. Sometimes the cityscapes read a little too faux, and there’s a bit of a Tim Burton-esque quality to some of the art design that occasionally distracts, but you’ll never stop looking around the frame and you can’t escape the moodiness of the visuals.
We suppose what interests us most about this show is the balancing act it’s going to have to do going forward. It’s clearly going to be more Batman-y than we realized, and we suppose that’s inevitable, but if you keep casting that shadow over everything, eventually people are just going to notice the Batman-shaped hole in the story. Until that time, we’ll keep tuning in just to see Jada scare the crap out of every man who crosses her.
A very good pilot (even if it went in a direction we weren’t prepared for) and a very promising start. We have concerns, but for the most part, we’ll just have to see.