Well, it’s officially Fall.
This means I look to get a good deal busier as more shows step up to the plate for the season. It stands to be an interesting spread coming up.
Especially with regards to one particular aspect of entertainment – the long running DC-Marvel turf battle has been slowly spilling over from movie theaters into living rooms. Last year saw the first rounds between Arrow and Agents of SHIELD end in a pretty close race – Agents had ratings, but Arrow had built up a solid following. Marvel remains king at the box office, but DC’s kicking pretty hard on the air. Born of the surprise success of Arrow, they’ve now got three new titles coming out this season to try and solidify their hold. Of those, right now Gotham is probably the most high profile on the table.
I will say now, I’m trying my best not to compare this series to Agents of SHIELD, but it’s hard not to on a few levels. For starters, they’re both running on the premise of taking a well known slice of their franchise’s universe and exploring the side away from the costumed heroes. In this case, rather than have AoS run alongside the Avengers films, Gotham takes the tack of setting itself in the years before Batman was even a concept in Bruce Wayne’s mind. There’s no waiting or stalling for the next film to come out to introduce a plot or a character. It can move at its own pace.
(Okay, I’ll drop the comparisons here for now. For now.)
The pilot starts things off, after a fun little sequence involving a young Selina Kyle, by showing us the famous murder of Bruce’s parents. It’s a scene we’ve seen told several times now, and to their credit, they still do a decent job of making it their own, with this particular version emphasizing the grim reminder that this little boy just watched his parents die.
But this isn’t Bruce’s story. He’s certainly present – the pilot is focused on investigating the murder of his parents – but he’s more of a side character. Instead, our focus is on a younger James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) freshly added to the Gotham PD. It’s an interesting focal point, particularly for anyone who’s read Batman: Year One, as this explores similar ground of the idealistic young officer learning the hard way to navigate a system he’s quickly discovering is quite crooked. All this while guided by an entertaining Donal Logue as pessimistic detective Harvey Bullock.
As a first episode, this has a lot going on for it. As you can imagine, some works, some doesn’t. Sort of the nature of the game; very few shows get it completely right in the pilot.
In terms of what works, I have to say that the cast is the show’s strongest point. There are exceptions — McKenzie can sometimes be a little flat as Gordon and Erin Richards feels miscast as his girlfriend/future wife Barbara- but otherwise, the rest of the group is off to a great start. I’m honestly torn on who to mark as the cast MVP so far – the two most obvious picks right now are Logue as Bullock and Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney, a local mob connection (Smith is reveling in playing to her evil side)- both are fun to watch. The other standout, as has been noted in the pre-release buzz, is Robin Taylor Lord as a pre-Penguin Oswald Cobblepot. It’s an interesting take on a character who’s had a pretty strange relationship with the live action medium to date, and I have to admit, I’m liking Lord’s spin on the role so far. It’s still early in, but from this week alone we get signs of an already unstable person who’s about to go completely off the rails.
The other strong area for this series right now- at least for me- goes to the look and feel of the setting. One of the big challenges to anyone coming in to a new Batman story is the incentive to try and reinvent Gotham in a way that’s simultaneously familiar, but also your own. Tim Burton, Bruce Timm, Christopher Nolan, and, yes, even Joel Schumacher have all tried to achieve this balance with varying results depending who you ask. Here, showrunner Bruno Heller’s team have put together a good variation on the ‘real’ Gotham. In many ways it has the look of a real city, but also has those dashes of color and style that’d fit the world of the Batman comics. The fact they made the effort instead of just looking like they were trying to emulate Burton or Nolan goes a long way for me anyway, but that it actually looks good on its own is a very nice bonus.
The direction and camera work this week is a mix of good and bad. The bookending scenes of young Selina watching turning points in the life of Bruce Wayne was a particularly nice touch, likewise a montage in the middle of the episode as Gordon and Bullock interrogate several muggers was well shot and sported some memorable editing. On the other side of the coin, however, we have several action scenes that defer to excessive use of the old ‘shaky-cam.’ It’s not enough to completely ruin the episode, but it does make for a nuisance at certain scenes – such as its random presence in one sequence where Gordon is chasing down a man suspected of having murdered the Waynes. It’s a filming style that feels out of place in this show. The quick cuts employed in other action sequences in the episode, such as in other parts of that chase as well as the opening introduction of Selina are used fairly well, even if they do further call attention to uncharacteristic the shaky-cam moments are.
Unfortunately, the biggest stumbling block for the pilot goes to the script. It’s not a total waste, but it definitely needed some punching up. For starters, the dialogue is pretty clunky so far. I suppose one could argue they were going for a comic book feel, but even then, there are comics with much better dialogue than this, so I don’t think that excuse holds water. It actually gives me a bit more respect for the actors that they can still deliver some of these lines as well as they do. Besides the dialogue, the other drawback is the fact that the first episode feels packed. This isn’t all bad, admittedly – it helps set up a lot of stories for the season and has me curious to see more. Unfortunately, it also means there’s very few moments for this first episode to really breathe and let people adjust. Bruce probably gets it the hardest as a result of this, since his story elements seem to be squeezed out of the greater police story going on. Hopefully his integration will move a bit smoother in the future, but this week he really just couldn’t get a spot in easily.
All in all, it’s a promising preview. It’s got problems, but so do most pilots. It gives the show things to improve on and develop as it gets underway. If anything, as a first episode goes, this one’s still on the better side of things.
Well DC, I’m sold right now. I’ll be back in future weeks and curious to see where you take this idea. Hoping it’s good places.
Next Tuesday we’ll see how the show does in its second episode with Selina Kyle.
-Premise of ‘Gotham before Batman’ used well so far
-Largely great casting
-Dialogue clunking along hard despite efforts of cast
-Action scenes suffer from random bouts of shaky-cam