It is always difficult to retool or reimagine a legendary franchise. The pressure from fans, as well as the knowledge that any number of other people and writers are waiting on the fringes to swoop in and give their interpretation a shot, is enough to weigh on any such showrunner. However, if the first episode of ‘Gotham,’ the new television drama about the city that creates and motivates Batman, is any indication of the series to come, it is safe to say that Bruno Heller has transcended many of those pressures, at least for now.
The series is not a reboot of Batman per se, though elements of that clearly will be present (and hopefully toned down after the pilot). Instead, ‘Gotham’ focuses on the city itself more than a decade before Batman first dons his cowl. Bruce Wayne is but a child, and a young fresh detective named Jim Gordon has just joined the Gotham PD.
The show follows young Gordon (Ben McKenzie), a former son of Gotham just moved back, as he is introduced to the mass of corruption and evils that pervade the city. He is partnered to Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), the personification of everything wrong with the Gotham PD, and thrown head first into a series of problems that he thinks he may be the only one capable of solving. Make no mistake this is a take charge and get stuff done version of Jim Gordon.
The show creates a vehicle to explore Batman character origins in a way that just has not been possible in previous incarnations of the character. Of course, there are some concerns about a show of this nature tackling origin questions. Many of the iconic Batman characters have fairly established or at least popular background stories. It is unclear how much guidance the show will take from these, and while it is perfectly within its right to create or alter certain character origins (and there are hints in the first episode that this will be the case), hopefully any such decisions will be a requisite of good storytelling and not merely plot convenience.
At least some of the criminals that Gordon comes up against will be younger versions of famous villains from the Batman rogue’s gallery. This seems plausible up to a point, but hopefully the writers don’t get overzealous. There is a time difference here, and while some of the Batman’s villains are likely older than him they are not geriatrics.
Perhaps even more odd than using Batman villains as ‘Gotham’ villains is the choice to include adolescent and child versions of some of the famous villains before they go bad. It is too early to tell exactly where this is going, but at least in the pilot this just feels awkward. There seems to be an implicit theme on the show that the atmosphere of Gotham will simultaneously create and shape Batman and his villains, which is an interesting direction to take, but it risks tying all of the characters together too much.
There are an embarrassment of name drops and blatant foreshadows in the pilot that can be assumed were meant to excite long time fans. Unfortunately, such nods and plot devices fall flat, and in one particular case draw too close a similarity to a particular plot point from the entertaining but terrible ‘Batman Forever.’ Viewers know that this is a show about the Batman universe. Let the universe develop organically within the context of a good story. Don’t just throw familiar names and faces at us.
The tone of the pilot is a bit scattered. At times it feels like an episode of ‘Law and Order’ with a Batman theme, while at others it gets into the more familiar mix of dark and campy that traditionally accompanies the Batman universe. There is likely a balance to be sought between the two, and at least in the first episode it does not find it.
‘Gotham’ sets itself up to be an ambitious undertaking, and one episode is not enough judge its overall success. There is a lot to like about the pilot, but there is also a lot in it that will make longtime fans cringe. Ultimately the success of the show will depend on whether future episodes are able to find the right balance necessary for a Batman show without Batman.