There is a moment in the pilot of Gotham where detectives Bullock and Gordon surmise that the perp that they liked for the murder of the Waynes, who just before had been caught with Martha’s pearls and had fled questioning, could not be the person who killed the Waynes because he wasn’t wearing shiny shoes. The two detectives then spend about six minutes discussing shiny shoes and who could have been wearing them the night of the Wayne murder. This moment is carried out with the utmost sincerity and agency by both Bullock and Gordon as the latter struggles to decide if he should continue this line of inquest into the planted evidence and shiny shoe ownership.
This is a pretty accurate summation of the pilot of Gotham; a pilot that plays equally in the ponds of sincerity and ridiculous.
Naturally, writer Bruno Heller has a certain amount of things he has to get on the page in terms of a pilot episode. The leads have to be introduced, as well as a central conflict, plus a bit of spice to make sure that viewers come back next week. Thankfully, as a veteran of TV, Heller turns in a pretty structurally sound script. As a guy who unironically loves police procedurals, I must say, the hook of seeing Gordon and Bullock working their beats every week seems like a gold mine to me. If the pilot was just laser focused on Gordon, I would have enjoyed it from start to finish, but unfortunately, it is with the spice for future episodes that Heller loses momentum. Most of this spice comes in the form of knowing introductions to some of Batman’s more famous rogues. Cory Micheal Smith’s twitchy first scene as Edward Ngyma is a particularly groan inducing bit of business that grinds the action of the pilot down, but thankfully it is so short that Donal Logue quickly picks up the ball and starts sprinting with it. There is even a ham fisted possible Joker candidate jammed into the episode because, why the hell not?
Because this is a Batman inspired show and some of the main characters are, in fact, future main characters of the Bat canon, I had accepted that some of these introductions were going to fall flat, and I’m also giving at least Ngyma a pass because this is just the pilot and surely (fingers crossed), the character will improve dramatically, but, if every episode has a moment when they are cutting away from Jada Pinkett Smith throwing it down to elbow me in the ribs visually with a maybe Joker, this show and I will have some problems going forward. Also, can someone explain to me how absolutely NO one sees Selina Kyle as she slinks through the background thoughout? Selina’s inclusion is yet another thudding failure of the pilot as she basically just stares down the circus surrounding Bruce Wayne through the entire pilot, never speaking, save for once…to a cat…because, ya know….Catwoman. She also appears to have hopped over an Earth and stolen her goggles from another version of herself.
This is exactly the balance of ridiculous and sincerity that I mentioned up top because for every thing that doesn’t work for the pilot of Gotham, there are at least four things that really, REALLY frakking work. Take for example, Jada Pinkett’s Fish Mooney, a character who handedly steals every scene in which she appears. This is a character who breaks a chair over someone and then takes a minute to check her weave, so in other words, perfect. While the pilot makes it very clear that big things are in store for the show’s other lead heavy, Robin Lord Taylor’s (lotta three named people in this show) Penguin, as a viewer, I’m way more interested in Smith and what she will get up to every week. Smith seems to be one of the few actors in this show who realize that they are allowed to have fun with the material and play it slightly broader. She isn’t taking the piss out of the role at all, but she also isn’t afraid to sneer and preen a bit more than is actually needed.
Donal Logue is another example of this. His rumpled and slightly slurred take on Harvey Bullock is exactly what diehards should want from his take on the character, while still maintaining a commanding presence for television audiences. Full disclosure, Logue is one of my favorite character actors anyway, so I was pretty in the tank for his performance just based on his costume, but it wasn’t until I saw his Bullock chase his Irish coffee with a pull of Mylanta that he became my Harvey Bullock. Lord Taylor’s Cobblepot doesn’t come off as great as I was led to believe but still seems to be enjoying himself. While the charm that he was said to have in the lead up to the premier seemed to be absent to me, the ruthless nature of the character was still very much in tact.He has a few truly Penguin-like moments, but he didn’t pop for me in the way that he seems to have popped for other viewers. Though, I’m not sure why he doesn’t have flippers for hands.
Lead Ben McKenzie, however, takes a much different approach to Jim Gordon, opting instead to play Gordon as straight as humanly possible amid the colorful characters around him. Despite the broad nature of the show around him, McKenzie still really works as the lead. His Gordon is a man apart from his surroundings from the very start, struggling to do right in a wrong city. Jim Gordon has always been fascinating to me in that regard and McKenzie leans into that with gusto. His line readings are almost stoic and cold as he butts heads against Bullock’s explanation of the established order of Gotham and almost bullish when interacting with the criminal element. This is a young, hungry, and pissed off Jim Gordon and Ben McKenzie was a pretty inspired choice to bring that to life. It is with McKenzie that Gotham finds most of the sincerity. McKenzie is a good enough actor that I don’t particularly mind that his “there will be light” speech to Bruce is kinda goofy and tone deaf. I can also forgive him for bowing up to actual royalty, Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) because he doesn’t know he can trust her just yet. McKenzie, and to a lesser extent, David Mazouz’s Bruce Wayne and Sean Pertwee’s Alfred, provide the show a fan’s beating heart underneath the ludicrous polish of Gotham.
You’ll notice that I haven’t talked much about Bruce and Alfred thus far and that’s honestly because they are barely in it. After easily the most visceral version of the Wayne murders I’ve ever seen and a quick scene with Gordon, both Bruce and Alfred are spirited away until the end of the episode. Though the time they occupy the screen are short, I still felt myself getting choked up once or twice, despite myself. Mazouz enters the episode as a happy, carefree kid and ends it as a haunted orphan, his piercing and heartbreaking scream still echoing through the audience’s mind. I was worried that the inclusion of Bruce Wayne into the show would be overbearing and near constant, but the pilot uses him sparingly. Even if it didn’t, I feel confident that Mazouz could still hold the show deftly on his shoulders. The kid is damn watchable in both scenes that he has, and that scream is still one of the standout and haunting moments of the pilot.
The same goes for Sean Pertwee’s Alfred. Pertwee cuts an imposing profile in his uniform and has the attitude and salty language to match, which is a welcome respite from the cordially sassy butlers from before, but he still tugs at the heartstrings with just the simplest of acts, like telling young Bruce Wayne to keep his head up as he walks away from the crime scene. This sparing use of the characters may very well change for future episodes, but it is a relief to know that they won’t be dragging the show down if it does.
All told, the pilot of Gotham is a mixed bag; a gorgeous looking and often entertaining mixed bag, but one none the less. Some of the changes and character inclusions will surely piss of diehards but shows enough promise for television viewers. While I wasn’t expecting much, I was still engaged by what I got and am very curious to see just how comic booky this show might get, as long as the show tones down the ham fisted cameos and teases. Will we see Slaughter Swamp? Could Gordon and Bullock be tracking down the Red Hood in later episodes? Is Jim Corrigan hanging out somewhere? Will I abandon reviews in the future and just talk about how much I enjoy seeing Renee Montoya on TV every week? Who knows, true believers, but what I do know is that Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock talked about shiny shoes for six minutes on Monday, and it wasn’t as horrible as I thought it would be.