Sorry to join the party so late! Everyone else already watched the premiere of Gotham days ago on Fox and blogged, tweeted, Tumblr’d, or tin-can-on-a-stringed about it to all their circles, right? If everyone else is already over it, that means I can write whatever I want without fear of anyone reading it, right? Okay, cool. The way my week has gone, I’m considering using this space to update our grocery list and gauge its effect on site traffic.
For those who spent this week focusing on other things, or who don’t care about shows based on comics: Gotham tells the story of a young, stringy, ineffective toady named Oswald Cobblepot who spends his life groveling for a notorious crime lord and wishing people would stop bullying him. The ending has already been spoiled because fans of comics or old TV know Cobblepot will someday outgrow his ineptitude and mature into the formidable businessman known as the Penguin. Gotham, then, is his origin story, plus a half-dozen irrelevant subplots about far less interesting people.
Cobblepot’s childhood remains a mystery for now, as the pilot picks up in media res with a young-adult Penguin-to-be playing lickspittle for local crime lord Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), who treats him like an abusive fairytale stepmother to further her long-term goals of moneymaking through Mob-bossing. Cobblepot sees an opportunity to exploit some weaknesses in her organization for his own benefit when she apparently arranges the murder of a nicely dressed pair of socialites for Mobbing reasons. A bit of happenstance leaves her vulnerable to investigation by Gotham po-lice, for whom Cobblepot turns informant to knock her off her pedestal and broaden his future possibilities. As played by Robin Lord Taylor, Cobblepot switches between whiny groveling for Mooney and stiff-upper-lip swagger toward the cops, as fascinating in his petty triumphs as he is in his inevitable beat-downs. If the series would keep him at the center, Gotham could be a winner.
Alas, such overcrowding. Other characters vie for screen time, most of them cops. The new guy on the homicide squad, Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), is the most idealistic and most likely to Do the Right Thing, but whenever the actor has to act too forthright, he gets the strained expression of a polite father who’s opening the worst Christmas presents ever and trying to pretend he really needed those six new Sham-Wows in different colors. His crooked partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is a crooked cop who does six crooked things every morning before his crooked beer breakfast, then spends his crooked day on a crooked to-do list and then visits his crooked friends who work for Mooney over at CrookedCo. After forty-odd minutes of crookedy crookeditude, Gordon begins to suspect something’s not right about Detective Crooked, which might explain his six-month reign as the GCPD’s Crooked Employee of the Month, for which he receives a crooked plaque and a gift card for the buffet at Crooked Pizza Hut.
Because there were empty spaces in some scenes, the producers filled those with more cops from the comics — names like Renee Montoya, Sarah Essen, and even the M.E., Edward Nygma, will be familiar to collectors. Maurice Levy from The Wire shows up for a few lines as a beat cop, no longer on retainer for Marlo Stanfield. I’m reading online that even Crispus Allen from the great Gotham Central will be up in here if he can find an opening in between all the other cops who fill up backgrounds but never really catch any criminals. For some reason we also visit Gordon at home, where his S.O. Barbara has secrets and appears to be named after Batgirl. Gotta love those obscure Easter eggs, right?
Meanwhile in the shadows, there’s a thief labeled in the PR materials as Catwoman, played as a silent, modern Harriet the Spy who likes to crawl on fixtures and stare at people. There’s another, littler girl named Ivy Pepper who waters plants while watching her mom and dad do all the talking. No one thinks to ask why a girl in this day and age suspiciously cares about houseplants, or why her name sounds like an obscure Chopped ingredient. Also, Richard Kind from Spin City is now the Mayor of Gotham, so that’s like a Pyrrhic promotion.
On the darker side of the cavernous divide between good and evil is Gotham’s other leading Mob boss, Carmine Falcone, as played by John Doman, a.k.a. Lt. Rawls from The Wire. If we could add eight more alumni from The Wire, this could be my new favorite show. I would pay money to watch a sweeps-month episode announcing “special guest-villain Omar!” Doman as Falcone is an atypical Mob boss, though — he wants the Gotham police doing their job right at least some of the time. Crime may be his business, but he still has to go home at the end of the night, and he’d rather not live in a city gripped by fear. Well, by too much fear, I mean. In his playbook, a city ought to be gripped by a little fear so a Mob can get some things done, but excessive fear ruins the ambiance, scares away the tourist dollars, and discourages top chefs from opening any five-star restaurants. And a Mob boss needs his five-star restaurants.
The showrunners sneak in one last subplot, spotlighting the son of the meaningless couple that Mooney had killed, though Lord knows why the gunman stopped short of killing poor li’l Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz, the Touch kid). The screams of the orphaned billionaire as he watches his parents fade away are some of the most frightening sounds I’ve heard on TV this year, but by the end of the episode he’s calmed down to the point of disturbing iciness. When Gordon visits Stately Li’l Bruce Manor to deliver some awkwardly bad news, Bruce forgoes the denial or hysteria you’d expect from someone whose family was senselessly murdered. His British guardian Alfred (Sean Pertwee) tries to take charge, but Bruce firmly overrules him with an intensity that belies his youth. If the show proves popular enough to merit a spinoff, I’d suggest Bruce is a prime candidate for his own series, maybe even as an adult. He could be a billionaire detective like the couple from Hart to Hart, or a philanthropic billionaire problem-solver like The Millionaire but with a thousand times the cash, or a serial-killer super-villain like Hannibal Lecter. The mind reels at Bruce Wayne’s future story possibilities. Too bad they don’t just make the show about him.
Penguin: the Origin may not be the easiest sell in the long run. Its central character is riveting at times, but he doesn’t even have his own comic series. (I think. I walked away from DC’s New 52 months ago, so who knows if that’s changed.) Subtract Cobblepot and you’re left with a dreary police show where the police never win, which is not the way to attract large Nielsen familes who love police shows. But it’s on the same night and network as Sleepy Hollow, making it convenient for me to keep up with our man Cobblepot and the young man who shares his show but has no direct connection with him…for now. My early prediction: over the course of ten seasons we see them grow closely together until they become partners in their very own detective agency. “Penguin and Wayne”, they’ll call themselves, and no criminal will escape their steely gazes and their noses for clues. Not even special guest-villain Omar.
[For more information on the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project, please visit the initial entry for the rationale, the official checklist of pilots, and links to completed entries as we go. Thanks for reading!]