Gotham Pilot - In Depth Review

Someone who used to read my old blog, BatWatch, asked me if I would do a review of Gotham. Since my review is a couple days late, I decided to discuss things a bit more in depth than what I've seen from other reviews. Spoilers for the entire review.

Directing

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To it's credit, Gotham doesn't feel like any other TV show. With the success of Arrow, it would be easy to copy their style, but Gotham feels like it's own animal which is neither tinged with the superheroic nor molded after the standard police procedural. Whereas the Nolan movies tried to play everything straight, Gotham feels like it's able to add just a hint of the fantastic into the city. Sure, having jail cells in the same room as the police desks makes no practical sense, but in a world lightly tinged by comic books, it works. Likewise, the constantly swinging light in the interrogation room probably couldn't be found in a real life police station, but in Gotham, it fits. It's as if the citizens of Gotham and especially Gotham's cops know their city is screwed up and expect a little insanity from time to time, so when a thug walks into a room with an executioner mask, it somehow doesn't seem out of place.

Gotham captures tension well. Though we know our heroes will triumph in the end, I found myself caught up in a hostage situation at the beginning of the episode and a couple of tense exchanges between Gordon and Mooney and Bullock and Mooney later on in the episode. Though the pilot certainly has its faults, suspense is not lacking.

The cinematography is also well done. The show goes the extra mile in taking some long panning shots and an occasional overhead view which gives dimension to the locales. Many scenes have an overexposed look where the light overpowers the darkness and cuts through the scene for several seconds. It's interesting that the creators of a show based in Gotham, famed for being a city of darkness, decided to let light reign triumphant in so many shots. For whatever reason, it works well and gives the show it's own distinct look.

Writing

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Writing is where the show struggles a bit. Too often the writers have a design for the script and take the most obvious path in reaching their goal which makes the story feel heavy handed and clumsy in spots. Examples of this are numerous throughout the entire episode. The first red flag is how every character past the first scene feels the need to immediately introduce who they are and what their personality is in the first minute on screen. “Hello, I'm Harvey Bullock. I'm a jaded cop who doesn't like the young and hopeful James Gordon.” “Hello, I'm Alfred Pennyworth. I'm a good guy who will help Master Bruce through the death of his parents.” It would do better with some subtlety and a slower reveal of who these characters are. There's no need to rush the storytelling. The second troubled spot I noticed was when Gordon went to talk to Bruce. The writers wanted James to say something to comfort the sobbing child, and it almost worked, but the way Gordon leans in to whisper in Bruce's ear feels awkwardly intimate, and the line, “There will be light,” is more than a tad hammy. There are other moments which, though not horrible, somewhat disappoint. Gordon got out of his assignment to kill Penguin in the most obvious way possible. Gordon's talk with Bruce Wayne towards the end of the episode is a tad melodramatic. These mistakes aren't so egregious that they ruin the show, but they do put cracks in what would otherwise be a well sculpted piece.

That's not to say that the writing is altogether bad. The dialogue throughout most of the episode is spot on, and it's no easy task to nail characters this well established. The writing between Gordon and Bullock was especially well written. The central story is well conceived, layered, and complex, but to come back to criticism, the story has many extraneous plot lines (Catwoman, Riddler and Ivy) that are shoehorned into the episode to give the casual Batman fan a sense of familiarity yet serve no greater purpose in the story of the pilot and therefore seem like needless diversions.

Setting

I love the look and feel of Gotham. Since they are naming the show after the city, they really needed to be able to give Gotham character, and Gotham has character in spades. The skyline, water towers and catwalks are quintessentially Gotham. The city looks beautiful from afar but grimy and worn up close. The police officers and criminals of Gotham seem like real people in a bad situation, and you definitely get this feeling that everyone is desperate though perhaps not hopeless. Attention to detail was made in the cityscapes. Wayne logos are visible in the background of some shots. A lot of the nighttime shots of Gotham were noticeably enhanced by CGI, and that's a little disappointing but a minor gripe. Though the tightly packed pilot allowed for few such moments in the first episode, I do hope Gotham will dive into the lives of the Gotham civilians in future episodes, so we can see the fears, struggles and triumphs of the ordinary Gothamite.

Editing

The editing for Gotham was incredibly fast paced, and again, this sets Gotham apart and gives it a unique flair. Camera angles change frequently, and it definitely keeps things from becoming boring, but it is at times just a tad fast. Occasionally, I found myself wishing to have just a few seconds to process what just happened before being rushed to the next scene. If they can pull back the frequency of changing camera angles and the transition speed between scenes just a notch, I think the pacing will be excellent for those who like a fast moving narrative.

Action

When it comes to actual fisticuffs or gunplay, the action is standard and brief. If it deserves any special credit, it is in keeping characters abilities grounded in reality. Nobody performed any superheroic feats such as dropping a half dozen guys in combat or surviving a twenty foot fall without injury, and I hope the action keeps it's realistic tone in future episodes.

Music

I enjoy the soundtrack to Gotham. It always seems to set the perfect mood, and it keeps things consistently on edge with an urban jungle feel, but there were some moments where it became a tad overbearing and overwhelmed some dialogue on screen.

James Gordon

Ben McKenzie's casting as Gordon seems perfect. In Gotham, Gordon has his usually calm demeanor, but he's got a little more of an ego and swagger than what we typically see in comics. However, that's appropriate for a younger version of the character. It's crystal clear that he's a good cop, and that's who Gordon is at his core. McKenzie's projects depth of conviction into the role and plays well off the rest of the cast. It's still early, but for a first impression, I think the show nailed James Gordon.

Harvey Bullock

Bullock's portrayal by Donal Logue caught me off guard. When I picture Harvey Bullock, I always think of the nearly slurred, obnoxious voice of the character from Batman the Animated Series, but Logue's Harvey, though still “slovenly,” is much less extreme than his cartoon counterpart. At first I didn't like his portrayal for this reason, but once I realized the voice was what was bugging me, I started looking beyond that and found his portrayal of Bullock to be quite impressive. Bullock's dialogue is perfectly written for the character, and he seems in line with the Bullock of the comics who was also a crooked cop who was eventually won back to the right side of the law through the leadership of James Gordon. I like seeing that Harvey does have some pride in himself, and we get a twinkling of the good cop he could be throughout the episode. Though I enjoyed Bullock's interactions with Gordon, I did feel their chemistry was lacking it's full potential at times. Hopefully, the actors will gel even more in future episodes.

Alfred Pennyworth

Any Batman fan loves to see some good Bruce and Alfred interactions since Alfred is the closest thing Batman has to a father figure and a confidant, and in this episode, there are some good Alfred moments. However, the actor playing Alfred, Sean Pertwee, really doesn't do much in these scenes. We see Alfred standing with Bruce and giving guidance, but it's all very brief, so it's difficult to get a feeling for the series portrayal of Alfred on more than a surface level. Also, one line from Alfred feels wrong. As Bruce leaves the crime scene and walks to Alfred's car, Pennyworth tells Bruce to stand tall. Would Alfred really be encouraging Bruce to have a stiff upper lip for the press when he just lost his parents? More often in the comics, Alfred presses Bruce to engage in his feelings rather than subdue them. It appears Gotham is going for a gruffer version of Alfred, and that might rub fans the wrong way.

Bruce Wayne

The actor who played Bruce Wayne, David Mazouz, is surprisingly good. He seems natural in his role as both an innocent youth, a suffering child and a young Batman in training. His tortured scream after the death of his parents, by the way, is blood curdling. Though I think he handled his part well, I do not like how he was directed at times. When Bruce talks to James Gordon at the crime scene, he goes from crying uncontrollably to somewhat mollified too quickly. By the end of the episode, almost all Bruce's vulnerability seems gone and we seem to be looking at a mini-Batman. This transition is also too quick, and I hope future episodes will show us that though determined, young Bruce is not the cold Dark Knight we know and love. That sort of transformation needs time to develop.

I do worry about how Bruce Wayne will be implemented into the story in the future. His actor is given too much money to have a bit role, but I don't see a method to keep Bruce in the story on a weekly basis that will not seem forced.

Penguin

I am utterly captivated by Robin Lord Taylor's presentation of Oswald Cobblepot. I've tried to find something to criticize about his performance, and other than the final scene of the episode which deserves it's own separate comments, I can't find anything I didn't like about him. He's manipulative, ruthless and beginning to whet his appetite for power. His fancy dress and demands for respect speak to his nascent desire for sophistication. Some might find his groveling towards Fish Mooney out of character, but Cobblepot has always been one to show cowardice when in a position of weakness. I am greatly looking forward to seeing how Cobblepot's character develops as the show continues, and I hope future villains are treated so respectfully.

Captain Sarah Essen

I actually watched this episode twice in order to write a good review, and I didn't realize either time that the Captain was Sarah Essen who is a fairly prominent character in the comics. Really, there's nothing much to say about her since her speaking time on camera was less than thirty seconds and pretty generic Captain talk. Her race is different in the show than in the comics which will bother some people, but who cares?

Fish Mooney

I've heard some criticism for Jada Plinckett Smith's portrayal of Mooney, but I don't sympathize with those critiques. I think Smith did a perfect job as a lady mob boss willing and able to go toe to toe with any man. Whereas most femme fatales use either flirtation or intimidation to get what they want, Mooney uses both and can turn from one to another on a dime. I found her completely convincing as a scary lady who feels confident she can get away with anything.

Barbara Kean

Barbara Kean never had much development in comics as far as I've read, so it's hard to say much about how she is living up to the character. Erin Richards version of Barbara Kean seems serviceable verging on subpar. I didn't feel particularly sold on her relationship with Gordon, but there's certainly time for this to develop. I look forward to the continuation of Barbara's probable lesbian past with trepidation not because I care about Barbara's sexual history but because I do not. Having characters sleep around and then worry about their sexual secrets coming to light seems to be what writer's do when they can't figure out anything meaningful to do with a character. It's a cheap and unnecessary attempt to add tension to James and Barbara's romantic relationship, and I hope it's wrapped up quickly.

Crispus Allen

Allen Stewart-Jones as Crisupus is dripping with personality in his brief appearances in this episode, and I look forward to seeing more of him in future episodes, but I haven't read enough of him in the comics to comment as to how well his portrayal here matches the source material.

Renee Montoya

Victoria Cartagena as Montoya was one of the few disappointments I had with the characters of Gotham. Montoya is supposed to have a hard shell to her enemies but a soft heart to her friends. She is supposed to be a good cop who wants to believe the best in people, but in Gotham, Montoya is just kind of...there. I saw nothing in her performance to indicate she had a soft side or any human emotions other than annoyance and anger. I hesitate to throw the actress under the bus, but either she or the director has majorly dropped the ball in giving Montoya no likable qualities.

The apparent romantic history between Montoya and Barbara Kean only serves to make things worse. If there were a moment for Montoya to show some compassion and vulnerability in this episode, it would would have been her interaction with Barbara, but instead, Montoya comes off as simply a jealous and intrusive ex-girlfriend.

Riddler

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Riddler, portrayed by Cory Michael Smith, was the second character who felt profoundly mishandled to me. In a thirty second scene, there were no less than four hints that he was the Riddler. Fan service is great, but packing that much into that short a frame is not so much a little nod to the fans as much as it is a painfully awkward shriek for attention. “HEY EVERYBODY WATCHING IN TV LAND! THIS GUY WILL BE THE RIDDLER! THIS GUY HERE MAKING RIDDLES!” We get it! We aren't morons.

Looking beyond this, I still don't like the way Nygma was presented. Riddler is one of my favorite villains, but I like him eccentric and sociopathic not neurotic and geeky. Furthermore, it doesn't seem to fit with the character to go into police forensics. Eddie likes to solve puzzles through contemplation not lab tests. Nygma usually attaches himself to projects that demonstrate his own brilliance and gain him much acclaim in either the social or criminal world in order to stroke his massive ego, but lab geek at the GCPD doesn't fit that criteria. The character has no sympathy for anyone but himself, so he wouldn't have entered the field for the good of mankind. I didn't feel this version of the character at all.

Falcone

Falcone was a pleasant surprise as a Godfather type who makes, “a life of crime sound very noble.” In the comics, he's always struck me as the kind of mobster who doesn't care who he has to crush to make a buck. It's all about good business to him, and at his core, that's probably what drives this version of Flacone as well, but having him trump up his petty ambitions with high minded rhetoric adds a layer of depth to his character. It will be interesting to see how Gotham uses him in the future.

Catwoman

Cameron Bicondova as Catwoman certainly looks the part. She moves around the rooftops so casually that it makes me want to see a Batman live action series. However, I don't see a reason for her to have witnessed the Waynes' murder at this point. Obviously, Selina's interest in Bruce Wayne could develop many different ways in future episodes, but her lurking presence was featured prominently in the pilot, and that narrative thread is left dangling at the end of the episode. It felt awkward to have her frequently in the background without anything ever coming of it, and I wish they had limited her to her initial appearance and followed up with her in future episodes.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy served no purpose in the episode. I suppose we could see Ivy's mimicking her mother's hatred of the cops for killing her father as the starting point of Ivy's villainy, but her connection to the Wayne murder was transparently done just to pack as many villains into the pilot as possible.

Joker

A random comedian appears in the episode which caused many people to fear that this was the first appearance of the Clown Prince of Crime. In Batman lore, it's generally a no-no to give Joker an origin. He's a man with no loyalty, no country and no past. He simply is, so this potential Joker origin made people nervous. Thankfully, this concern is unnecessary.

Several months ago, I came across some random article where the creators of Gotham said they intended to tease lots of potential Jokers throughout the show. Their idea is to keep people guessing as to who will one day become the true Joker. Personally, I think that's an excellent approach though I hope they don't do it too frequently or it might become tired.

Bat Droppings

Thomas Wayne looks like Mitt Romney.

I hate the CGI blood during the Waynes' murder. CGI blood always looks horrible.

I enjoy the Gotham logo. The reflection of flashing lights on it gives it some personality.

How many hours did Penguin spend swimming after Gordon “killed” him? It was enough time for Gordon to go home, talk to his wife, go to Wayne Manor, talk to Bruce Wayne and leave. Is this version of Penguin an ex-Navy Seal?

The Ending

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Out of all the mistakes the episode made, the ending in probably the most egregious since, as the last thing people see, it's likely to leave a lasting impression. A good pilot should wrap up the episode in one of three ways. First, it can leave you with a closing scene that gives resolution and a sense of rest and satisfaction. Second, it can leave you with a tease of things to come which will hopefully lure you back for more. Third, it can leave on a complete cliffhanger which requires you to see the next episode to discover how the protagonists will overcome.

Gotham manages to miss all three of these. The show did a decent job at creating some resolution with the scene between Gordon and Bruce at the end of the episode, but this shifted the center of focus from Gordon and Bullock to Gordon and Bruce which is a questionable decision in my mind, but if the episode had ended there, it would have been acceptable. However, the episode then goes on to show Catwoman waiting in the wings of Gotham Estate. This could be a tease for things to come, and might be an okay way to end the episode if we got the impression that Selina were going to go and meet Bruce or steal from the Wayne Estate, but this impression is not given, and instead, we get one last scene where Penguin swims out of the water, kills a man and eats a sandwich.

I can't even type that without laughing.

Why did they think this was a good idea? It's a scene that added absolutely nothing to the episode! We knew Penguin survived. Anybody who knows anything about Batman or TV shows knew Penguin would return to Gotham. We knew from his behavior earlier in the episode that Penguin was willing to kill. Was the only purpose of showing Penguin at the end of the episode to show him eating a sandwich? Are we supposed to take it that Cobblepot is a stress eater and will next appear as a butterball?

I can't fathom why Gotham decided to end on such a weak note, but it was an exceedingly poor choice.

Conclusion: Becoming vs. Being

There is something fundamentally flawed with a TV show based around what characters will become in the future. As cool as it is to see a young Bruce Wayne, a young Penguin and a young James Gordon, the show will not last if it relies on the promise of things to come rather than the reality of what currently is. If the promise of the Bat in the future overshadows the suspense in the present, then the show is a wash. This was my greatest fear before watching Gotham.

Now that I've seen it, I feel confident that Gotham does have the potential to be a great show. James Gordon, Harvey Bullock, the GCPD and the Falcone Crime Family all have enough depth to maintain a show and develop a following, but the show can only succeed if it's creators remember to center on the present rather than the future.

As it stands, Gotham is a good time. It has strong characters and actors and an intriguing premise and setting, but it's writing lacks elegance in resolving conflict and is overindulgent in attempts at fan service.

Rating: 8/10

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