Two months ago, with the fall TV season fast approaching, FOX’ pitch for “Gotham” seemed like a major gamble. It was, after all, a Batman TV series with no Batman in it. Sure, DC Comics is ruling the airwaves right now with “Arrow,” “The Flash” and (to a much lesser extent) “Constantine.” But how far are viewers willing to stretch their current obsession with superheroes? Are they willing to watch a prequel set during a period when our favorite caped crusader is still a tween, years away from adopting his dark mantle? Sure, “Smallville” was ostensibly a costume-free prequel to the Superman comic book we know and love. But it still had a teenage Clark Kent fighting superpowered villains. “Gotham” focuses on the pre-police commissioner career of Jim Gordon—a crucial but supporting character in the Batman universe.
And yet, “Gotham” has become one of fall’s most buzzed-about hits. The premiere episode was FOX’ highest-rated fall drama debut in 14 years. And the show has become Monday night’s No. 1 drama among the prized 18-49 demographic. Its “live plus seven” ratings (a fancy term for how many people record it and watch it within a week) represent the largest gain of any broadcast drama ever. So what makes this oddball effort work?
First of all, let’s credit writer-producer Bruno Heller (“Rome,” “The Mentalist”) and director-producer Danny Cannon (“CSI,” “Nikita”) for understanding the medium. They gave the show the familiar look and feel of a gritty cop drama, and it works. Their pre-Batman Gotham City is a 1970s, Serpico-style cesspool of crime and corruption—just the sort of place that would inspire young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz from the short-lived “Touch”) to one day put on a mask and fight crime.
Sure, the show is sometimes overflowing with Batman references … . But the show’s producers are judicious about what they’re concentrating on—balancing the show’s weekly “weird crime” plots against the ongoing myth-building of Gotham City.
Sure, the show is sometimes overflowing with Batman references (early versions of The Penguin, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, The Riddler, Victor Zsasz and theoretically The Joker have all made appearances). But the show’s producers are judicious about what they’re concentrating on—balancing the show’s weekly “weird crime” plots against the ongoing myth-building of Gotham City. Mostly, the show dwells on the corruption in the police department as seen through the eyes of idealistic young police detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie from “Southland” and “The O.C.”) and his amoral partner Harvey Bullock (a perfectly cast Donal Logue). There’s a war being waged on the streets of Gotham between big-time crime lords Carmine Falcone (John Doman) and Sal Maroni (David Zayas)—both of whom will be familiar to viewers of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Central in this war are Falcone’s second-in-command Fish Mooney (the seductively evil Jada Pinkett Smith) and Mooney’s jilted former flunky Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).
Taylor is the breakout star here, investing his character with a sinister awkwardness. It’s telling that the show can spend so much time—as so many prequels are apt to—answering questions no one ever asked (Why does The Penguin walk like that? What’s with the umbrella?) and yet remain totally compelling. Taylor’s version of The Penguin is far and away the most interesting version of the character we’ve seen to date. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
This may not be your father’s Batman. But it could be the best comic book on television.