Gotham’s mission — appealing to Batman and DC fans without showing the Dark Knight himself — was always going to be a difficult one. Now that the show has run half of its first season, one has to wonder if it still has a chance to complete that task. The show’s developer, Bruno Heller, entered into a dangerous landscape: a fan-base populated by both Nolan-crazed Batman fanatics with high standards and lesser fans unwilling to trudge through a Gotham devoid of the Caped Crusader.
The show’s premise is not completely foreign to dedicated fans. Gotham follows a young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as he fights to clean up both the streets and police force lining the broken metropolis. We’ve seen Gordon do this before alongside a more advanced Batman in both Batman Begins and the iconic Batman: Year One story arc. The challenge Gotham faces, though, is a lack of the familiar Bat’s cowl. Instead, each week brings different challenges for Gordon and the GCPD, with the former constantly seeking new leads in the the Wayne murder case. But does it work?
The answer, in short, is…sort of.
The specter of Batman looms over the show at times. But on their own, the episodes provide mostly thrilling crime stories. The script is often lacking (as is the wont of many television action dramas), but the familiar confines of Gotham tend to make up for the unfulfilling writing. McKenzie, who actually voiced Batman in 2011’s video adaptation of Batman: Year One, plays Gordon with gruff intensity, often showing off his fierce military training. Donal Logue, as Gordon’s weathered partner Bullock, brings comic relief with his wisecracking lack of courage tinged with humanity. Away from GCPD, Sean Pertwee stands out as Alfred, young Bruce Wayne’s butler and guardian. With all due respect to Michael Caine’s Alfred, Pertwee turns the character into a protective badass never before seen in Batman’s history.
Besides its focus on Gordon, Alfred, and Bruce, Gotham spends most of its time identifying villains and criminals on the rise. We’ve seen Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Victor Zsasz, and a bevy of mob bosses and underlings so far. Just in reading that sentence, one can probably sense the overcrowding that plagues the show’s coherency. Robin Lord Taylor is compelling enough as the ambitious “Penguin” to carry entire storylines; at times it feels like a more consistent show could simply track his relationship with Gordon. Jada Pinkett Smith also impresses as a malicious mobster, doing her best to topple the organized crime syndicates of Gotham from within.
Where Gotham wanders from its best work is in its desire to show as much of Batman’s lore, as possible. Selina Kyle (Catwoman, in most accounts) witnesses the Wayne murders and befriends Bruce. This bond makes for some cute moments but mostly feels like an unnecessary plot point, at least until we learn more about the Wayne murderer. Edward Nygma (The Riddler) shows up as GCPD’s quirky coroner. His jokes and idiosyncrasies are entertaining, but his villainous side has yet to present itself. Nicholas D’Agosto plays a youthful Harvey Dent. His character feels like a crowding force, and the fact that D’Agosto was in Fired Up! doesn’t help his credibility as a relentless law enforcer. Each performance has its bright moments, but the show as a whole seems unsure of its scope– it shifts from minor crimes and mobbish mayhem to Bruce Wayne’s origins and Gordon’s interaction with a wide range of Batmanian villains.
Perhaps some of this uncertainty comes from Gotham’s unsteady footing. If the show knew it had years to work with, it could focus this incipient season on one or two major stories. Its desire to stick around, however, seems to have forced its writers and creators to throw out as many familiar faces as possible. The rest of this season, and hopefully the bulk of many more, should allow for deeper development of all of these individuals rather than surface-level introductions across the board. The cutthroat nature of network television coupled with the immense success of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has left Gotham in a tough spot, but hopefully time will facilitate its growth and acclaim. Anything involving Batman – in any form – can pull me in. But Gotham needs to pull in more than devoted followers. Here’s hoping the post-holiday episodes do just that, by picking up the pace and dispersing the crowded cast of characters.