‘Gotham’ Review: Pre-Batman Saga Finds Greatness in Despair and Darkness

Fox pulls back the curtain to reveal what happened in Gotham between the time Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered and he put on the cape and cowl

Gotham needs a hero, and long before Bruce Wayne put on the cape and cowl to become Batman, it got one. Fox’s “Gotham” peels back the curtain on the famous city of crime and corruption to ask if a good man can survive there and actually make a difference.

Ben McKenzie stars as Detective James Gordon, future commissioner and ally of Batman in the never-ending fight against crime. But right now, he’s a rookie detective in a new city partnered with Donal Logue‘s Harvey Bullock, a grizzled veteran who’d rather have a stiff drink than deal with the nonsense that passes for law and order in Gotham.

One of the most anticipated new shows of the fall, “Gotham” features a cast of characters many audiences are already familiar with; they’ve just never seen them like this before. And it’s the characters who make this one of the most compelling premieres of the season. Maybe that familiarity gave “Gotham” an unfair advantage, but virtually everyone introduced was fascinating to watch.

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Most pilots spend a lot of time introducing audiences to its characters, while trying to give you a few traits to remember them by. With characters like Oswald Cobblepot we don’t need much. Most people know he’s the Penguin, and even if their only recollection was Danny DeVito’s take in “Batman Returns,” they know the basics of what he will become. He’s not a wholly new character to grasp, and so they can instead enjoy this look at his formative experiences with a different perspective.

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From left, Jada Pinkett Smith and Robin Lord Taylor. (Jessica Miglio/FOX)

In fact, for true fans of Batman, there was really only one completely new character on the show: Jada Pinkett Smith‘s Fish Mooney. Everyone else has existed in either the previous “Batman” television series, various animated shows and films, or his many silver screen exploits.

David Mazouz had the challenging role of stepping into the most iconic role, and we were introduced to him in one of his most pivotal and iconic moments. The scene with Bruce Wayne in the alley between the dead bodies of his parents has been recreated multiple times on film and in the comics, but Mazouz’s harrowing scream adds a depth to it rarely seen. Perhaps best known as Kiefer Sutherland’s mostly-mute son in Fox’s short-lived “Touch,” the 13-year-old proves more than capable of handling the emotional depth of a child in mourning.

He’s just one piece of an acting ensemble that is rock solid in this pilot, if prone to occasionally hamming it up. Ben McKenzie, as Gordon, is a little too gruff and serious in his line deliveries and facial expressions, while Pinkett Smith is a bit cartoonish at times as aspiring crime boss Fish Mooney.

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The same could be said for Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot, but at the same time he is the most mesmerizing presence on the screen. Plus, a little camp isn’t going to hurt “Gotham.” The show operates on a slightly heightened sense of reality — think of it as a hint of Frank Miller’sSin City” in an otherwise grounded reality.

I don’t know how far the show is going to progress Batman’s rogues gallery of colorful villains, but if we’re ever supposed to buy into characters like the Penguin, Riddler, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman, then this show can’t feel fully grounded in the real world. It’s smart to establish it as slightly fanciful right away.

This is done both with the acting performances, and some bits of overwritten dialogue. At one point, when giving Gordon a pep talk, his fiancee Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) tells him, “I very much doubt you are out of your depth. But even if you are, you know how to swim, don’t you?”

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Who talks like that? In an intimate setting with your loved one, are you really going to try and cheer them up with an awkward metaphor? But it worked, and he responded in kind. A little off-putting at first, it’s not enough to make the pilot less compelling, but it did pull me out of the drama a bit as I rolled my eyes.

There are several moments like that where the dialogue is a little overwrought, but I think it only stands out because we’re missing the colorful costumes and outlandish characters we’re used to seeing populate Gotham. We would have no qualms with that scene between Gordon and his fiancee were it coming after a scene with Heath Ledger‘s Joker bantering with Christian Bale’s Batman.

Plus, a heightened reality works in a show that’s trying to establish the black-and-white world of good versus evil that Batman settles into. In a very bleak city with Batman still a decade away or more, James Gordon may represent the only hope for justice on the Gotham City Police Department.

I’m curious to see what roles Detectives Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart Jones) will play in the coming weeks. They certainly don’t start out in Gordon’s corner, but the characters have a long history in the DC Universe, with both of them having donned superhero costumes at one time or another.

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I’m not expecting that, but maybe “Gotham” will follow the leads of fellow DCU series “Smallville” and “Arrow,” and James Gordon will establish his own team of people helping him stand up for what’s right. Perhaps a young Bruce Wayne could get involved in some capacity. In fact, if he doesn’t, then why is Mazouz a main character in this cast?

For that matter, there are several cast members we’ve yet to spend any real time with, including Camren Bicondova’s Selina Kyle (Catwoman), Clare Foley’s Ivy Pepper (Poison Ivy) and Cory Michael Smith‘s Edward Nigma (The Riddler). These characters have big futures in Gotham, so I’m looking forward to some actual screen-time with them.

Bullock is rightfully the wild card of the series, and Logue is absolutely brilliant in the role. This is Logue’s strongest acting performance to date, and I suspect the one that will finally make him a star. Sure, he had his own sitcom with “Grounded for Life,” but he really began impressing critics with dramatic turns on shows like “Terriers,” “Vikings” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

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His humorous chops serve him well in dark roles, and I’m hoping to see more of Bullock’s sarcastic charm in future episodes. So far, Logue perfectly captures the comics’ alcoholic, morally questionable detective. Behind Taylor’s Cobblepot, he makes Bullock the most exciting character to watch.

Gordon is most likely incorruptible, but he may be the only one. Bullock is jaded by his years on the force. Either Gordon is going to bring him into the light, or he’ll pull Gordon down to his depths. McKenzie and Logue already show great chemistry as reluctant partners, so theirs should be a relationship that’s fun to watch evolve.

“Gotham” is dark and unpleasant, but it’s also exciting and unpredictable. With the pilot dominated by the Wayne murders, we’ve yet to glimpse the true story that will steer this show. We may know how it all turns out, but we have no idea how it gets there.

“Gotham” premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.