What good is a Batman show where Bruce Wayne never dons the cape and cowl?
That’s the question fans have been asking since Gotham, the new series premiering tonight on Fox, was first announced last year. The long-gestating brainchild of showrunner Bruno Heller, the creative force behind HBO’s sumptuous but short-lived period epic Rome and the bland but popular CBS drama The Mentalist, Gotham is set roughly a decade before Master Bruce takes up the mantle of the Bat, meaning the majority of the franchise’s most iconic characters — the Joker, Catwoman, the Riddler, the Penguin — are either obscure up-and-comers or completely absent from the story (Robin isn’t even a hatchling at this point).
Mining the single most recognizable setting in the DC universe might seem like a roadmap to ratings gold, but Heller’s series is actually a calculated risk for Fox, who committed to 16 episodes and an exclusive subscription deal with Netflix before the pilot’s debut. The last live-action Batman series to suffer from a distinct lack of Batman was 2002’s Birds of Prey, a superhero gloss on Buffy the Vampire Slayer that was famously cancelled after only 13 episodes. So why does Gotham seem destined to succeed where previous attempts have shriveled up faster than a Venom-deprived Bane? Two words: James Gordon.
That’s right, the focus of the show is trained squarely on fan-favorite Detective Gordon (Ben McKenzie), the fresh-faced Gotham City transplant who will eventually ascend to the rank of commissioner, cutting through a morass of corruption to emerge as one of Batman’s staunchest allies in his never-ending war on crime. The first episode opens with Gordon arriving in Gotham and locking horns with his new partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), a cynical, slovenly veteran who appears just a few shades shy of being dirty. The first few minutes are worryingly heavy with hackneyed procedural dialogue, but the narrative stabilizes as the two men slowly develop a grudging respect for each other.
Despite Bullock’s protests, the pair’s first case together ends up being the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which leads to Gordon’s first encounter with the newly orphaned Bruce (David Mazouz, best known for playing Kiefer Sutherland’s autistic son in Touch), emotionally excoriated by the loss of his parents, and his faithful butler Alfred (Sean Pertwee, swapping the standard prim-and-proper elocution for a full-throated Cockney drawl). After vowing to bring the killer to justice for the sake of the boy’s soul, Gordon quickly finds himself caught in a battle of wits with the glamorous but deadly crime lord Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) and her simpering manservant, a hook-nosed, umbrella-wielding cretin by the name of Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor).
As evidence of a devilish conspiracy against the Wayne family steadily mounts, a cavalcade of future rogues scuttles from the shadows, including obsessive puzzler Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), prepubescent cat burglar Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), budding horticulturist Ivy Pepper (Clare Foley) and a nameless standup comedian who is persuaded to stop taking life so seriously.
The Gordon character, previously inhabited by the likes of Gary Oldman and the voice of Bryan Cranston, is a surprisingly meaty role, the battered moral compass of the Batman mythos, and McKenzie tears into it with dogged determination. The actor, already known for portraying a conflicted cop in TNT’s crime drama Southland, might be in danger of repeating himself here, but he acquits himself admirably by playing Gordon not as some Serpico-style martyr but rather as a flawed, noble man with superhuman reserves of kindness and decency. It’s suddenly easy to remember why Frank Miller insisted on putting Gordon front and center in Batman Year One, the acclaimed graphic novel where the future Commissioner is revealed to be every bit the hero Batman is, if not more so.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Batman show without a few quality villains. Taylor is definitely the early standout here. His Cobblepot is a real piece of work: a scheming sadist who’s grown adept at using ingratiation and flattery to conceal his grandiose ambitions. His scenes with Pinkett Smith are over-the-top but far too diabolical to qualify as Adam West-era camp, especially when the treacherous twosome begins plotting against Carmine Falcone (John Doman), the boss of all bosses in Gotham City.
Nearly every scene in the pilot is injected with a sense of heightened reality, an atmosphere that blends Tim Burton’s Gothic playhouse aesthetic with the more grounded neo-noir sensibilities of Christopher Nolan. This is the most fully realized version of Gotham City fans are likely to see outside of Batman: The Animated Series and the Arkham City games. It will be interesting to see if future episodes with more modest budgets are able to recapture this unique look and feel.
Unlike ABC’s wildly inconsistent Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham works partly because it’s not beholden to a larger cinematic universe. This version of Batman’s origin exists completely outside any other official continuity, including the Nolan trilogy and Zack Snyder’s upcoming Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. That means these characters and their adventures will be allowed to unfold organically, without the need for endless tie-ins and crossover events (there’s been no indication thus far that Gotham exists in the same world as CW’s Arrow or next month’s The Flash, although that could change moving forward).
The long-term success of Gotham will largely depend on how the writers handle the Bruce Wayne character. Will the spotlight remain on Gordon and his efforts to root out corruption in the GCPD, or will Heller and his team take the Smallville route and show young Bruce actively pursuing his destiny? Mazouz is a gifted young actor, but it would be a mistake to simply remake Batman Begins on the small screen for the teenybopper crowd. If viewer or studio pressure ends up getting the better of them, however, they would do well to remember this fundamental truth about the character, something many creative minds have forgotten at their own peril: Bruce Wayne died with his parents. What survived became Batman.