Despite critical admiration for its pilot, skepticism in certain quadrants (including this one) greeted “Gotham,” the Batman prequel that just capped a successful first season on Fox. Specifically, there was the little matter of the elephant (OK, bat colony) in the room – namely, that no matter how much the series sought to invoke its source material, it could never show the young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), still a child, in cape and cowl.
Yet as the season finale made clear (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), under showrunner Bruno Heller the DC Comics-inspired drama has demonstrated that it can mostly stand on its own – exhibiting wit about its tie-ins to the Batman universe, but without needing to “ooh” and “aah” at every teasing reference regarding the comic-book world to come. In that respect, the show, for all its gloom and darkness, appears to have something that wasn’t obvious initially: A bright future.
The Warner Bros. TV series has made that happen by operating essentially as a TV crime drama with an exaggerated graphic-novel sensibility. Indeed, if anyone required any reminders that this show certainly isn’t for kids, the finale contained almost crazy levels of violence, after a season that has seen eyes gouged out and the future Commissioner Gordon (Ben McKenzie) endure more punishment than any hero this side of Netflix’s current incarnation of Daredevil.
That included a full-scale gang war, which resulted in the death of one crime boss (David Zayas) and the decision by another, Carmine Falcone (the splendid John Doman), to get out of the crime business (at least for a while) and seek a more peaceful life. It also saw the demise of Fish Mooney, who as played by Jada Pinkett Smith was something of a fish out of water – not only because she lacked a place in the larger Batman universe, but because her over-the-top performance at times made the super-villains-to-be appear restrained and sedate by comparison.
The producers have classed up “Gotham” in part by populating this dystopian city with first-rate actors, which became more clear and apparent as the season progressed. Beyond the core cast, which saw Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin emerge as something of a breakout star, that included bringing in Morena Baccarin as a love interest for Gordon and Milo Ventimiglia in a multi-episode arc as a truly grisly killer. The finish also featured a particularly creepy scene auguring that Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) has turned a corner toward the madness of his future Riddler persona.
Any prequel faces certain limitations and constraints, particularly when teased out in this protracted fashion. Moreover, the show continues to yield clunky moments seemingly culled from slasher movies, such as the psychotic, knife-wielding assault by Gordon’s ex-girlfriend Barbara (Erin Richards) on Baccarin’s character.
That said, the considerable lapse of time between events in “Gotham” and the rise of the Dark Knight provides plenty of wiggle room, even if the kid did stumble on a secret door to a convenient cave underneath his mansion. Perhaps wisely, that subplot has been developed sparingly, although it was worth it if only to see butler Alfred (Sean Pertwee) go into full-on warrior mode earlier in the season.
“Empire” was obviously the best thing that happened to Fox this season, but “Gotham” ranks a solid second. Season to date, the show is averaging 9.6 million viewers in live-plus-seven ratings (incorporating a week’s worth of DVR playback), per Nielsen data, and the total tops 13 million viewers — roughly doubling its Monday-night tune-in — when all streaming and on-demand plays are thrown in.
Maintaining this sort of construct — operating with certain limits in terms of the continuity of the DC universe — is a delicate balancing act. Yet given that Heller and company essentially started with little more than a symbol and built a fully realized world around it that answers the riddle, “How do you do a Batman TV series without Batman?,” they’ve already demonstrated a pretty accomplished bag of tricks in their utility belt.