The title and promotional campaign do “Gotham” no favors, fostering expectations about a stronger link to the “Batman” franchise than can possibly exist — at least, considering the setting, not for another 20 years or so. Taken strictly on its own terms, the Fox series is a handsome, gritty crime drama, with Ben McKenzie as the idealistic young cop and Donal Logue as his grizzled, ethically compromised partner. Yet if the show is supposed to work for its peripheral connection to the Dark Knight and his colorful menagerie of villains before they became such … well, that bat simply won’t fly.
It’s difficult to consider “Gotham” without drawing obvious comparisons to “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD,” which also operates with a hand (as well as a shield, hammer and some armor) tied behind its back. That’s because the references to “The Avengers” seem calibrated to evoke tingles in the most invested fanboys while extracting yawns from pretty much everyone else — as if there’s a premium to be extracted from superhero-adjacent real estate.
In a way, this latest once-removed dive into comics might be even more handcuffed, inasmuch as everything here takes place long before Batman as we know him came to be, beginning as it does with the young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) witnessing the murder of his parents, and straight-arrow cop Jim Gordon (McKenzie) pledging to catch the killer. That investigation leads him and partner Harvey Bullock (Logue) into the grimy world of Gotham corruption, starting with Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), which might be the worst name ever for what’s supposed to be a ruthless crime boss.
Sewn into the fabric of “Gotham” are plenty of Batman stalwarts, including the future Penguin (an appropriately creepy Robin Lord Taylor), Riddler, a.k.a. Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) and Catwoman (Camren Bicondova) — at this stage, really still just a kitten. But with all due respect to DC, Warner Bros. showrunner Bruno Heller and director Danny Cannon, who have made a show that’s polished, dark (to the point where it’s certainly not for kids) and true to the character’s roots … so what?
Clearly, the hope is casual viewers will get lost in “Gotham’s” murky alleyways, since the contingent apt to ooh and aah at every winking nod toward the future is more geared to the direct-to-DVD animated movies Warner Bros. Animation pumps out than the broader appeal required of a primetime series.
Fox nevertheless has plenty riding on this concept, which has received a promotional blitz (pun intended) during the network’s football coverage and joins the fantasy-oriented “Sleepy Hollow” Monday nights. The project also represents a sizable gambit for DC and Warner Bros., which by setting the story at the very beginning of Batman’s origins avoids concerns about complicating plans to leverage the character to rival Marvel’s dominance in the feature realm.
The casting alone distinguishes this as a show worthy of attention, whatever the genre, including “The Wire” alum John Doman in the role of mob boss Carmine Falcone, a character featured in “Batman Begins,” who pops up late in the festivities. There’s also a potentially interesting exploration of morality in the face of corruption, concerning just how much Gordon will have to compromise his values to survive, and in the process do some good, in this seamy world.
“This is not a city, or a job, for nice guys,” Bullock tells him.
Nope, this looks more like a job for Batman. And since we can’t have him, the question is just how long “Gotham” can get by on smoke, mirrors and coy references without him — a riddle, frankly, that even the future E. Nygma couldn’t solve.