Long before Batman existed, Gotham City was a weird, creepy place where the criminal element liked to get kind of silly. At least, that seems to be the main point of Gotham, the show set 10 years before Batman. Last night's premiere was ridiculously entertaining and impossible to take seriously. Spoilers ahead...
Exhibit A for the zaniness of the criminal element in pre-Batman Gotham is above. When crime boss Fish Mooney decides to dispose of two troublesome cops, she doesn't just quietly put them into a cement mixer somewhere. Instead she hangs them up in a meat freezer, gets one of her employees to put on a crazy Medieval torturer uniform and slice them up, and she videotapes it. I think it's the "videotaping it" part that pushes this over the edge into lunacy. Meanwhile, Fish Mooney is getting a foot-rub from the junior gangster who betrayed her, Oswald Cobblepot — because reflexology is the surest way to find a traitor in your midst.
I hadn't seen the pilot for Gotham until last night, and it was both sillier and more fun than I had expected. Somehow, I'd thought this show was actually trying to be a dark, serious crime drama that just happened to have young versions of Catwoman, Penguin, the Riddler and Poison Ivy in it. And my mind was boggling, trying to figure out how the show was going to pull off that blend of tones — but no, it's just very, very goofy.
And there seems to be a political dimension to all of that campy goofballery. What we're getting on Gotham is a somewhat unique look at urban decay and corruption, in which it's not a grim conspiracy of silence that keeps everything horrible. Rather, the city is doomed to misery and criminality by a lot of extremely wacky people doing a wacky dance. I enjoyed the heck out of the Gotham premiere, which had a few moments of touching emotion sandwiched between a lot of loopiness.
Here's how ridiculous Gotham's organized crime is:
When future Police Commissioner James Gordon happens upon a few of Fish Mooney's thugs (including Oswald) beating up a guy who either failed to pay what he owes, or stole from Fish, everybody stops what they're doing and gives Gordon a comedy thumbs-up, even the guy who's getting the crap knocked out of him with a baseball bat. Nothing wrong with the victim of the beating pretending he's OK with it, I guess — but the Fonzie thing is just... weiird.
"Ayyyyy! We'ze all copacetic here, boss!"
Next these gangsters will go out and make a jukebox start playing better tunes by hitting it with brass knuckles.
The pilot actually starts off with our first glimpse of Kid Catwoman! (Catgirl?) She jumps off a Gotham rooftop randomly, without a rope or anything. I guess there are fire escapes and things. Anyway, Catwoman stalks the streets of Gotham, stealing some milk from a lady by cutting her shopping bag and then lifting a fancy man's wallet. Catwoman then goes to an alley, where she feeds the milk to a stray cat.
At this point, everybody watching the pilot with me started shouting "Noooo!" because if you've ever fed milk to a cat, you know what happens next: cat barf, all over the place. Why does Baby Catwoman want to cause intestinal distress to the cats of Gotham? Is this her new origin story, that she originally hated cats and schemed to make them barf everywhere, until she had a change of heart?
Anyway, Catwoman soon finds herself witnessing a grim and defining murder:
Martha and Thomas Wayne get shot by a mugger in the alley, leaving their son, Bruce Wayne, alive.
The murder of the Waynes seems to be the big arc for this season of Gotham, which leaves me wondering: are we going to solve this crime? Like, actually? Isn't his parents' unsolved murder one of the things that motivates Bruce Wayne to become Batman, years from now?
In any case, it's way more obvious in this version of the story that Bruce Wayne's parents weren't just killed by a random mugger. The man who kills them has expensive shoes and is wearing a mask, and uses a high-end gun that shoots $6 bullets and is impossible to trace. Whoever shot them somehow knew they would be foolishly walking down that alley at night.
And almost all of Batman's future adversaries are tied in with the Waynes' murder (except this time, the Joker didn't shoot them, as he did in the Burton film.) Catwoman witnesses the slaying, the Riddler studies it as a CSI tech, Poison Ivy's dad is framed for it and dies as a result, and the Penguin snitches about the frame job to the Major Crimes Unit. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
So this is our hero:
Meet Jim Gordon, who's kind of a hyperactive rookie cop who wants to do the right thing but is ensnared in corruption and evil. For some reason, during the episode's big chase scene, director Danny Cannon keeps cutting to this weird tight closeup of Gordon running and bugging out, with a slight fish-eye effect? Is this to symbolize that he's caught the eye of Fish Mooney? Hard to say.
Jim Gordon's father was the best District Attorney Gotham's ever seen — because they haven't seen Harvey Dent yet — and now he's come back to Gotham after being a soldier, to clean up his hometown. This pilot is all about Gordon realizing that doing the right thing in Gotham is going to be a lot harder than he hoped, because of all that police corruption.
Unfortunately, Gordon is saddled with a more experienced (and corrupt) partner — Detective Harvey Bullock. And the relationship between the two guys is basically at the heart of the show. Luckily, they have good chemistry, and the banter (like where Gordon calls Bullock "lackadaisical" and then Bullock keeps throwing it back at him) is entertaining and zippy, to say the least.
Making Gordon's corrupt partner Bullock is an interesting choice — because fans of the comics will know that Bullock is going to wind up being a more-or-less good cop, who becomes one of Gordon's trusted lieutenants. So this has to be a story about Bullock's redemption as much as about Gordon's doomed battle to save Gotham on his own. They could have given Gordon a partner like Arnold Flass, his brutal and irredeemable partner from the Year One comic, but instead they gave him a sympathetic mook.
And like everybody's already said, Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock is the best part of this show thus far. He's kind of lovable, and manages to sell the idea that his character is a scumbag who will (usually) do the right thing when it comes down to it.
Basically, this show is setting up Gordon and Bullock as pretty close analogues of Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt from Life on Mars — in a very real sense, Bullock is living in the past, and Gordon is from the future. Bullock's Gotham feels like it belongs in the 1970s, with its omerta and its system where everybody just gets along and nobody rocks the boat. This show is very deliberately timeless — although I noticed everybody has flip phones, which is interesting.
The most effective and touching moments in the pilot involve Gordon bonding with the newly orphaned Bruce Wayne, who is trying to be brave after watching his parents gunned down.
Gordon very quickly becomes a kind of father figure to the future Batman, and tries to teach him that fear isn't something to be conquered because fear lets you know where the edge is. Gordon shares the story of his father dying in a car accident (which is so not going to turn out to be an accident) and the two guys bond over shared loss.
The dynamic between Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne is touching and provides the biggest moments of real emotion in this pilot — but it also makes me wonder how they're going to handle this relationship going forward. Is Gordon going to drive out to Wayne Manor and ask for advice every time he's stuck on a case? Or will Bruce start going into the city to investigate stuff, and get into trouble? (Probably the latter, right?)
Meanwhile, there are some honest cops in Gotham after all — the Major Crimes Unit seems to be pretty incorruptible, and we meet Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya, who will also one day be among Gordon's trusted lieutenants. They look down on Bullock (and assume immediately that Gordon is corrupt as well.) Here's Allen telling Bullock to stay frosty.
When Bullock and Gordon accidentally get handed the murder case on Bruce Wayne's parents, Allen and Montoya try to take it away from them. And Bullock nearly lets them — until Allen insults Bullock, who keeps the Wayne case out of pure spite.
One thing I like in this pilot is how it shows that not everything is down to corruption — sometimes the honest cops are kept off a case purely because of a fit of pique on the part of someone like Harvey. In fact, you could argue that Bruce Wayne's parents' killer might have found justice right away, if Harvey had just gotten over himself and let the real cops investigate this one. That vision of injustice perpetuated due to a mixture of laziness and grumpiness is sort of fascinating.
Investigating the Wayne murder, Gordon and Bullock meet up with Edward Nygma — who's one of the "good guys," a CSI tech working in forensics. And he tells them information about their mysterious, high-end bullet, while also trying to get them to answer his riddles.
Of all the future Bat-villains shoehorned into this pilot to keep people from getting bored and changing the channel after half an hour, the Riddler makes the most sense — he actually kind of works as a police tech, and it's not out of keeping with his portrayal in other versions of the story. It feels less obtrusive than Catwoman and Poison Ivy do.
Speaking of which, here's "Ivy Pepper," the future Poison Ivy. Her abusive father is the low-life thug who gets framed for the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. It's Mario Pepper that Jim Gordon is chasing in the hyperactive GIF above.
Mario Pepper gets shot by Bullock while he's trying to beat Jim Gordon to death, so at least his death is sort of self-defense. (But Bullock still argues they can't tell anybody that Mario might be innocent, because it will look bad. Thus ensnaring Gordon in his lies.) Someone, presumably Harvey, plants a replica of Martha Wayne's pearl necklace along with a lot of drugs in Mario's apartment — making this an expensive frame job.
Ivy Pepper keeps a lot of plants sitting around, and seems pretty terrorized by her abusive father. But presumably she'll also be scarred by her father's murder by corrupt cops, and maybe will blame Jim Gordon for it.
Barbara Kean, the future Mrs. Gordon, is some kind of rich socialite who has a fancy apartment and can't wait to marry Jim Gordon so she can cook him healthy meals all the time. She's utterly devoted to the handsome young rookie, but doesn't seem to notice when he keeps getting up in the middle of the night to go investigate potentially lethal avenues of inquiry on his own. Later in the episode, she notices that Jim has been gone an awful long time since he went out "for a walk," and goes to ask Bullock what's up. Bullock tells her that Gordon went out on a stakeout and his phone ran out of battery, and Barbara accepts this explanation without question.
Meanwhile, Barbara and Detective Montoya have a past together. What kind of a past? Check out the way Montoya pointedly looks down at Barabara Kean's body when she says that she knows Barbara really well. REALLLLY well. Also, I love that top that Barbara is wearing in this scene.
Anyway, it's good that this show is introducing an LGBT character right off the bat — Montoya is a lesbian in the comics, and I'm guessing they wouldn't dare change that on television, for fear of some really gnarly backlash.
Gordon and Bullock are hailed as heroes for cracking the Wayne case. But the Penguin knows it's a frame job, and he sees an opportunity to afford some cooler sunglasses.
The Penguin goes and informs Allen and Montoya that he saw Fish Mooney with the pearl necklace that was used to frame Mario Pepper for the Waynes' murder. Oswald believes that Fish Mooney is on her way out, and there's going to be an opening for someone to move up in the organization if she falls. (And based on this episode alone, Fish Mooney appears to be in the habit of making lots of weird mistakes.)
That's when Montoya goes to confront her ex-girlfriend Barbara with the info that Barbara's fiance is a corrupt cop who helped frame Mario Pepper. And that leads to James Gordon realizing he's been a stooge.
Here's the hilarious bit where Fish Mooney confronts Oswald Cobblepot, who's in the middle of giving her a foot rub. She realizes that Oswald dropped a dime on her, and she's mad as hell. He tries to fight, but she smacks him down. Love the notion that she's a crime boss who rules with an iron fist and a well-massaged foot.
But even if Fish Mooney has gotten her feet rubbed, she's overplayed her hand:
Because first Gordon rushes to confront Fish, and gets himself beaten up and hung up in the slaughterhouse of campy hoods. And then Bullock goes to save Gordon, after hearing from Barbara about Gordon's nocturnal peregrinations, and threatens to go after Fish if anything happens to his partner. Which leads to Bullock, too, getting strung up upside-down. In one of the episode's biggest, and funniest, surprises.
Love Bullock swaggering in to the rescue, only to find himself in the same boat as his partner. And this is also the biggest hint that Bullock is basically a good guy after all.
Luckily, they're saved at the last minute by Carmine Falcone, the Gotham crime boss and Fish Mooney's superior. Falcone A) doesn't stand for killing cops without his permission, and B) had a friendly relationship with James Gordon's dad, the former D.A.
Falcone and Gordon have a heart-to-heart talk about Gordon's dad and the way that everything functions smoothly in Gotham, like a well-oiled pocket watch or something. Even though everything we've seen indicates that Gotham is actually a total mess, where nothing works at all.
Gordon is let off the hook, but he has to prove his loyalty to the mob bosses by taking care of a loose end: Oswald Cobblepot, who's in the trunk of Bullock's car.
Bullock tells Gordon to walk Cobblepot out to the end of a pier and shoot him in the head, then dump him in the river. This will complete Gordon's descent into corruption and general naughtiness, because there'll be no going back after murdering a mobster. And if Gordon refuses to do this, then Bullock says he'll try to kill Gordon, although his heart won't be in it.
Gordon marches Cobblepot out to the pier, and then fires his gun in the general vicinity of Cobblepot's head and tells him not to come back to Gotham. (That's going to work out great.) Then he shoves Cobblepot into the water, and the Penguin swims away.
Gordon decides that the decision as to whether he remains a cop should be up to a little kid who's still totally numb with grief and misery.
He goes out to Wayne Manor and offers his badge to Bruce Wayne — whom he's just seen standing on the rooftop trying to conquer his fear (and acting kind of unhinged). He tells Bruce that Mario Pepper didn't really kill the Waynes, and that he's going to find out who did — but Gotham is super corrupt and messed up, and Gordon's going to have to get his hands dirty to clean things up. This is a dilemma with no good answer, but Bruce Wayne seems to understand what Gordon is on about. He tells Gordon to stick with it, and gives him his badge back.
Catwoman, meanwhile, has randomly traveled miles outside Gotham to the wealthy suburbs, where she's perching on the wall outside Wayne Manor. Is she spying on Bruce Wayne? Is she going to tell him what she knows? Is she going to feed milk to all the cats living on the grounds of Wayne Manor, so they throw up as well?
And the final kicker is that the Penguin has been so messed up by almost being shot and almost drowned, there are now three of him, and they all come out of the water simultaneously. One of these Penguin triumvirate kills a man for his sandwich. Which seems like the kind of act that marks you as a villain for life, honestly.
All in all, Gotham was a completely bonkers, completely fun ride that presents a somewhat unique view of dystopia: a world where incompetence and general gooniness is more dangerous than cunning or criminal organization. It's going to be fascinating to see this play out.
Oh, and Gotham got off to a reasonably strong start in the ratings, getting a 3.2 in the key demographic. But only about 8 million viewers total, which doesn't give it much of a comfort zone as its viewership inevitably declines in the next few weeks. (A lot of people probably checked out the pilot and won't be back next week — that happens to most new shows.)