Gotham Pilot Review: There Will Not Be Light
For better and for worse, Gotham lives up to its title. This is not a show about any one person, not Detective Gordon and certainly not Bruce Wayne. This is a show about Gotham, a city that has devolved into a degenerate pit of corruption and despair. This is the place, as Gordon will soon learn, where idealism goes to die.
That's a powerful concept, and for the most part, the pilot delivers on it. The city itself is beautifully rendered, but is also sinister, neo-noir, and perpetually bathed in darkness. The setting, and the writing to some extent, has all the trappings of a dystopia; filmed in New York City, Gotham looks just like the city we all know, but also has an otherworldly, alien quality to it. It's New York, but without Times Square, Broadway, hipsters, bagels, or sunlight. All that's left are cold, concrete buildings, urban alienation, and moral decay.
As a result of the show's distinct sense of place, the weaknesses in characterization can almost be forgiven. The subtlety levels left a lot to be desired; Catwoman feeds a cat within her first two minutes onscreen, the Riddler is told "we don't have time for riddles," and, in the most painful dialogue of the pilot, Bullock tells Gordon (Ben McKenzie, whose confidence and dramatic heft have improved considerably since his days on The O.C.) that he's a "nice guy," and Gordon replies that Bullock is "a cynic," which the audience most definitely did not need to be told. That being said, it makes sense to paint the characters in broad strokes, because they're not really supposed to be people. They're supposed to be archetypes, manifestatations of various abstract ideas. Gordon is the idealist, Bullock is the cynic (and possibly disappointed idealist, as the case often is), Fish Mooney is the ruthless powermonger, Tom Falcone is the criminal with a code of honor, and so on and so forth.
That being said, there were so many different characters to introduce, that some of the human drama fell distractingly flat. The interpersonal interactions generally felt rushed, as though we were watching a frenetic "greatest hits." The characters of Penguin and Barbara represented the best and worst of this show's capabilities, respectively. Barbara as a character was not justified, the pilot did a terrible job of making us care about her. She already seems like a future Woman in Refrigerator, which is the furthest thing from a compliment. The interactions between her and Gordon seemed forced, laughably so at times. Mostly because, like most of the episode, they were rushed. Setting up a suspicion on the part of Barbara that her fiancee framed a man for murder sounds like high drama, but it was brought up and dispelled within about five lines.
Then there's Penguin. It helps that Robin Lord Taylor gives a fantastic performance, but the character is written more like a real, idiosyncratic human being than any of the others. The trailers played up his comic book-level grandiosity, and when he says things like "A war is coming" or "There will be chaos, rivers of blood in the streets!", he pulls it off. But when you've written a character who can say that and "I'll be your slave for life!" in one breath, you know you really have something. He has the potential to be genuinely fascinating, which is great, but also makes me frustrated that they couldn't infuse some more of that relative complexity into the rest of the characters.
Besides Penguin, the most promising part of the pilot was, unsurprisingly, the world-building. The world of Gotham already seems intricate, with the warring of the crime families, the incestuous relationships between the criminals and police, and the unspoken code that the audience can learn to navigate alongside Gordon. Gotham has the potential to be a great morality play, a meditation on evil, and an illustration of the consequences of losing control of an entire city to crime lords. Gordon and Bruce both seem to embody the tragedy of lost innocence, and if they play their cards right, the writers could portray the murder of the Waynes as the lost innocence of an entire city. But they will need to make their characters seem just a little more human in order to make all of those big ideas feel earned.