Fox’s Gotham has been running for a few weeks now, and it’s off to a bittersweet start. The Batman show without Batman serves as a prequel to the mythology we know.
There’s a lot to like in Gotham. It looks great, shot in New York and enhanced with seamless visual effects. The performances are solid, often transcending weak scripts.
But overall, Gotham suffers from an identity crisis. This show can’t decide what it’s trying to be. One scene evokes the grounded tone of The Dark Knight. The next evokes the camp of 1966. Here are 10 hits and misses in Gotham’s first five episodes.
5. Miss: Fish Mooney
The Portrayal: Jada Pinkett Smith lends the series its greatest star power. Her character, underworld player Fish Mooney, was conceived for the series as a new addition to the Batman mythology. Mooney serves as a lieutenant in the Falcone crime family. She despises her boss and aspires to replace him as the dominant figure in Gotham’s underworld.
Why It’s a Miss: It’s fitting that Fish Mooney was created uniquely for this show, because she personifies its tonal inconsistency. It’s unclear whether we’re meant to root for her or against her. In one scene, she’s ordering the brutal torture and execution of police officers, as if it’s no big deal. In the next, she’s helplessly browbeat by Falcone and proven largely impotent. Pinkett Smith chews the scenery, evoking the camp of the 1960s television show. Her portrayal has been described as an “Eartha Kitt impersonation.”
5. Hit: Harvey Bullock
The Portrayal: Harvey Bullock is a police detective from the comics, and other adaptations like Batman: The Animated Series, who has never before been portrayed in live action. He personifies the soul of Gotham City, corrupt and jaded, but not fully lost to the dark.
Why It’s a Hit: Donal Logue sets a high bar for future live action iterations of the character, which may be more likely now, considering the quality of his performance. As a reluctant partner to the much straighter-laced Jim Gordon, Bullock acts as our tour guide through the seedy underbelly of Gotham City.
4. Miss: Bruce Wayne
The Portrayal: The first episode kicks off with the seminal moment of Bruce Wayne’s life, the murder of his parents. In previous Batman tales, we jumped from there to a future where Bruce becomes the Batman. Here, we follow him in the aftermath of his childhood trauma.
Why It’s a Miss: Gotham’s inherent weakness, a problem it can never fully overcome, is Batman’s absence. Consistently parading a twelve-year-old Bruce Wayne on screen only serves to remind us of that. Bruce immediately assumes characteristics of his elder self, working to understand Gotham’s corruption and unravel the mystery of who killed his parents. It’s all very unlike any twelve-year-old you know, to the point where suspension of disbelief becomes difficult.
4. Hit: The Mob War
The Portrayal: Gotham City’s underworld has long been dominated by Carmine Falcone, don of a major crime family. His grip upon the city had some connection to Thomas and Martha Wayne. Their death has weakened him in a way which has not yet been made clear. Enter Sal Maroni, an impetuous contender eager to push Falcone out.
Why It’s a Hit: One of the reasons that The Dark Knight stands as a contender for the best comic book-inspired film of all time is its focus upon criminal intrigue rather than cartoonish supervillains. The Joker in that film aggravates the existing criminal threat. The focus on supervillains in earlier adaptations, particularly the Schumacher films, detracted from a foundational aspect of Bruce Wayne’s character. He didn’t become the Batman to fight costumed characters. He became the Batman to fight crime. Crime took his parents from him, and crime stands as his eternal antagonist. Gotham’s mob war evokes that.
3. Miss: Catgirl
The Portrayal: Little to nothing has been offered in past adaptations to suggest much of an origin story for Selina Kyle, the girl who becomes Catwoman. Gotham imagines her as a streetwise orphan who steals what she needs to survive. For reasons not yet made clear, she slinks around rooftops, has an affinity for all things feline, and claims the ability to see in the dark. Oh, and she witnessed the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, providing a new twist on that relationship.
Why It’s a Miss: Like all of Batman’s future-villains on the show, Kyle’s destiny as Catwoman is telescoped too bluntly. There’s no reason for her to be hopping around on rooftops. There doesn’t seem to be much, aside from her age, that separates her from the elder Catwoman persona. She’s basically just Catgirl. It would have been more interesting to witness a journey from wallflower to assertive vixen which could be explored over several seasons. There’s nowhere for this version of Selina Kyle to go. She’s just waiting to grow up and make it official.
3. Hit: Jim Gordon
The Portrayal: Before the mustache and glasses, there was Ben McKenzie’s pretty bare face. This version of Gordon is nowhere near the seasoned lawman who will one day lead the G.C.P.D. Returning to the city after several years away, Gordon brings a naiveté which we the audience share. If Bullock is our guide through Gotham, Gordon is our avatar.
Why It’s a Hit: Unlike so many other characters on the show, Gotham’s Gordon actually has somewhere to go. He’s naive, but not dumb. He’s quickly realizing how a good person can be compromised by the city’s deeply rooted corruption. Gordon is a tragic character, doomed to fail. He believes in the law and prefers to operate by the book. But Gotham won’t reward his faith. The city needs something beyond the law. It needs the Batman. We know Gordon will eventually concede that. But it’s not something he will accept now.
2. Miss: Riddler
The Portrayal: Edward Nygma, the man who will one day become the Riddler, now works as a forensic specialist for the G.C.P.D. Cory Michael Smith inhabits the role, modeling all the characteristics we’ve come to expect from previous iterations.
Why It’s a Miss: Having Nygma work for the police, before becoming an outlaw later in life, stands as a good narrative choice. Nygma doesn’t have much of an established origin otherwise. However, like Selina Kyle, this version of Nygma has nowhere to go. The only difference between Nygma as we see him now and the Riddler of future years is the costume and the crime. We have no sense of who he is or what may motivate him to future villainy. He’s just there because, hey, it’s the Riddler!
2. Hit: Penguin
The Portrayal: As the villains in Batman’s rogues gallery go, the Penguin has always been an oddity. Neither the campy portrayal by Burgess Meredith or the gothic turn by Danny DeVitto would translate well to modern audiences. Gotham takes a different route, unprecedented in many ways. Gotham’s Penguin, also known as Oswald Cobblepot, is a small-time criminal schemer scrambling to survive.
Why It’s a Hit: So far, Cobblepot stands as the only future-villain portrayed with any depth in Gotham. It’s not clear how this version of Cobblepot will become the Penguin we know. He’s so far from the influence and ability needed to challenge the Batman that it’s easy to forget his destiny. Actor Robin Lord Taylor has crafted a character alternatively pitiful and malignant, both vulnerable and extremely dangerous. It’s a combination which leaves us rooting for him to succeed in spite of his villainous nature.
1. Miss: Cheesy Villains of the Week
The Portrayal: Series of this type tend to fall into a rut where there’s a random baddie of the week. Smallville started that way for its first couple of seasons before the writers invested in better character arcs. So far, Gotham has featured cheerful kidnappers reaping homeless children from the street, an assassin who uses an unnecessarily complex homemade spear, a vigilante who kills corrupt personages by handcuffing them to weather balloons, and some drugged up proto-zombies who foreshadow future-villain Bane.
Why It’s a Miss: The show-runners need to commit to what kind of show this is. If it’s a gritty crime drama exploring why a city would need a vigilante to save it, then it needs to be that. If it’s a campy comic book action series, then it needs to be that. It can’t be both. It’s hard to suspend disbelief when hard-nosed cops like Bullock and Gordon encounter balloon men or super-zombies as if such things were just another day at the office.
1. Hit: Alfred Pennyworth
The Portrayal: Bruce Wayne’s relationship to his butler, Alfred Pennyworth, stands as the most fertile ground from which to reap stories in this largely unexplored period of the characters’ lives. While Bruce’s presence adds little to the show, there is something fascinating about Alfred’s negotiation of the line between father figure and subordinate. Here’s a guy raising his prepubescent boss. How awkward is that?
Why It’s a Hit: With apologies to Michael Caine, Sean Pertwee’s portrayal of Alfred stands as a clear improvement over any previous iteration. This character, played in this way, elevates the entire project. Latter incarnations of Alfred in the comics show him to be an able combatant with a military intelligence background, qualities befitting the chief accomplice of a vigilante crime-fighter. From the moment we first see Pertwee onscreen, he conveys much more than a servant’s demeanor. We can see harsh experience reflected in his eyes, and a fierce determination to protect his ward.