FOX's 'Gotham' is an intriguing detective noir right off the bat

(Photo Courtesy of Fox) (Photo Courtesy of Fox)

It is a tricky bit of sorcery to review a television pilot, because the individual episode's quality is largely inconsequential. Sure, a show must be good in order to mandate continued viewership, but a television show is as much of a relationship as it is a piece of popular art. Viewers and critics alike are not just looking for a good episode during the onslaught of fall premieres, but a show they can see themselves enjoying week after week.

Often, a show's pilot episode can be very shaky. The central plot is unclear, the main characters are strangers and the tone is elusive. Many of these shows end up becoming defined by gravity; the creative process and the patience of audiences ultimately decide what they are.

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Other pilots can be knockouts while also being harbingers of rapidly diminishing returns. The story might have little room to branch out beyond the initial conceit, becoming immediately tedious as a few hours worth of plot and character development gets stretched to their limits.

It is very difficult to read the tea leaves just one episode into the season, but Fox's big play for a fall smash hit definitely appears to be the latter. "Gotham" is a prequel to the "Batman" comic books, one of the most iconic superhero franchises of all time. Rather than try to imitate the multitude of "Batman" adaptations before it, "Gotham" seeks to ambitiously portray the decades prior to Bruce Wayne inventing his superhero persona.

This involves kicking off the series with a familiar bang. Bruce Wayne, a boy of only 12, watches his parents be violently shot in an alley way by a masked murderer. In just about every version of this origin story, Tim Burton's excluded, this event is an isolated incident. Not so in "Gotham," as the shockingly violent (for network television, anyway) murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne provides a catalyst for the origins of several iconic "Batman" villains, but the course of events that change Gotham into a place that needs saving.

In what can only be seen as a massive disregard of canon, "Gotham" redefines several villains just in the first episode alone. Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler and Poison Ivy have a direct connection and stakes in the death of Bruce Wayne's parents. Where that will lead these characters is very unclear, as The Penguin is the only one whose presence does not seem superfluous at this juncture.

Despite what the advertising would like you to believe, "Gotham" does not seem interested in what would normally be perceived as its villains. The real villains, aside from the wildly evil Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), are the cops themselves. The level of corruption and morally bankrupt behavior in the Gotham PD, as brilliantly channeled through Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), serves as the scariest and most intriguing villain in the show.

The fire this creates in protagonist Jim Gordon's (Ben McKenzie) belly is already fascinating. This is clearly not just a normal police procedural set in a muddy comic book universe. "Gotham" is staging a multidimensional war.

As cool as this sounds in theory, it should also sound a little troubling. This would not be the first time an expensive high-concept show utilizing superhero mythology has greatly overpromised and underdelivered. "Gotham" shows a ton of promise, but what remains unclear is whether or not there is an endgame. There are very few signs as to where this show might be five weeks or five years from now. If fans of deeply involving genre fare have figured out anything, it is that shows like this can go south very fast if the creators are making things up as they go along.

For now, "Gotham" is an intense piece of pulp fiction that does not shy from its odd combination of influences. Things may change, and rapidly, but as it stands, this hybrid of comic book camp and detective film noir establishes a foundation that could make for must-see television. Like one of Edward Nygma's riddles, it is hard to know.

 

You may reach the reporter at zheltzel@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachheltzel.

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