Monday, September 22, 2014

Gotham : The Pilot - A Review

Gotham is a paradox on multiple levels. On the one hand, the show goes out of its way to try and win over skeptical fans of the Batman comics by dropping repeated references to the books. On the other hand, much of the show's story cuts out the heart of those same comics.

The show is at its best when it is played as a straight police procedural drama. It is at its worst when it winks at the camera whenever anyone compares toadying-thug Oswald to a penguin or GCPD technician Eddie is told to stop talking in riddles. However, the unsubtle references are merely an annoyance. It is the subtler references that are likely to outright offend the comic fans.

Case In Point. Early on in the episode, Detective Rene Montoya is introduced along with her partner, Crispus Allen. In the comics, they are among the few honest cops in Gotham City. In Gotham, they are glory-hounds who try and take over the Wayne murder case. Later, when they are given a tip that an innocent man was framed for the murder as a result of Jim Gordon's investigation, Rene goes to Jim's fiancee - Barbara Kean - to tell her that James is a low-down crook and she should leave him. And then we get the revelation that Rene and Barbara are more than old friends.

Where do I start in describing everything that is wrong with this from the perspective of a comic fan? Rene Montoya being more concerned with publicity than justice? Rene's first response to finding out that a fellow detective is bent being to go outside the department and tell stories out of school? The cliche of the predatory lesbian trying to win back the ex-girlfriend who went straight? All of this is a slap in the face to fans of Rene's character in the comics.

This is the most extreme example, but other characters are similarly warped. Harvey Bullock, for instance, is portrayed as a mobbed-up cop whereas his comic counterpart is as clean in his conduct as he is dirty in appearance. And Alfred Pennyworth - from what little we see of him - seems to be an East London thug rather than a Gentleman's Gentleman.

Jim Gordon introduces a completely different set of problems. Jim is portrayed as the honest policeman that he should be but much of the character's motivations in the comics were born of his being an outsider to Gotham and their way of doing things. It seems ludicrous for Gordon to be as naive as he is portrayed here when he's reportedly a Gotham native and his father was a former district attorney. Then again, having Gordon be part of an old money Gotham family is perhaps the only way to explain how he can afford the opulent apartment he has on an honest cop's salary.

Still, at least Harvey and Jim are fully developed as characters in this pilot.  Most of the references to the comics are completely incidental to the plot.  Yes, we get to see a young Selina Kyle prowling around but nothing is made of her appearances throughout the episode nor of her chance presence when The Waynes are killed.  Yes, there's a young redhead girl who loves plants named Ivy Pepper but she is completely unnecessary to the story.  And how is Edward Nygma's presence in this episode like an unsharpened pencil?  They're both completely pointless.

Technically, the show is something of a mixed bag.  The cinematography is decent enough when we're getting long, slow shots of the Gotham skyline yet it becomes laughably bad during the action scenes, which feature some of the worst shaky-cam effects I've ever seen on television.  The music is subpar industrial rock, which leaves a montage of Harvey Bullock's questioning suspects looking and sounding like a Slipknot video from four years ago.

The performances are equally mixed.  Ben McKenzie is suitably earnest as Jim Gordon and Donal Logue makes Harvey Bullock into a likable rogue, even as he's working against Jim. Sean Pertwee manages to make Alfred Pennyworth intriguing by sheer force of personality. But Robin Taylor's Oswald Cobblepot and Cory Michael Smith's Edward Nygma are far too campy compared to the dark tone of the show.  And Jada Pinkett Smith's performance, as the mob boss Fish Mooney, shows why she is best remembered by audiences as Will Smith's wife.

In the end, Gotham tries too hard to be all things to all people and succeeds only in being nothing special.  Fans of cop dramas are unlikely to be wowed by the differences the show's setting inspired. And most comic fans will be indifferent, at best, to the nods to the source material that amount to nothing more than a handful of names and nothing else.

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