PILOT LITE: Gotham (2014 television pilot)

Posted: September 29, 2014 in Batman, DC, Gordon, Gotham, Penguin, Spectre

This year sees an unprecedented amount of comic book characters being adapted to the small screen. When you add new shows to returning series like Arrow, Walking Dead and Agents of SHIELD, it sure looks like comics are primed to dominate this medium in the same way they have movie screens for the last decade or so. As such, now seems like the perfect time to launch a new column that takes a look at comic-book-based pilots. I’ve reviewed a couple so far, but they have been for shows that weren’t picked up or were never actually aired. With this column, I want to focus on shows that did go to series and see how well they establish their tone, characters and future storylines.

With that, I’ll be looking at the first pilot of 2014 to premiere: Gotham. This is the story of the ubiquitous police force in a pre-Batman version of the infamous city. While not based on any one interpretation of the characters, it does draw heavily from Gotham Central, a much-loved series from the early 2000’s. GC was, essentially, a police procedural with supervillains as the perpetrators. This series lacks the clearly defined supervillains since the first wave of those didn’t appear until after the first appearance of Batman. However, things like that don’t just happen over night. As such, this show is littered with the foundations of many notable characters. The pre-release material heavily publicized this as being the “origin” of many heroes and villains. But that’s not really giving due respect to what this series seems to actually be doing. Instead of origins, this is setting up complex paths that these characters will traverse. The concept of an “origin” is very anachronistic. We know that people aren’t defined by a single moment in their life, so why should fictional characters be?

“Don’t call me penguin.”

A good example of this is the character of Oswald Cobblepot. Ostensibly, his origin would be that he’s an ugly gangster who usurps control of Gotham’s mafia. Most audience members recognize him in this capacity and know that he’ll be known as The Penguin. However, he’s already referred to by that name more than once in the pilot thus showing the gradual and continual change that his character is going through. There are no definite beginning and ending points in real life. Even birth and death are preceded and succeeded by a vast number of events that are tied into one’s life. All that to say that this series deserves more credit for the slow burn character work that they seem to be establishing for its vast ensemble.

The episode opens with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. This is a scene that comic fans know all too well and yet it’s given an interesting twist as we’re seeing it from the point-of-view of a young street-kid who’s watching the violence unfold. We’re not given any information on this resourceful youth, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of fore-knowledge to realize that it’s Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman). From there, we’re introduced to sleazy veteran cop Harvey Bullock and his new partner, the level-headed Jim Gordon, as they work the murder case.

Fishy goodness.

The pilot moves fairly quickly, giving us introductions to many characters who are likely to get more screen time as the series progresses. There are plenty of veiled (and not so veiled) references to future personas as these characters are introduced. Fish Mooney, however, is a character who has no match within the comic. Played by Jada Pinkett Smith, she’s one of the old-guard gangsters who are all but eradicated by the time The Caped Crusader’s war on crime is in full swing. I’ve never been a big fan of Pinkett Smith (or is it just Smith? I dunno, but Jada feels too familiar) but I do like her in this role. She hams it up when appropriate and turns on the ice-cold sadism when needed. I never thought I’d say that I wanted to see more of her.

Between this show and Constantine, we may get two different takes
on The Spectre on television at the same time. Probably not…but still.

One aspect of the series that I find very interesting is the characterization of the Major Crimes Detectives, Montoya and Allen. In the comics, these two are often incredibly virtuous. While complex and interesting, the reader always had an easy time identifying with the decisions that they made. In fact, at some point in each of their personal histories, they became superheroes in addition (or in place) of their roles as cops. Montoya took over the mantle of The Question post-52 and Allen became The Spectre after his murder (oh…spoiler!). However, in this series they are shaded as antagonists. While not villainous, they are shadowy and malicious in their pursuit of justice. The pilot sets them up as unlikable foils to the uber-righteous Gordon and the dirty-but-endearing Bullock. While this is a departure from these characters’ comic personalities, I think it works well for the show.

Overall, I was very impressed with this pilot. Sure, there’s some kinks that will likely be worked out throughout the first season, but I can’t think of another pilot in recent memory that has felt so wholly competent. Danny Cannon (director of…Judge Dredd…really?) is the pilot’s director and executive producer of the series as a whole. He gives a certain Blade Runner aesthetic that is meshed with a toned-down version of the architecture of Burton’s Batman. It works great for television and I’m excited to see it develop as the series does as well. Here’s hoping that the remainder of the series follows and expands on the choices made here.

Bring. It. On.
  1. J.R. says:

    I have to disagree. I'm having a difficult time organizing my thoughts on it, but I will try my best.

    I was hoping for a bait-and-switch with the Wayne murder. When we saw a young boy and his parents exiting a movie theater and walking down a dark alley, we all knew what was coming. How cool would it have been if the couple was held up, but rescued by Jim Gordon? We'd find out it wasn't the Wayne family and Gordon could get an excellent introduction (Maybe this happens in Chicago a day before he transfers to Gotham). They could incorporate Thomas and Martha into the show a bit and lead up to the killing in the season finale.

    I did not like this version of Gordon. Frankly, he comes off as a bit of a jerk. When trouble occurs in the GCPD, Gordon runs in proclaiming, “I've got this!” That's the introduction of Jim Gordon? I've always loved how Gordon quietly resists the corruption in the department. He lets it be known that he's not one to be trifled with, but leads by example. He's not arrogant. He doesn't need any glory. He just wants to get the job done. I get that they are doing a younger take on the character, but I just didn't find him very likable.

    Why is Gordon living in a huge loft with an amazing view of Gotham? Part of what is so compelling about the character is that he isn't rich. It's hard to identify with Batman, a character with limitless resources. Gordon is just a normal guy trying to make a difference and get by on a cop's salary. That apartment probably runs around $9,000/month.

    I found the dialog between Bullock and Gordon boring and cliched. I see room for growth and hope to see Bullock given more to do than just be the corrupt cop that Jim Gordon helps redeem.

    The actual look of the show is what felt campy to me. Why do we see red and blue flashing lights constantly through the windows of the GCPD? We don't need to be reminded that we are in a police station. The show may depict a toned-down version of Anton Furst's architecture (which I'm okay with), but it also features a toned-down version of Schumacher's lighting (which I'm not okay with).

    I liked Jada Pinkett Smith. It's a fun character and I'm actually interested to see where they go with it. She offers a strong shade of grey to a story that feels very black and white. That being said, I hate the name Fish Mooney.

    I feel like the Penguin character is a bit of a missed opportunity. I feel no sympathy for him. I feel like they were trying to make him a tragic character, but he was depicted as such a creep I was actually kind of hoping Gordon would shoot him so we could be done with him. Hopefully, we'll see some flashbacks giving us a glimpse of what led him to where he is.

    I see potential but the pilot didn't do it for me. I'd give it a C rating. It would probably get a lower rating if Birds of Prey hadn't already set the bar so incredibly low. I didn't hate the pilot but I also didn't feel hooked.


  2. C_P says:

    While Gordon as a secondary character is often more passive in his resistance of corruption, when he's the lead of a story he tends to be more “hands on”. I mean, this is the same character who beat Flass with a bat and left him handcuffed in the snow in Year One. I feel like erring on the side of action over inaction is a better choice when dealing with the lead of a series. As such, I didn't mind his introduction or really the character as a whole.

    I know Penguin's backstory (in particular his relationship with his mother) is going to play into the story this season, but honestly I don't really care. I'd rather they not humanize him too much. I liked that I didn't like him. I liked that everything would be smoother had Gordon just shot him. Some villains are just creepy little schemers.

    And the loft apartment wasn't actually Gordon's, it's Barbara's. I thought the same thing when they first showed it, but at one point he call's it “your place” when talking to her. Since she's supposedly some high-end artist, I suppose it makes sense. It's certainly not a cop's place.


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