Review: Gotham 1×1 (US: Fox; UK: Channel 5)

All things to all Batmen

Fox's Gotham

In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, Fox
In the UK: Acquired by Channel 5. Will air in October

There have been a lot of Batmans over the years. I don’t just mean actors or even characters who have become Batman in the comics. I mean that tonally, Batman has changed many times since he was first created 75 years ago. Whether it’s the comedic Adam West Batman of the 60s, the gothic, operatic Tim Burton Batman or camp Joel Schumacher Batman of the 90s, the dark, quasi-realistic Batman of the Christopher Nolan movies, the borderline psychopath of the Frank Miller comics or the back to basics action hero of Denny O’Neil, these Batmans have all had often radically different tones.

Importantly, though, they’ve all been consistent. You couldn’t have had Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Adam West TV series; Frank Miller’s Batman would have scared the living daylights out of Danny DeVito’s Penguin; and so on. Plus they all would have looked really, really stupid mish-mashing genres like that.

I mention this because Fox’s Gotham, a Batman prequel that follows the origin stories of not just a young Batman but all his enemies and allies, as newbie police detective Jim Gordon tries to clean up the city, makes the near-fatal mistake of trying to be all Batmen to all people.

At its base, we have a fine script from the always wonderful Bruno Heller (Touching Evil, Rome, The Mentalist). It feels like a Nolan script and touches base with Batman continuity points at every turn, with everyone from Alfred the butler to Poison Ivy, The Riddler, The Penguin, The Joker (maybe) and Catwoman putting in a pre-grotesque appearance. Many a Batfan’s heart will be a flutter as they spot who’s who and what’s what, I’m sure, and if you know the origin story of Batman well, you’ll appreciate how close it sticks to the comics as well as innovating in its own way – particularly nice is the way Selena Kyle keeps watch over the young Bruce Wayne, having witnessed his parents’ murder, but the Penguin is also the obvious standout character from among the various assembled Batman villains taking their first baby steps.

The cast is fine as well. We have Ben McKenzie, who was so brilliant as a cop in Southland, playing ex-soldier Jim Gordon; Sean Pertwee is a redoubtable and authentically working class English Alfred; Donal Logue (Terriers, Life, Vikings, The Knights of Prosperity) is his usual furry, Irish, working-class cop self as Gordon’s partner, the corrupt but still well intentioned Harvey Bullock; John Dorman (Borgia, The Wire) is mesmerisingly contained as crime boss Carmine Falcone; and the child cast (David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne, Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle, Clare Foley as Ivy Pepper) are all very good, too. Even the more unknown supporting cast, as well as crime lady Jada Pinkett Smith, do well.

The problem is everything is working to completely different Batmans. In fact, the director, Danny Cannon, picks several – at times going for a Nolan Gothan, at times for a Burton one, dragging the set designers along with him. Just for luck, he even tries a bit of Spike Lee and Kathryn Bigelow, awesomely failing to pull off either.

The cast seem a little unsure, too. A lot of them think they’re in a campy Joel Schumacher Batman, while others pick and choose depending on their mood, sometimes being gamely operatic à la Burton, sometimes going for a gritty Nolan. McKenzie even growls and postures like he thinks he’s really Christian Bale’s Batman, assuming Bale had forgotten he wasn’t wearing his Batman outfit.

As for composer Graeme Revell, I’m not even sure he knows this is a Batman show, so largely plumps for generic syndicated 80s action show, right down to the ubiquitous guitar riffs that envelope pretty much every scene. If ever I’ve taken Murray Gold’s name in vain, I apologise – there are composers who are far worse and more ruinous than he, it turns out.

This is a pilot, of course, and over time, I’m sure everyone will manage to pick a style – hopefully the same one – and stick with it. Heller does well at giving us a heroic Jim Gordon who ultimately is going to fail in his quest because he’s no superhero, but who’s going to do his best for the next decade or two anyway, and it looks like he knows how to tell that story in an interesting and semi-realistic way.

However, at the moment, Gotham feels more like an homage to every Batman there’s ever been, rather than a show that knows what it is in and of itself. It’ll probably be worth tuning in for subsequent episodes, to see if it can settle down, but this isn’t the slam dunk that Fox was undoubtedly hoping for.