Gotham City. You know the name just as you know the names of Metropolis and Smallville. These are important places in the DC comics universe that have existed as part of modern American mythology since the 1930’s. Warner Brothers has decided to tackle Gotham in much the way it spent 10 years bringing us to Smallville. But there is a decided difference to be found here. Smallville was indeed the origin story of Superman, and while the obvious answer might be that Gotham serves the same role for Batman, I found that to be a bit of an oversimplification. This is not the origin story for Batman, and while many of the future major villains from that universe take their first baby steps here, this is not their origin story either. This is an origin story for the city of Gotham itself. Unlike many heroes, Batman was a product of his environment. This is the story of how one city devolved so badly that a hero like Batman was necessary. What we see taking shape here is a place where a certain Dark Knight can thrive and spread his wings.
That means the city itself is the most important character of the show. To make that effective over a season of stories, the city must be created with a kind of style and atmosphere that would set it apart. While there are certain aspects of this Gotham City that owe to Tim Burton’s style that set the mood for the first four films, there are also aspects of Nolan’s gritty city here as well. It’s at once familiar, but this is also unlike any city you’ve seen on television before. It exists out of place or time. There are cell phones, but not really computers. Detectives look through old newspaper stories on microfilm projectors. Some of us remember the days you had to do that at your local library. The cars are mostly from the 1970’s, while the building decor and costumes appear more at home in the 1940’s. It’s an industrial city, but one where whatever industry once thrived here has long gone away. For something conceived in the original four-color world of comic books, this is a dark and colorless place for the most part. The only thing that’s missing is the “abandon hope all ye who enter” sign at the city limits.
The series starts where many Batman films have started before it. We witness the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne in a dark alley by a man whose face is hidden. The only witnesses are their young son Bruce (Mazouz) and a hidden street urchin named Selina “Cat” Kyle. The murder would be one of those events that change everything in the city. Assigned to the case is rookie detective Jim Gordon (McKenzie) and his corrupt partner Harvey Bullock (Logue). It’s a tough case for a young green detective, but it will serve as an education to the young man, a war hero who loves his city and is naive to the corruption that runs it.
In many ways Gordon’s story is straight out of Serpico. He soon learns that pretty much everyone is on the take, or at least willing to look the other way. He also quickly discovers that his fellow officers won’t back him up if he gets into a jam. While Harvey is a corrupt cop, he’s been waiting desperately for an honest example to follow, and Gordon is that man. Person Of Interest Fans will understand that I found him very much like Fusco from that show. He’s a bad cop who wants to be good but is not strong enough to take on the system alone. His road to redemption is a nice sidebar to all of this villainy.
Jams are easy to get into in the world of Gotham City. The city is ruled by two underworld dons. The established leader of Gotham’s underworld is Don Carmine Falcone, played by The Wire favorite John Doman. He’s the traditional figure who has kept things relatively peaceful over the years. But there is restlessness in the ranks. His rival Don Sal Maroni is played by Dexter good guy David Zayas. He’s itching to make his move and unseat the king. Within Falcone’s own ranks there is Fish Mooney (Smith), who is attempting to move things in her direction while she pretends loyalty to the crown. She’ll try to get at Falcone through his own weakness, his heart and his love for his mother. But she has her own dissension in her ranks. Her umbrella boy, Oswald Cobblepot (Taylor) has been playing the fool, but he has even bigger plans than Fish does.
Meanwhile young Bruce Wayne is being cared for by the family’s trusted butler Alfred Pennyworth, played by Sean Pertwee. He’s trying to come to grips with the death of his parents and also trying to hone his body to its limits. Obviously, we’re already seeing the traits that will eventually become Batman. He’s also asking too many questions about his family’s Wayne Foundation, which appears to be very deep into the city’s corruption. Those questions are dangerous and put his and Alfred’s life in danger. All the while he’s trying to befriend Selina Kyle, who claims to have seen the Wayne shooter to avoid being sent to Juvenile Hall. There’s a tense relationship being developed here that clearly plays into the future Batman/Catwoman interactions to come. She’s very much like a child out of Charles Dickens with some Artful Dodger in her street-wise abilities and even industrialized-youth dress.
Of course, there are many future villains being groomed already in the series’ first season. We meet the future Two-Face, Harvey Dent (D’Agosto) and Poison Ivy (Foley). The future Riddler, Ed Nygma (Smith) is working for the Gotham Medical Examiner’s office as a forensic scientist who wants too much to get into the bodies at the morgue, which isn’t supposed to be his job. It’s not where you expect to see him, cozying up to the cops and trying to please them. He already has a love for riddles, and it’s the love of a girl at the station that will be his turning point toward evil. Other villains get a few episodes to start showing what they are or will be. Julian Sands stars as the father of the future Scarecrow, Jonathan Crane (Tahan). Christopher Heyerdahl once again proves his acting genius as the criminally insane Jack Gruber The Electrocutioner. Heroes veteran Milo Ventimiglia has one of the creepiest performances as Jason Lennon, The Ogre.
Of course, the real future villain is the one that this story centers on. That is Oswald Cobblepot, and we all know him better as The Penguin. I have to say that Robin Lord Taylor is nothing short of phenomenal as the super-villain-to-be. This is one of television’s best bad guys in a long time. He has managed to take such an iconic character but make it somehow uniquely his own, from the subtle characteristics to the use of his facial expressions. This is also Gordon’s real entry point into the seedy side of Gotham. He was supposed to kill Penguin to show his loyalty to Don Falcone. Of course, he doesn’t, and the ramifications for this whole universe are unimaginably huge. It’s as much of a turning point for the Batman mythos here as the killing of the Waynes themselves.
One of the wonders of this world is how well these eccentric characters fit into this world. It’s not a world of superpowers or meta-humans, at least not yet. These are very human villains with amazing elements that make them twisted enough to complete this montage that is Gotham City.
The season features an amazing number of great guest stars and characters. It’s a world within itself which is more than just a superhero comic book show. There are elements of many other genres here to enjoy, from mob films to political corruption thrillers. I think you’re going to enjoy a stay in Gotham. You will certainly be looking for more. We’re about to get it with the final scene of the season showing Bruce and Alfred about to discover a certain subterranean playhouse in the fireplace. A fireplace, by the way that includes the Shakespeare bust so crucial in the 1960’s Adam West series. We’re all waiting for his inevitable cameo.
The show was developed by Bruno Heller, who last provided us with The Mentalist. Here he has managed to tap into the comic book world just enough that he teases us with things we know. You almost feel proud of yourself when you recognize elements that will play into the future of the Batman universe. It’s a smart approach that helps make the audience active participants in the show. There are so many little Easter eggs here that you have to stay on your toes. It also makes all of this very easy to watch again. There are bound to be things you missed the first time around.
Each episode is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. This high-definition image presentation will take you to an entirely different world. There’s a lot of gritty texture to be found here. Colors don’t often pop. This is often almost a monochromatic world, but once in a while a single color will pop to deliver stunning contrast. It might be a red hood or a bright dress, but it offers just the right balance to break up any of the dreariness to be found here. Fortunately, black levels are up to the challenge with rather sweet shadow definition. A lot happens in these shadows, and we wouldn’t want it lost. For a television show, this is as fantastic as a world gets.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is often alive with just the right mix of surrounds to immerse us deeply into this world. The score is pretty dynamic at times, and it drives the atmosphere that dominates this entire show. Dialog comes through perfectly clear, and you get just the hint of enough ear candy to keep you alert at all times.
Deleted Scenes and Audio Commentaries On Select Episodes.
Gotham Invented: It’s a three-part documentary that brings you deeply into the world of the show. It totals just under an hour and includes plenty of the typical cast and crew contributions along with perspective on the mythology.
Gotham – Designing The Fiction: (20:01) Here the focus is on the various styles and periods that the production design draws from to create a unique world.
The Game Of Cobblepot: (26:25) This is a kind of mockumentary that works as a profile of The Penguin, comparing his moves to a game of chess.
Gotham – Legend Reborn: (21:37) This is really a repeat of all the stuff that came before. Nothing new really to be found here at all.
DC Comics Night At ComicCon 2014: (29:31) This is the biggest panel I’ve seen yet. There are over 30 participants from Gotham, Arrow, The Flash, and Constantine. That means there’s little focus just on Gotham here.
If you are looking for solid continuity with the comics, you will be disappointed. Television has to be its own universe with somewhat different rules. Neither Smallville or the current Arrow and The Flash follow the canon of the comic books. Truth be told, they comics don’t really follow the same canon. The universes have been reset more than once, and the stories have certainly evolved over the last 70+ years. With that in mind, Gotham is a pretty wonderful destination for anyone who loves this kind of mythology. “Who’s up for a road trip?”