Ex-soldier Jim Gordon arrives in Gotham City to take up his new job as a detective on the police force. Hoping to clean up the streets, he instead finds the police riven by corruption and in bed with the local gangsters. The brutal murder of the city's richest couple, Martha and Thomas Wayne, shines a spotlight onto the city's crime problem, giving Jim and his new partner, the grizzled Detective Harvey Bullock, a moment to shine. It also provides the impetus for the rise to power of a new criminal mastermind, Oswald Cobblepot (aka "Penguin") and spurs the anger of the murdered couple's son, Bruce.
Every incarnation of Batman starts in a similar manner: the young Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents by criminals. Years later, he takes up the mantle of Batman to deliver justice to the streets. Gotham asks the question of what would happen if you didn't have that jump forwards 10 or 20 years, and instead stay in the moment. Bruce Wayne is an angry, confused young child whose guardian, Alfred, has to console and help him carry on. The cops of Gotham are under pressure to catch the killers. And through it all a new wave of crazy criminals are rising to displace the more traditional old guard of Italian-descended crime families.
It's a rich vein to mine stories from, although it does also throw up a central problem: how to generate drama when we know that characters (good guys and villains alike) important to the later Batman mythos will survive, and the whole thing is just stage-setting for when the Bat shows up (presumably at which point this series will end)? Gotham doesn't really answer that question, but instead just settles for being relentlessly entertaining.
The main showrunner on the series is Bruno Heller, an experienced Hollywood writer who has been responsible for some standard procedural fare (like The Mentalist) but whose most outstanding moment remains the HBO series Rome, which depicted the ancient empire with a real sense of place and cultural identity, home to well-drawn, complex characters. Impressively, he brings these skills to Gotham. The city is neither the anonymous everycity of the recent Chris Nolan films, nor the baroque playground of Tim Burton. Instead it falls in between, with Gothic stylings and some very clever CG manipulation of real city backdrops to create something distinctive. This applies to the people and the factions feuding for control of the city as well. Delving into the comics for ideas and backstories, Heller isn't afraid to bring his own ideas to the table as well. Most impressive is the show's tone, which after a ropey opening few episodes in which it searches for its own identity, it settles down into pulp, walking a fine line between camp, action and melodrama which is quite enjoyable.
If the show has a weak spot, it's Ben McKenzie's fairly straightforward portrayal of Jim Gordon as an everyday hero of the people. Attempts to darken his character don't really work, but towards the end of this opening run of ten episodes he develops a grim sense of humour and the ex-military role is played up a little bit more to give him something to do. As characters go, he's okay and you can see him developing into the later friend of Batman, but the character needs a bit more fleshing out going forwards. Far better is Harvey Bullock, played with roguish charisma by Donal Logue, a once-good cop corrupted by the city and who clings onto Jim's idealism as a way of redeeming himself. Better still is Robin Lord Taylor, who brings the right air of intelligence and charm to the role of the Penguin. Taylor is great, the show's big find, but the producers need to be careful they don't overuse him and burn out the character before he's had a chance to achieve his destiny. Child actors David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova are also very good finds for the roles of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. The idea that Batman and Catwoman are actually childhood friends may induce much rolling of the eyeballs, but the writing and the actors sell it so it convinces, rather than becoming twee.
More established hands can be found with Jada Pinkett Smith playing new villain Fish Mooney with scene-chewing relish. Irritating in early episodes, she gets more interesting material to play with later on and rises to the challenge. The Wire's John Doman plays Don Falcone with charm and gravitas, but also a sense of palpable menace that makes him a genuinely threatening figure. The casting director also deserves massive props for hitting on the idea of casting the always-excellent Sean Pertwee as Alfred. He doesn't have much to do in early episodes, but later ones depict him as an ex-military bruiser with impressive resourcefulness.
The show stumbles in its opening episodes as it searches for its tone and identity, but finds itself pretty quickly. The developing ongoing storylines about Penguin and Arkham Asylum are well-handled and the show moves at a pretty strong clip, rarely flagging. There are other weaknesses: the relationship between Barbara (Erin Richards) and Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) is extremely unconvincing, and a late-episode story twist is clearly an awkward retcon. There's also the feeling of some Batman villains being shoehorned into the show long before they're really needed. Riddler is being well-handled, but Poison Ivy as a kid is completely pointless right now.
But these put aside, Gotham (****) is a very entertaining slice of pulp. It's certainly a lot more impressive and fun at this stage in its development than the other big superhero TV show, Agents of SHIELD, was at the same point. Whether the show can sustain or improve itself going forwards remains to be seen, but at this point it is certainly highly watchable.