Rather than rebuild Gotham from the ground up for 2014's stylish small screen series of the same name, Mentalist mastermind Bruno Heller opted to dig deeper into the origin stories of some of D.C. Comics' most notorious heroes and villains.
Although he initially follows the Batman play-book to the letter in a pilot that is anchored by the shocking murder of Bruce Wayne's parents which leaves the boy orphaned and sets him on the path of becoming the Dark Knight, Heller makes a bold decision to deviate from tradition in a move that both helps and hinders Gotham in equal measure.
For instead of jumping ahead in time to center the series around the adult Bruce Wayne's double life as a wealthy playboy and the caped crusader as expected, Heller breathes much needed new life into the famous franchise for its latest incarnation by promoting Officer Jim Gordon (an excellent Ben McKenzie) to the show's lead.
Working alongside the equally captivating character actor Donal Logue as his cynical partner Harvey Bullock, McKenzie's young idealistic rookie defies the status quo of a historically corrupt police department, eagerly taking down a colorful rogue's gallery of B-villains as the next generation of future A-villains wait impatiently in the wings.
And through McKenzie and Logue's terrific dynamic, Heller establishes what will become a recurring motif in the series of multi-generational partnerships among those on both sides of the law. Fortunately, this technique works extremely well for two of the best and brightest members of the Gotham P.D.
However, the same magic cannot be duplicated in a few of the densely populated show's other unlikely pairings, which is particularly apparent in the first half of the season when we're inundated by so many unlikable characters and the overwhelmingly bleak tone that Gotham begins to wear on our patience.
Moreover with so many double-crosses and shifting alliances, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep everyone straight, especially when formerly vital players are suddenly dropped from Gotham’s storylines as if their scenes were edited out for time and left on the cutting room floor.
And although the behavior of some of Gotham’s secondary characters (including Jim's troubled fiancé Barbara) grows increasingly illogical, the structurally challenged series fortunately finds its footing once again in a gripping final quartet of episodes involving Milo Ventimiglia's horrific Ogre.
Better off developing complex multi-episodic arcs instead of following in the footsteps of an early X-Files "freak of the week" standalone paradigm that does little to advance the overall storyline, as the seeds are planted for the future, Gotham's exceedingly well-researched writing staff begin to exude confidence in the season's stronger second half.
Soon enough, new threats emerge from the shadows – some of whom rise to power while others fall from grace.
Carving out clever new backstories for fan favorite characters like Edward Nygma (a.k.a. The Riddler, played by Cory Michael Smith), Gotham is at its best when it employs foreshadowing so subtle that if we weren’t aware of the impressive minds working behind the scenes, we’d swear it was accidental.
Undoubtedly challenged by an overly padded twenty-two episode season that was extended after it had already begun, at times the tonally uneven Gotham swings like a pendulum from over-the-top gross-out violence to darkly comedic camp.
Caught between a variety of genres and audience brackets, while some of the coming-of-age arcs for the younger cast members lag in comparison the show’s grittier crime elements, the uniformly excellent and refreshingly diverse cast of all ages, races, and faces (including terrific newcomers like Robin Lord Taylor, Camren Bicondova, and David Mazouz) help keep us riveted.
Along with McKenzie and Logue, season one's MVPs also include the versatile Morena Baccarin as Jim Gordon's lady doctor love Leslie Thompkins, scene-stealer Jada Pinkett Smith as notorious villainess (and Penguin's former mentor turned nemesis) Fish Mooney, as well as a refreshingly bad ass version of butler Alfred Pennyworth played by Sean Pertwee.
An artistically sumptuous series, Heller's show is filled with texture and sparkle in its jaw-droppingly inventive costume and set design.
Set in an indeterminate period of time, while Gotham owes perhaps the biggest debt of gratitude to Tim Burton's two breakout Batman pictures based on Frank Miller's comics, it's also indicative of the best parts of other franchise favorites.
A TV series that’s cinematic in scope, from Graeme Revell’s thrilling score to the freewheeling creativity on display in the luminous cinematography bathed in the silvery, gunmetal gray moonlight of a dark night sky, Gotham follows through on the recipe of something old, something new, something borrowed,and something blue.
Along the way, the screen is filled with old world Italian gangsters that might as well have wandered off the Warner Brothers lot in the 1930s and '40s working alongside Hammer horror style villains sure to terrify young viewers.
And although the Gotham City Police Department resembles a more chaotic version of Grand Central Station, Logue and McKenzie's Serpico meets French Connection style '70s antihero antihero leads do their best to keep things moving in the right direction without a Bat-signal to save the day.
A character driven superhero spinoff that's steeped in richly extensive D.C. Comic mythology, only time will tell if viewers will tune in long enough to see Bruce Wayne take his place as Gotham’s dark night somewhere down the line.
Yet even though Heller didn't exactly reinvent the wheel, putting Batman on the back burner and ignoring the well-traveled terrain undertaken by the Batmobile in previous productions forced him to look beyond all of the caped crusader's wonderful toys and try something new.
Knowing that there’s much more to an origin story than a mere prologue, even though it falls short from time to time, Gotham proves that there's more than one way to reboot a series – using present day Batman mythology as the jumping off point to delve deeper into the past.
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