The world doesn’t need another Batman. Zack Snyder is busy making sure of that, with Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice giving the Dark Knight a cinematic makeover in 2015, a scant three years after Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film. But while the director of Man Of Steel and Watchmen teaches Ben Affleck to bat-brood, he’s leaving a whole universe-within-a-multiverse unexplored. Gotham City is as vibrant and iconic as comics settings get, home to DC’s most thrilling coterie of villains in addition to its most bankable hero. For decades, writers and artists have breathed life into Gotham, but not since the conclusion of Batman: The Animated Series has a television series properly conveyed the city’s metropolitan grandeur and colorful underbelly. Fox’s Gotham could put an end to that. Beginning at the same old starting point—the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne—the pilot episode launches the story of a place, rather than its savior. Gotham doesn’t present a new Batman: As the series opens, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is still a young orphan, his grief overseen by the stern authority of Sean Pertwee’s Alfred Pennyworth.
A patchwork of Batman’s many screen incarnations—some Animated Series timelessness, a dash of camp borrowed from the Silver Age and Joel Schumacher, the amber glow of Nolan’s trilogy—Gotham understands how difficult it is to bring something fresh to this world. The cons of doing so poke a fair number of holes in the series’ pilot: Diehards will groan at the introductions of Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Taylor) and Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), and even the casual Batman fan can bridge the gap between a background player named Ivy and her fascination with plant life. Gotham’s a broadcast pilot, so it must concede that not everyone in the audience knows the fate of grinning crime tech Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith). The episode never pulls its punches in this regard, barreling forward in ways that are occasionally laughable (the script really wants viewers to know that Ben McKenzie is playing a character named James Gordon) but never safe. If the new series can be lauded for anything at this early stage in its life, it’s the same acclaim that greeted Batman Begins, Tim Burton’s first Batman, and The Dark Knight Returns: a willingness to take a risk with a billion-dollar property.
Take, for example, the lack of marquee names in Gotham’s key roles. McKenzie and Jada Pinkett Smith (the latter making a deliciously Eartha Kitt-esque turn as crime boss Fish Mooney) have major credits to their names, but neither is an Affleck or a Nicholson, a Hathaway or a Pfeiffer. Telling a Batman story with the parts other Batman stories leave out, the series populates the ranks of its police department and the soon-to-be-rogues’ gallery with character actors and relative unknowns. Donal Logue gets back to the rumpled-detective persona of his Terriers days as Detective Harvey Bullock; Taylor could be the only actor this side of Burgess Meredith who makes Cobblepot outshine his criminal counterparts. The casting and the performances make great use of the show’s prequel status, playing to expectations while affording the actors some room for interpretation. A few more episodes under his belt and Logue just might make Bullock the most charming reprobate of the new fall season.
That’ll be crucial to Gotham’s success: McKenzie plays the POV character, but Logue is the defining presence of the pilot. With no masked vigilantes to fear and no Commissioner Gordon cracking down on corruption (yet), this is Bullock’s kind of Gotham. That makes for a kinetic opening installment: Establishing shots glide across the jagged edges of the skyline; the push-pull of an argument between partners Gordon and Bullock is reflected in jumpy edits and drifting camerawork. The first episode details a so-so wild goose chase involving the Waynes’ killer (and the conspiratorial dealings that keep order in the pre-Caped Crusader days), but if its true priority is establishing the liveliness and scale of the show’s setting, then mission accomplished. It’s too easy to render Gotham City as a loose collection of alleys and hideouts surrounding police headquarters (with Wayne Manor somewhere on the outskirts), and Gotham puts in the effort to portray a metropolis (not Metropolis) that could give rise to such a distinct, diffuse cast of characters. Removed from concerns that the Batsuit looks ridiculous in daylight, this is also a Gotham City that plausibly exists before sundown.
All that said, Gotham still has a ways to go. The fan service in the pilot is distracting, though not nearly as much as the tin-eared dialogue. But as an attempt to fill the gaps in a 75-year-old mythology (give or take a few sales-goosing retcons), it’s a bold opening. Within the first hour, there’s already a surplus of style—several borrowed styles, but that’s fitting for a place like Gotham. Culture and history have made their impressions on this fictional town for three-quarters of a century, and aside from a comic book, an ongoing TV show is the best venue for reflecting those impressions. To paraphrase one of the many sources cut, remixed, and pasted into the pilot’s pop-art collage: Gotham might not be something the world needs right now, but it’s the TV treatment Gotham City deserves.