Batman’s home city has been reinvented nearly as many times as Batman has. In the ‘60s, Gotham had a pop-art, distinctly Californian look to accompany Adam West’s zanily comic crime fighter. In the late ‘80s, Gothic architecture complemented Michael Keaton’s brooding interpretation. The burlesque set pieces of the Joel Schumacher films seemed just as cheeky as their nipple-suited hero (Val Kilmer, then George Clooney), and the realistic grit of the Christopher Nolan series mimicked the grim complexity displayed by Christian Bale and his cheekbones.
The setting of Fox’s new series Gotham, the first post-Nolan installment in the Batman mythology, is supremely anti-Nolan, with eye-poppingly decadent sets, neon-sign backlighting, and characters who coordinate their outfits to match his or her particular place in the underworld. But the latest Gotham is not the one of West, Burton, or Schumacher, either. This series is more hardboiled city-centric cop show than Hollywood star vehicle: The lavish, colorful, and textural sets completely—perhaps intentionally—outperform the main characters.
That’s mostly a good thing, because none of the principal players are all that fresh. In the premiere alone, we're reintroduced to an excess of franchise standbys including the Penguin, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and Carmine Falcone, among many others. The plot follows another, the young Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie, familiar to the Batman crowd for voicing the caped crusader in the 2011 animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One) as he embarks on his first investigation as a rookie cop who recently spent an unspecified time spent abroad at war. He joins a semi-corrupt Gotham PD—of course—and is reluctantly taken under the wing of a grizzled partner, Donal Logue’s Harvey Bullock. The city’s once more in trouble, and as a convenient newspaper headline informs us, it’s embroiled in the “Crime Wave of the Century!” This all vaguely follows the Gordon’s plotline in Batman: Year One (it’s a big influence), where he was the good guy to his partner Detective Arnold John Flass’s baddie, and the city was in desperate need of its incipient hero.
The big idea here, though, is that Gotham tells the story of Batman’s city before even Year One (Year Negative Ten?), when it’s still pre-Batman. But for all the Dark Knight’s supposed absence we still get a lot of him early on: At the beginning, the cops head to the scene of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, where the orphan wails, shakes his fist, and falls into Jim’s pitying arms. Jim vows to track down his killer, kicking off the mystery that fuels the beginning of this series. Same tragic origin story, slightly different perspective.
Thankfully, though, Jim’s investigation does not bring us often to Wayne Manor. Instead we’re introduced to Jim’s lux apartment, with Cabinet of Caligari-slanted windows, gold-lamé wallpaper, leather couches, and a silver tea set, all of which is preposterously excessive for a new cop and his art-gallery-tending wife (even Schumacher limited such production values to Wayne Manor). Soon we’re touring the creepy clubs where the Gothamite villainy “disguise” their obvious fronts. They're decked out in red-upholstered leather walls and ruled over by Jada Pinkett Smith, who’s sporting pink-tipped bangs and gold mascara as the crime lordess Fish Moony.
The intricate art direction supports the action as well. The meaty cliffhanger of the first episode has The Penguin—recently pushed into the freezing Hudson—slashing a fisherman’s throat for his authentic-looking sandwich (which he subsequently tears into with all the furor of a true villain). And the entire plot of the premiere has our pragmatic war hero chasing a man with “shiny shoes,” the distinguishing characteristic of the Waynes’ killer.
The shiny shoes-quest does not, alas, make for cerebral, involving television. That’s okay—Gotham is spectacular in other ways. True to its title, the show’s more interested in telling the macro-story of a criminally besieged city by paying attention to details, down to the last stolen milk jug (a feature of the opening scene). This makes it somewhat unique among Batman franchise installments: Gotham historically has been a lush but secondary character, and often a fragmented, foreign one—Burton shot his Gotham on soundstages across England, Nolan alternately thereabouts and in New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh.
Gotham is appropriately shot in the original Gotham. Whatever money Fox is saving on stunt coordinators (Ben McKenzie more realistically cold-cocked people in The O.C.) they’ve poured into on-location shoots in New York gussied up with some loud production design. Rooftop battles with glimpses of the Brooklyn Bridge, imprisonments in actual meat fridges, showdowns on a dock overlooking the Hudson—the real action is in the background.
It can be distracting, this panoramic focus on the city—there is a lot of panning, and skylines shots, and the like—but it ultimately saves the series from its own weak writing. It also lines up with a long-running trend in the franchise towards exploring Gotham sans Batman. In the ‘90s the comics churned several series out from an earthquake that levelled the city and turned Gotham into “No Man’s Land,” an eerily prescient vision of urban cataclysm that saw Batman missing for 100 days, in which time the secondary heroes stepped up to fight crime. Recently it’s been a popular plot device to kill him off or just all-out ignore him—Gotham Central and Gordon of Gotham both focus on members of the city’s PD and either rarely or never glimpse the city’s unofficial protector. The characters in Gotham, sadly, don’t boast those comics’ levels of complexity.
Instead, they follow along the lines of another trend in the Batman franchise, its video games. In recent installments like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, you can play as Batman, yet the intense attention to setting detail and the popular option to “free roam” the landscapes outside of preordained gameplay taps into the city’s fundamental importance to the Batman mythos.
It’s Batman cliché to say Gotham is a starring character in the saga, yet Gotham wears its franchise clichéness on its sleeve: By nature, it’s a needless reiteration on a 75-year-old storytelling tradition. What’s novel about it is that it understands is that Gotham isn’t just a landscape meant to be molded to its latest caped crusader—it can be a massively entertaining sandbox for viewers, too.