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.