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'Gotham' Review: Villains Shine in Cramped but Promising Pilot

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As with any television pilot the creators want to captivate an audience long enough to ensure they'll be back for more episodes. That task is even more important if that show happens to be Fox's Gotham that premiered Monday coming in ahead of a ton of hype and curious expectations for this hour long drama chronicling life in Batman's city without Batman. Luckily, with seasoned veterans in front and behind the cameras this ambitious prequel to one of pop culture's most famous superheroes set a fantastic foundation for more gritty drama with incredible production values and scene-chewing performances. Gotham is off to a great start. 

No one was really sure what to make of a show that follows the future police commissioner, James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), as a young detective battling a corrupt police department and mob crime in a world inhabited by a tween-age Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz). The result was a jam-packed hour of introducing characters and weaving their storylines around the murder of the Bruce's parents which led off the show. 

The iconic comic book moment of Thomas and Martha Wayne lying lifeless before their young anguished son as he screams in pain is captured perfectly. The entire look of the show is superbly manipulated using New York City as its template with superimposed images of high rises and downtrodden buildings giving it the old 1970's seedy feel the producers sought. 

The cinematic quality throughout helps elevate the show. Whether it's a young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) on a rooftop overlooking a busy neon-lit street or a dark cathedral-like police station the attention to detail, of getting the gloomy tone of the city, is just right and evident in practically every scene. The Gotham City in Gotham is a character itself. 

Despite a somewhat forced introduction of our benevolent hero, Gordon, his chemistry with Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is expectedly rocky as seemingly the last honest cop is paired with the scruffy and shady veteran. They're tasked with investigating the Wayne murder and that leads to crossing paths with some familiar names. Ivy Pepper (better known as Pamela Isley in the comics is the future Poison Ivy), MCU detectives Montoya and Allen (the leads in the superb Gotham Central comic book that also did not focus on Batman), Carmine Falcone (historically the top mob boss in Gotham), police forensic expert Edward Nigma (the future Riddler) and Oswald Cobblepot (the future Penguin).

That's a lot of canonical supporting players in this drama but showrunner Bruno Heller does a great job of developing Gordon, Bullock, new character Fish Mooney (more on her later) and especially Cobblepot.

The breakout star may be Robin Lord Taylor as the Penguin. His nasally and smarmy performance makes him weird and crazy without going into parody. Working for Mooney has made him subservient to her but also jealous and ruthlessly ambitious. Things don't always work out for him and even as the psychotic bubbling at the surface Taylor somehow imbues him with likability and even pathos.  However, the force to be reckoned with is Mooney herself.

When Pinkett Smith was cast some folks were not sure if she could play this new character written for the show as a lethal crime boss. Not only is she more than capable she steals every scene she's in. The veteran actress embodies Mooney so well she controls the action with a word, a phrase, and even a look. She moves like a cobra who could strike at any moment when walking a room. She is cool, confident and ready to bust someone's head with a baseball bat if wronged. The perfect villain for this city under the thumb of crime. 

Logue as usual does a great job as the corrupted cop with a heart of gold. He doesn't understand Gordon's sense of duty and honesty when the world rewards the opposite. Yet Logue balances his emotions well while straddling the line between scumbag and loyal partner. 

McKenzie is at the center of Gotham but being the white knight isn't always the most fun. Being the voice of reason and of what's right can be a bit vanilla and those scenes of excessive bravado don't always work but its a role he'll grow into. Gordon was always the righteous cop but he wasn't without fault. Hopefully we'll see some of that. 

Gotham meets and exceeds expectations in creating a world all its own without the missing 'B'-word. It's a crime drama with people you know. It crammed so much in the pilot that it can go in different directions and for all intents and purposes you can forget it's based on comic books. The onus will be on the writers to incorporate these characters, however familiar, into compelling stories. If the pilot is any indication (8 million viewers tuned in) this is the series fans needed. 

Check out the preview of episode two: "Selina Kyle"

Gotham 1x02 "Selina Kyle" - Detectives Gordon and Bullock investigate a child trafficking ring preying on Gotham's street kids, including Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova). Meanwhile, Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) resurfaces in the countryside and begins to make his way back to GOTHAM, leaving victims in his wake in the all-new 'Selina Kyle' episode of GOTHAM airing Monday, September 29th on FOX.


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