Detailing the rise of Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) before he’s to become commissioner of a pre-Batman Gotham City, Gotham is a cops-and-robbers procedural complemented by the occasional stray reference to a considerably more popular character. Though it occasionally threatens to come to life as a deliriously cynical camp object, the series is primarily occupied with providing the viewer with an ever-widening collection of future super-villain Easter eggs to hunt, featuring a lot of self-congratulatory, baldly obvious references to very real social disenfranchisement.
Like Bates Motel in its early episodes, Gotham isn’t entirely sure which portion of its property’s multi-generational fanbase it should most fervently court. There are the requisite allusions to Christopher Nolan’s films, particularly in the boringly anonymous industrial score and in the sleek landscapes, with skyscrapers that resemble thin, giant serrated knives. But Tim Burton’s Batman films also wield a surprisingly vast amount of influence, as does the excellent Batman: The Animated Series, both of which were heavily informed, like the comic, by German expressionism and American noir. As a result, Gotham abounds in eye candy that’s surprisingly impressive for network TV: tubular chrome cafés that could’ve been teleported in from the 1950s; police stations with the heightened curved ceilings of Roman cathedrals; and, best of all, the expected shafts of sun or lamp light that perfectly divide dusty offices and rainy tableaus into geometrically perfect explosions of sensual blue, red, and yellow neon.
The leads are stiffs (McKenzie does a bland impression of Russell Crowe, while Donal Logue, as Gordon’s partner, phones in his toothless corruption bit that got stale 10 years ago), but Robin Lord Taylor makes for a dandy blossoming Penguin, playing the future kingpin with a nasal viciousness that’s reminiscent of one of Joaquin Phoenix’s villains. And Jada Pinkett Smith, as a reigning crime queen called Fish Mooney, does a breathy Eartha Kitt impression that ties Gotham all the way back to its original televised roots. These are ingredients for a fun series, and it’s nice to see a superhero story (which this only marginally is to begin with) treated unpretentiously like the kitsch that it is, rather than as the lifeless, pandering scripture that’s come to reliably dominate comic book movies.
Yet Gotham is weighed down by that same defiantly literal, unpoetic dutifulness that ruins virtually every pop film these days. Pinkett Smith struts around looking terrific, with form-fitting fetish vests and a red flash in her hair that boldly matches the curtains of her character’s nightclub, yet, when she opens her mouth: nothing. Her lines (and everyone else’s) are diagrammed placeholders intended merely to direct us to the next scene. Mooney isn’t even allowed to threaten anyone with any semblance of style, and this procedural deadness, of verbiage, fatally invites us to disconnect from all the pretty sights. Though it abounds in diverting window-dressing, Gotham is literally all dressed up with nowhere to go: It’s a derivative copy of a copy in search of a real governing identity.