Monday, September 22, 2014

'GOTHAM:' It's Big, It's Bold, It's Brutal – But Is It Batman?

The cast of 'Gotham' (FOX)

Does America need another comic book superhero origin series?

No, of course not. But why should that spoil all the fun?

I had the same question in 2001, but then Smallville ran for 10 seasons chronicling the beginnings of a pre-adult Clark Kent. The Flash will dash onto The WB next month, surely telling a slightly different tale than TV's first incarnation of Barry Allen nearly a quarter-century ago. (Anybody here remember John Wesley Shipp?)

Oh, we do so adore our pulp fictional mythologies. How else to explain why, of the bazillion or more new shows being introduced this month, none has received anywhere close to the hype, attention or anticipation of Gotham, the latest retelling of the Batman saga premiering at 8 p.m. EST Monday (9.22.14) on FOX. The network is even running commercials profiling the main characters leading up the show's debut.

I guess my problem is, I'm a purist. I vividly remember the Tuesdays of my youth, when my buddy Goog and I would beg one of our parents to drive us to Hostetter's News Agency in Grand Haven, Mich., so we could snatch up new issues of our favorite comics the moment they hit the racks. We'd buy a pile of 'em, too, since they were only 15 cents each (yes, I'm that old), then race home to scrutinize and savor every brightly-colored panel. Super memories.

But that's so last century. Nowadays, between graphic novels, comic cons and box office blockbusters, the genesis of our most legendary costumed heroes has been continually revised and embellished to appeal to a new generation of jaded, sophisticated fans.

Yes, every Batman devotee knows Bruce Wayne's crimefighting future was sealed as a child when his wealthy parents were murdered in front of him by an unknown assailant. But in Gotham, that fact seems to be little more than the jumping-off point to launch a multitude of other background sagas.

For example, we witness the first workdays of Det. James Gordon, the cop who will be commissioner. This satisfies our Ben McKenzie jones, since his young heroic mug has been conspicuously absent from our living rooms since the demise of Southland. Obviously McKenzie plays the role closer to Gary Oldman from 2005 than Neil Hamilton from the '60s, but believe it or not he's even stiffer and more goody-goody than he was as LAPD cop crusader Ben Sherman. From the first episode, I have serious doubts he can carry this series as a central character week after week.

Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue of 'Gotham' (FOX)
His straight-arrow, just-out-of-the-military rookie is partnered with grizzled, street-weary veteran Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), who knows all the rules and bends most of them. They fight a violent and ruthless criminal element in Gotham City, led in the pilot by new character Fish Mooney, a bat-wielding nightclub owner played by Jada Pinkett Smith. (What? Is she slumming?) Smith told Entertainment Weekly that she drew her inspiration from Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but she looks more like she's channeling Diahann Carroll trying to do Eartha Kitt's Catwoman.

Mooney's right-hand man is the sniveling Oswald Cobblepot (the fascinating Robin Lord Taylor), who bristles at the nickname "Penguin" but more than fits the bill. Yes, Cobblepot is the supervillain-in-training; the Gotham game plan is to introduce one of Batman's signature enemies each season and chart his or her development into the baddies we love to hate...assuming the show lasts that long.

I mean, let's face it: Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is only 11 years old here, his lifelong trust relationship with Alfred (Sean Pertwee), the man who was the family servant, beginning the night his parents died. Unless Gotham lasts at least a decade or they write some weird fast-forward episode, there's no chance we'll ever see Master Wayne don the cowl and cape to become the Darknight Detective.

It's also slightly unsettling that Gotham City has no time or era. Sometimes it seems an exact replica of Bob Kane's original vision of the 1940s, then a scene occurs that could have happened last week. That usually doesn't bother me, but here the switching back and forth distracted my focus. Like I said, I'm a purist. I just don't share everyone's frothing enthusiasm for this latest variation of the Batman mythos. I expected, and wanted to like this show much more than I did. It didn't blow me away.

Gotham either will be an enormous hit or a monumental bomb. No in between. Pairing it with the creepy Sleepy Hollow, FOX is out to make Mondays the darkest night of the week. A dark night...but not the Dark Knight.

On a scale of 1-10: Gotham – 6.5

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