On its own, Gotham is not a bad show. It's got all the setup: corrupt police force, hardworking honest detective with questionable girlfriend, three cute young teens or preteens that we can root for; over the top campy villains, and one not at all over the top bad guy there to remind us of the thin line between good and evil and how many things end up being grey. The acting for the most part is decent to solid; camera work ok; plenty of money has gone into the sets. I can't stand Gordon's partner, but otherwise, lots of potential.
The problem is that this show isn't on its own. And however much it may be calling itself Jim Gordon's origin story, it's also Batman's origin story.
And that is a major limitation that the show was already struggling against just in the pilot.
I live tweeted the show as I often do, being careful to just snark and avoid any major spoilers. About fifteen minutes in, however, I realized that didn't matter – there'd been nothing to spoil in those fifteen minutes other than someone's decision to run a Dracula trailer during the commercial break. (Whoops. I possibly should have put a spoiler warning for that.) It's not just that Batman's origin story is well known: it's that this was at least the third if not fourth time that I have seen this on film. Some of the shots were even identical to the ones in the 1989 Nicholson/Keaton Batman film. I know it's iconic – but in many ways that's the exact problem.
That in turn led to the main issue in the pilot: a general lack of suspense about the fates of any characters. I'm not just talking about Bruce Wayne here, but virtually everyone else on the screen, most of whom were introduced with exactly no subtlety whatsoever: "IT'S A RIDDLE! A RIDDLE! HA HA RIDDLE!" or "Here I am FEEDING A CAT. A CAT. GET IT. A CAT!" It's not even so much that the show decided to introduce three iconic Bat-villains in the first ten minutes, but rather that it does so in a way that telegraphs WOW, THESE ARE IMPORTANT CHARACTERS WHO WILL BE RETURNING LATER HOPE YOU DIDN'T MISS THAT.
And, of course, if you know Batman at all, you know they will be returning later.
Which leads to another problem – the sheer number of Bat characters that popped up in the 42 minute pilot – five major Bat-villains PLUS Alfred PLUS Bruce Wayne PLUS Jim Gordon PLUS Renee Montoya; I'm sure there were others I missed. The only real question was why Ra's Al Ghul and Harvey Dent didn't also just stroll into the bar. Well, I guess Ra's is busy getting ready to hunt down Oliver Queen over on Arrow.
Speaking of Arrow, that was another slight issue. Arrow, granted, not only uses some of the Bat-villains but also extensively ripped off the Nolan Batman films. What's interesting here is that Gotham, in turn, directly ripped off a scene from Arrow's pilot – only considerably less successfully, because Oliver Queen is going to be a superhero, and Jim Gordon is going to be an ordinary guy. That allowed Arrow to put together one major and awesome stunt sequence in its pilot, with a twist end, giving a sense of where the show would be going. Gotham, by nature, had to be more restrained. It's not a bad stunt sequence, but it feels tired, as if we've seen it before.
Speaking of Arrow, there's another contrast here, not in Gotham's favor. Arrow is loosely based on the Green Arrow comics, but very loosely: so loosely that the show has been able to feature completely different takes on various DC characters and play with expectations and even, in a couple of cases, feature different and opposing versions of the characters (Deathstroke and Black Canary). That gives Arrow more freedom. And because Arrow wasn't introducing the entire Bat mythos, it also could focus on just its main characters in the pilot – allowing the DC Easter eggs to pop up later, and (presumably) allowing the upcoming Flash pilot to do something similar since it's jumping into an established universe.
As it is, Gotham felt less fresh than, and I'm sorry to type this, the first season of Smallville - which also suffered under similar constraints, but used its location to play around a bit more with the Superman origin story – and also did not suffer by having to include so many Superman characters in its pilot. And it didn't help that I knew, throughout the entire episode, that main character Jim Gordon is, eventually, going to fail, even as he rises through the police force. Because, Batman.
Which is not to say that Gotham was a bad show. It had its moments, and the last fifteen minutes had some very strong stuff, even if the outcome was inevitable because, again, Batman. I just think I would have liked it more if it was called something else.