'Gotham' a prime-time call to comic-book culture

The Baltimore Sun

If it’s true that a society is known by its most popular artifacts, we are becoming a culture of comic books and games.

Our biggest film and TV characters are based on comic book super heroes and villains, while our real life heroes are professional athletes.

Watching tonight’s premiere of “Gotham,” I couldn’t help feeling that if there was any new series that would probably crack Nielsen’s Top 10 this fall alongside all the different primetime NFL games and pre-game shows, it would be this one from Fox.

You tell me if that’s a good or bad thing.

“Gotham” is an origin drama telling a backstory and history for “Batman” and several of the D.C. Comic villains that populated his world. Think of it as a prequel of sorts.

Its power is in the quasi-mythic, dreamlike, dark landscape for New York that executive producer/writer Bruno Heller creates. It has noir-ish look, but a stark, almost Scandinavian, cold and empty feel at its core. I’d love to see what a Jungian psychiatrist makes of the visuals. If there’s one out there looking to share, let me know.

It’s a chaotic, hyper-violent world with cruel and crooked characters at every turn. And they are the ones mainly in control. It feels as if something has gone terribly wrong in the city and it is spinning out of control.

Even though this milieu is heightened to the level of mythology, I believe that sensibility is going to resonate with viewers who have the similar feelings about the country and world we live in today. And that’s where the Nielsen power is going to come from.

There is a hero in the darkness, a moral center amid the chaos in the person of James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) a young detective in Gotham’s police department who vows to restore law and order to the city. Fans of “Batman” will quickly recognize him as the future Commissioner Gordon.

Young Gordon’s first case involves the murder in the theater distric tof the socialite parents of 12-year-old Bruce Wayne. Gordon and the young Wayne bond when the detective finds the adolescent sitting on a fire escape trembling under a blanket just feet away from where his dead parents lay. Gordon promises the boy that “as dark as things look now, there will be light.”

If that dialogue sounds a little wooden, don’t forget the authors are going for myth. It’s by definition, a little rigid, righteous and over the top. The one major problem with the pilot is that when they miss on that tone, what viewers are left with is pure comic book, and you feel kind of embarrassed to be watching.

As Gordon and his seedy detective partner (Donal Logue) investigate the case, we meet some of the villains that will populate the world of “Batman” one day, such as The Riddler, Cat Woman and The Penguin. The latter is played with a sense of wicked madness by Robin Lord Taylor, and he is the one villain-to-be from the D.C. Comics canon in the pilot that you will not forget.

But he finishes a poor second to a villain invented for the series, Fish Mooney, played by Jada Pinkett Smith. She’s is a show stopper as a mid-to-upper-level crime boss with a deep streak of sadism to her. The Penguin-to-be is her assistant, and their relationship crackles with a dominant-submissive sexual energy that’s impossible to miss.

I fear I am making “Gotham” sound better than it is. At its worse, it’s wooden dialogue and one-dimensional characters is a comic book plot. But the kind of psychic and psychological energy that it has is rare for network TV. I’ll forgive a million sins for that.

In the end, here’s what I don’t like about it. To have a democracy that works, you need to have a citizenry with a shared body of knowledge – knowing, for example, who the president was that signed the Civil Rights Bill into law or who the president was that started Social Security. To vote intelligently, citizens need some sense at least of our national past.

For a millions reasons, 500,000 of them related to our educational system, we don’t have that any more. References to World War II, The Great Depression or Vietnam draw blank looks in college classrooms.

What we have instead these days as a pool of shared civic information is comic book knowledge. We know the heroes and villains of “Batman” and a dozen other crime fighting “champions of truth and justice.”

And Hollywood is all too happy to exploit that even as our real cities and our democracy continue to decline.

You tell me if that’s a good or bad thing.

“Gotham” premieres at 8 tonight on Fox.

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