Last week, reporters attending the Television Critics Association’s Summer Press Tour enjoyed a private screening of Fox’s “Gotham”. Based on the origin stories of a young James Gordon and a younger Harvey Bullock (played by Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue), “Gotham” is one of the most highly anticipated new shows on the fall schedule.
What the actors and series executive producer Bruno Heller probably were not anticipating was the reaction of some critics, that “Gotham’s” pilot is essentially a grim cop show missing the key element that makes this particular universe special: its headliner, Batman.
For the record, this writer disagrees with that assessment. Sure, the pilot isn’t perfect, but I found it to be true to the Batman universe and would confidently recommend it to fans of the Dark Knight. A full review of “Gotham” will post closer to its premiere at 8pm on Monday, September 22. In the meantime, I sat down with McKenzie and Logue at the Beverly Hilton earlier this week to find out what they thought about a few early and very vocal critical reactions to the pilot.
Spoiler alert — they were not amused.
IMDb: You two have fielded a lot of questions about how “Gotham” will work without a superhero.
Ben McKenzie: I’ll jump right in there, if you want.
Donal Logue: That’s absurd. Really? It’s uninteresting to see Gotham, Oswald Cobblepot, the development of all these people before they became villains? It seems like a tired kind of criticism.
McKenzie: It’s a strange criticism to me in the sense of, the people who are fans of Batman and the Batman world are incredibly passionate, and they’ve watched all of these different iterations of this universe, from the comic book 75 years ago, all the way through the Adam West TV show, through the movie versions which – how many different versions of that have there been? Three or four different auteurs taking on this mythology. And throughout all of that, when we take a side angle at this universe, your criticism is, “Well, there isn’t a Batman”? Well, you must love these other characters too, right?
And there is a Bruce. You see Bruce when he’s twelve. We’re not going to jump forward. We’re going to take this one day at a time, and show how this city descends into the anarchy that ultimately manifests the need for a Batman.
Logue: As a fan of Tolkien, although I know he wrote it in order – if, say, for instance, Lord of the Rings came out and someone said, “Would you be interested in seeing The Hobbit, to see what happened before that?” I’d say “Hell yes!”
McKenzie: That’s what’s beautiful about our origin story. It allows us to mine the familiarity of these characters, for an audience that is predisposed to understand what we’re talking about, in terms of the broad strokes of who these characters are. But we’re not beholden to any interpretation, because this is 20 to 30 years before they are who they’ll become.
IMDb: From my perspective, the cops are integral to this universe. There’s a huge political element to the world of Batman, with all the corruption within the police department. And then you have Carmine Falcone ruling the criminal underworld. All of these are elements, if you look at it, which would make a great procedural kind of show with an extra mythology layered in.
Logue: I thought they did an excellent job in the animated series.
IMDb: I did too.
Logue: In a weird way, this is a bit of an homage to that, presented to a wider audience in a different kind of format. But always, to true aficionados, even those things of what Jim and Harvey went through early on are deeply important. To me, [the critical reaction] seemed a bit kneejerk…when I saw it in print I thought, “Man, some 13 year old smart ass is writing that. ‘Nope. Pass!’”
IMDb: You also have to realize that a number of people said that about “Smallville” too.
Logue: What I like about some of this stuff, like with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, it is more difficult in some ways, in that you know that they exist but they can’t just walk into the room. That seems to handcuff them in a really hard way. But with us –
McKenzie: We show everybody. We can show Bruce, and Oswald, and Nygma — every single character, we have access to. The only character we don’t have access to is Batman, but that’s because we’re taking it 20 years before. Eventually he will become Batman, but at this point he’s a 12-year-old boy. You’ll see him struggling with all the issues, psychologically and otherwise, that will eventually compel him to put on the cowl… For people who aren’t familiar with David Mazouz’s work, he’s a great actor. And I think watching him process all of what he’s going through at such a seminal moment in his life, it’s just going to be riveting.
And the battle between Jim and Alfred over Bruce’s soul, the conflicting philosophies that they have – they’re both trying to steer Bruce down a path, but those paths differ – they’re trying to make Bruce not choose this path of vengeance and vigilantism. But they’re going to fail.
IMDb: Let’s take away all of those criticisms we talked about. What would you tell someone who is coming to this show, knowing what Gotham is, but otherwise coming in cold? Would you say “Gotham” is more like a procedural, or that it’s part of the Batman, comic book universe but without a superhero in it?
McKenzie: My answer that I would give to anyone on any show, even if I didn’t work on the show, is: “Watch the pilot. Just watch the pilot. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it.” It’s such an easy answer.
Logue: Look, this is a group of people who are so actively engaged in [this universe] that of course there’s going to be criticism. It’s amazing, the confidence with which people have opinions and dismiss it without having seen it! But to me, per some of earlier questions that we had, it’s the absurdity of, for example, how satisfying could Chinatown be if the rich guy gets away with murder at the end? Well, exceedingly.
McKenzie: And this idea has been around for a while! Back to Oedipus Rex!
Logue: …And so, yes, there’s a procedural element to it, which I really like, and I think the crimes are really interesting.
McKenzie: Because it is a little noirish, the crimes are odd and they’re not…it’s not like we have to go through eight different procedural points to discover this huge reveal of who it could possibly be. It’s more about how bizarre, twisted and crazy the world that we’re entering into is. … It’s fascinating and [the crimes] all give you a small window into how completely compromised every aspect of Gotham is, from the church to the police force, to the political powers that be. Everyone is on the take, and so weird crimes manifest in strange ways, and people behave in a bizarre manner because they’re without hope. And Jim’s the only hope there is.
IMDb: Also, in the end, none of these people are metahuman. They’re all just people doing crazy, heightened things.
Logue: I’ve always loved the DC world because it’s rooted in, like, a Jungian-style human psychology where people take actual masks to match their shadow. I think that really bodes well for us, because it’s rooted in this visceral part of human nature. So when you’re talking about, “How can you do a show that explores the darker side of human nature, and how it behaves in an overly urban environment?” If you can’t see that there’s no limit to the storylines there, then I don’t know what to say.
It’s OK. Look, we’ll take whatever criticism comes our way, and we’ll even take it before someone’s actually tasted the meal, but that comes a little with this universe, I think.