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'Gotham' leaves out Batman while taking inspiration from much better sources

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Removing Batman from the world of Gotham to explore the time when a traumatized Bruce Wayne was just beginning to think about how to fight back against the death of his parents is a bold move.

Plenty of comics, television shows and other forms of media have explored the world around Batman and Bruce Wayne, but they always had the reality of the world's greatest detective framing the action.

Batman is a part of Gotham, and Gotham is a part of Batman. They're two characters who seem linked by their pasts, and it seems nearly impossible to extract one from the other. Then again, Smallville successfully explored the same idea of an extended prequel leading up to the hero Superman, so what do I know?

The first steps

It's impossible to judge the quality of Gotham based on a single episode that retreads plenty of familiar ground. The Waynes are a rich family in the city, and they take their son out to a show. They're ultimately murdered while their child watches, and this sense of fear and helplessness inspires a young Bruce Wayne to train his body and mind to fight back against the dying of the light.

This story has been endlessly repeated, and is locked in our popular imagination the same way that we know Peter Parker was bitten by a spider and watched his uncle die. We know how these heroes came to be, and it's often one of the least interesting but often repeated facts about them. Gotham falls into the same trap.

The slight changes to the Batman formula allow the the creative team to mine other sources of inspiration. Our attention is pulled away from Bruce and placed squarely on a young James Gordon and his partner Harvey Bullock as they investigate the murder. The young detective being paired up with an older, more cynical partner who has given up on a quest for justice and is now only trying to survive is another trope that's been well-mined in this sort of story, and the show is appealingly timeless; this could have happened ten years ago, or sometime in the 1950s.

This decision to remove the show from a specific timeline and instead mine America's urban visual history for anything interesting seems lifted from the infinitely preferable Batman: The Animated Series, a show that always looked like it took place in a noir-infused near future.

And of course since this is the first episode and we must be reminded of Batman at every turn, we have a steady introduction of characters we recognize from the comics and movies. There's a guy who likes to speak in riddles, and over there is a young girl who seems to like plants. The Penguin is more or less the Penguin already, and presents the kind of menacing, sniveling presence that gives the show one of its few interesting characters.

During one scene he politely thanks another thug for allowing him a turn with the baseball bat while they beat another man half to death, and he takes the beating way too far, giggling all the way. The way he administers the beating, which is more like a child playing a fun game of tag than someone breaking bones, is a great way to show us that this is a man who is as pitiable as he is frightening.

There's only so much you can do in an hour of television.

Then we have a young Catwoman, who watches the murder of the Waynes and seems to follow Bruce around like a guardian angel. She's silent through the first episode of the show, but setting things up in such a way that there's clearly a connection between the two children is smart, and is one of the few character beats that seems like it will be pay off down the line.

Another promising character is Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney, an over-the-top gangster who obviously took some cues from Eartha Kitt. Every scene with her in it seems like it comes from a campier show, one that would be much more fun, and since she's a character created specifically for this show there's no way of knowing where the story will take her.

There's only so much you can do in an hour of television, but Gotham is a show that had very little time to try to serve many masters. It had to wink at the source material, it had to let us know that there was a super-villain lurking in the corners of damned near every scene, and it had to try to find itself in a maze of familiar and overpowering influences.

Bruce Wayne's handshake with James Gordon at his parent's funeral, or the way he explained that he's trying to conquer fear helped to set up the uncanny nature of the character, but it seems like he'll exist in the fringes of the show for a while yet. This is a series that is showing us a city getting ready for Batman, not the other way around.