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'Gotham' review: Excellent but violent start to Batman prequel series

Robin Lord Taylor, left, and Ben McKenzie in

Robin Lord Taylor, left, and Ben McKenzie in a scene from "Gotham," premiering Monday, Sept. 22. Credit: AP

THE SHOW "Gotham"

WHEN|WHERE Monday night at 8 on Fox/5

WHAT IT'S ABOUT On a stormy night, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) witnesses the cold-blooded murder of his parents. Det. James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) sets out with new partner, Det. Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), to find clues. They do, courtesy of the treacherous Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith). Fish has many friends in low places, one of whom -- Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Taylor) -- will one day become the Penguin. Other proto-villains make their appearances, too. This "Batman" prequel is by Bruno Heller ("Rome").

MY SAY Promises, promises. That's what fall TV pilots make, and what many promptly break. But the "Gotham" opener probably makes the most compelling case of any newcomer this fall that at least one promise will be kept. In other words, it's "Gotham's" to squander now.

Heller and his team have certainly created the requisite Gotham, which is so deeply embedded in our imagination already -- a dark, stricken place where even the shadows seem to be alive. That Gotham is a moral cesspool is a given, but you still need to see the decrepitude and beauty on the screen. Here you do.

This prequel is also set in an indeterminate point in the past, but flip phones are used, so that's a reasonably obvious cue that this doesn't take place (say) last week. Time details are fuzzy simply because this is a heightened-reality world unbound by time and space. However, the series does fall at the beginning of the Batman evolutionary cycle, and those who will be -- all the great characters we know and love so well -- begin right here.

That's Heller's single biggest challenge, but from a DC Comics perspective, the choices he makes are surprising. The bad guys aren't outsized, protean comic book characters in Halloween costumes, but regular people who just happen to be eccentric and evil. Fish's key sartorial flourishes are hot pink highlights; she could just as easily be a fashionista as the menace of Gotham.

From fans' perspective, the other tricky move is Gordon. He has to be heroic, but not too heroic; otherwise, Gotham wouldn't need Batman in the future. But McKenzie plays this exactly right. As the last good man in a fallen world, he makes hard choices, but, paradoxically, some of them unintentionally contribute to the evolving evil of this world. Gotham must turn its lonely, frightened eyes to the Caped Crusader someday.

BOTTOM LINE An excellent opener, but -- parents with young kids take note -- it contains extreme violence.


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