Ben McKenzie and David Mazouz in 'Gotham' pilot episode
Ben McKenzie and David Mazouz in ‘Gotham’ pilot episode

The many manifestations of the Batman character over the decades all have one thing in common: a focus on the dark side of life and damaged characters. (I exempt the 1960s TV series from this consideration, as it was obviously not a serious addition to the canon any more than Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is a serious addition to the James Bond myth.)

Although the vivid villains are highly reminiscent of those populating the Dick Tracy comic strip of long-time popularity, Batman has never had the simple, straightforward personality of a Tracy or Superman. On the contrary, Batman was one of the first of a long line of tortured souls who fought evil not just because it was right or needed but also (and perhaps primarily) as a means of working out their psychological problems.

In Batman’s case, of course, the problem is the traumatic memory of the murder of his parents by a street thug. The knowledge of what made him a crimefighter lends a grimness to his story, and the past few decades’ manifestations of the character have strongly emphasized that aspect of the story, portraying Batman as a tortured soul who turns that evil into something good: the thwarting of villains and their villainy.

The new FOX-TV series Gotham (Mondays, 8 p.m. EDT) begins with that premise, showing the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents in an alley by a street thug during a robbery, which was probably, the pilot episode implies, not a random crime but a murder of the Wayne couple, undoubtedly paid for by some unknown crime lord.

It’s here that the show takes an interesting turn. Instead of concentrating on Batman as tortured crimefighter, the pilot episode sets the show up as a police procedural, and its protagonist is an idealistic, newly minted Gotham City Police detective James (Jim) Gordon (Ben McKenzie), an honest cop adrift in a sea of corruption. The settings reflect this contrast—dreary, dirty streets and back alleys, a sleazy nightclub, a slaughterhouse, etc., interspersed with occasional images of wealth and beauty and moments of decency.

James’s visits with his girlfriend, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), at her clean and orderly apartment with an attractive view of the city skyline, provide a tonic for him and a reminder to the viewer of what James is fighting for. So, too, does his visit with Bruce Wayne at Wayne Manor, a gorgeous mansion.

The comic-book villains are there, as is a cynical and morally corrupt detective partner for Gordon, Detective Harvey Bullock, played excellently by Donal Logue, The pilot sets in motion several interesting plot lines, including, of course, Gordon’s quest to identify the Waynes’ killer. In all, Gotham is a sound and appealing new angle on a story that had become rather stuck in a rut in recent years, despite the talent and creativity Christopher Nolan and his team put into his Batman film trilogy.

Detective James Gordon is a commendable character, and it’s interesting to see him at the beginning of a career that would eventually lead to him becoming police commissioner in a city beset by rampant criminality. Judging by its pilot (admittedly a chancy thing to do), Gotham takes a promising new angle on the Batman saga.