It's possibly a minority opinion in these comics-crazy days, but I find it something of a relief that there's no Batman in "Gotham," a well-assembled new series set in the future Dark Knight's hometown in the time before he put on the cape and the cowl. We have had a lot of screen Batmans over the last few decades, and frankly, and notwithstanding a change in actors, he's grown tiresome to me with his they'll-never-know-it's-me rasp, fancy hardware and death-serious demeanor.
Neither are there any villains sporting elaborate makeup, themed costumes or colorful noms-du-crime in "Gotham," which premieres Monday on Fox. We do, however, meet the younger selves of some we know well: Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who will be Catwoman, just a street kid with steampunk goggles who steals milk for feral cats; Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), a forensic scientist whom fate will make the Riddler; and the beaky and sadistic Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Taylor), who would prefer that you don't call him "penguin."
And surely that nameless comic auditioning for new-to-the-canon nightclub owner and aspiring criminal queenpin Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) is meant to make us think: Joker. (The joke: "I want to die how my father died, peacefully in his sleep; not like his screaming, terrified passengers.") The correspondences are clearly signposted for our pleasure. This is not a show that requires you to work hard.
Created by Bruno Heller ("Rome," "The Mentalist"), it's an alternate-reality cop drama, focused on young police detective James Gordon, later Commissioner Gordon (Ben McKenzie, calling a little upon the spirit of Russell Crowe in "L.A. Confidential"). New to the force and the city — though his father was once its district attorney — he is a clean cop in a dirty town; this naturally takes some of the edge off his already not-abundant cheer. He's Batman without the accessories, essentially.
"You seem like a nice guy," says reluctant new partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue, invaluable to this project). "But this is not a city or a job for nice guys."
"You're a cynic," Gordon says in reply. "A slovenly, lackadaisical cynic."
Logue's Bullock is too much of a slovenly, lackadaisical cynic to argue the point. But he isn't cold; he's in touch with his weariness. Logue, in fact, is the series' warm, human heart. McKenzie's best moments are all spent in his company. Logue loosens him up even as Bullock puts him off, signaling that their uneasy partnership will become an easier one. He performs a similar service to the whole production, bringing it down to earth, keeping it from becoming too much of a comic-book gizmo with its wash of rain grays and rot rusts and spittoon bronzes and Frank Miller lighting effects.
Just as Gotham City is Manhattan but only sort of, the series is set in the present but only sort of. The reality that the show inhabits is one made up of a hodgepodge of mostly 20th-century styles, jumbled together in a digital mist of classic noir. (There are cellphones, but only the flip kind; too much modernity would kill the mood.) There is a lot of word-balloon dialogue, out of the "Tough Guy's Guide to Writing to Tough Guys," and when the show turns to violence, it is mostly of the old-timey sort — hitting, kicking and clobbering — with the worst stuff suggested rather than shown.
And what of Bruce Wayne? He is here, of course, only a youngster (David Mazouz), and not for the first time in the history of comic-book reboots and adaptations, we will watch him watch his parents as they are gunned down in an alleyway. Once again, he will be fetched home by butler Alfred (Sean Pertwee).
One minor implication of "Gotham" — a town no one has been able to clean up — is that Batman is younger than the villains he will most famously pursue. I'm not sure why that interests me — but that is a matter for another piece. In any case, he's only 10 in this series, which, one hour into the trip, seems set on a profitable and in its way, scenic course. But we shall see what we shall see.
When: 8 p.m. Monday