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On the Set: Inside the World of Fall's Coolest New Hit Gotham

Gotham city — Sources close to the Gotham City Police Department have confirmed that the crime rate in the area has nearly tripled in the past month. Many attribute this spike to the recent murders of billionaires Thomas and Martha Wayne, as well as rising interest in the city's infamous Arkham district, home of the failed Arkham Asylum and turf-war favorite of organized crime. There are those, too, who blame the increase in back-alley homicides, child trafficking...

Damian Holbrook

Gotham city — Sources close to the Gotham City Police Department have confirmed that the crime rate in the area has nearly tripled in the past month. Many attribute this spike to the recent murders of billionaires Thomas and Martha Wayne, as well as rising interest in the city's infamous Arkham district, home of the failed Arkham Asylum and turf-war favorite of organized crime.

There are those, too, who blame the increase in back-alley homicides, child trafficking, and a balloon-obsessed vigilante within the region on Fox's new hit Gotham. And they have a warning for those who think the DC Comics-inspired mayhem is going to stop anytime soon.

"It keeps getting more and more twisted," according to Ben McKenzie, star of the drama about the fictional metropolis in the days way before Batman suited up. As the series' moral compass, McKenzie's detective (and future commissioner) Jim Gordon has a tricky task: cleaning up the streets of comics' most infamous town — populated by the younger versions of well-known comics characters, including Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Camren Bicondova); Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler (Cory Michael Smith); Carmine Falcone (John Doman); Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee); and Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) — while also convincing Batfans that the Dark Knight isn't the only hero Gotham deserves.

So far, he's been doing a pretty good job. The series premiere drew 14.1 million viewers (including seven days of DVR playback) opposite the return of those jokers on The Big Bang Theory, and the second episode retained 86 percent of the audience. Netflix snapped up the rights to Gotham before a single episode aired, and even critics — professionals and otherwise — have embraced the prequel. McKenzie is grateful the response has been so positive since, he admits, "the show has the added scrutiny" of often prickly fanboys and fangirls. "I'm pleased that everyone sees how good this is — and can be," he says.

On set, that upbeat sentiment can be felt from cast trailers to craft services. It's ironic, given Gotham's grim vibe, yet even on a drizzly, dank day of shooting on New York's Long Island Sound, McKenzie and company are having a blast. In the downtime between scenes, he and Donal Logue, who co­stars as Gordon's corrupt and volatile partner, Harvey Bullock, are all smiles and nodding heads as a camera operator explains an upcoming sequence involving an exploding truck. "We've created a warm and welcoming atmosphere on the set where everyone feels like they can do good work," explains McKenzie. "But it's a pressurized environment, for sure. People want this show to be great, and a lot of money is invested in it, so there's a lot of expectation." And not just from executives or advertisers. When asked if they were concerned about reworking such iconic characters for TV and risk upsetting the comic book contingent, Logue and McKenzie point to the endorsement of DC Comics' chief creative officer, Geoff Johns, as the geek version of a papal blessing.

"Geoff was very happy with us creating our own versions of these characters," says Logue. "I feel defended by that." For McKenzie — who previously voiced Bruce Wayne in the Batman: Year One animated DVD movie — the main worry has been hitting the right notes as the noble but flawed Gordon readers have come to know and respect in books like Batman: Year One without coming off as, pun intended, cartoonish. "My only obligation is to be true to that overall spirit of the character and the story, and then make a great show. In that sense, I'll do my best job and let the chips fall where they may."

Those chips McKenzie speaks of could have fallen quite far if producers got this wrong. The brainchild of executive producers Bruno Heller (The Mentalist) and Danny Cannon (Nikita), Gotham has the privilege — and the curse — of having 75 years of Batman lore to cull from, as well as help from a summer-long marketing blitz that included Comic-Con appearances, subway posters, and billboards. Still, Heller knows that a true win for Team Gotham means keeping fans tuned in beyond any early buzz. "It's very much a show about the long story," he says. "And it's a story that everyone knows and loves, so we really have to be entertaining in each episode, both rolling forward and detailing that great history."

And even though it's not a straight-up superhero show like The Flash or Arrow, Gotham does fit into the shared DC universe currently being forged on TV by Johns. (Episode 2 even includes a wink to Arrow's Queen Consolidated in a skyline shot.) "The Yoda of this whole project is Geoff, who is a genuine genius in this world," says Heller. "He knows it backward and forward and loves it. I've been working very closely with him from the very first seeds of the idea right through to now. It's important to him that we stay true to the DC vision at large, but try to come at it from a different angle so it's fresh and new."

To ensure that, the producers mashed up the Gordon origin story with a classic TV crime procedural that is both anachronistic (cop cars are vintage, but the show sticks to no specific era) and ambitious, then coated it in a feature-film sheen. "We have a big budget that we try to keep inside of," says Heller. "Not to blow [our studio] Warner Bros.' trumpet, but this show really couldn't be done anywhere else. There is a long tradition of extremely efficient production on the nuts-and-bolts level there." The overall look of the show and its New York—in-the-'70s feel, according to Heller, is all the work of Cannon, who also directed the pilot. "It's a huge credit to Danny's vision," he says. "I won't say it's an easy show to make. It's a really, really tough show to make, but that's the joy of it."

In addition, Gotham packs an old-school "POW!" thanks to a rock-solid cast: McKenzie earned raves for his dramatic evolution from O.C. pinup to leading man on Southland. Logue, who's racked up killer credits on Sons of Anarchy, Law & Order: SVU,and Vikings, is the reliable utility player capable of comedy and menace. Jada Pinkett Smith, as sadistic mafioso Fish Mooney, is the marquee name. And Robin Lord Taylor, as the nascent Penguin, Oswald Cobblepot, is the revelation.

"My feeling before we even started was that whoever played the Penguin, so much of our fortune was going to rest on his shoulders," says Logue, praising the actor for bringing "gravitas, psychological damage, pain, and sensitivity" to a role that's proven more brutal than any past on-screen portrayals of the character.

"His ambition exceeds his empathy," says Taylor of the Penguin. "His goal to never be powerless is what drives him, and he doesn't let anyone stand in his way. He would much rather kill than be killed." And he has. With the presumed-dead Cobblepot secretly back in town and twitching to make ex-boss Mooney and mob kingpin Falcone pay for ordering Gordon to off him in the premiere, the bodies have been dropping and the players left standing are in for a surprise. "He's keeping a low profile for now," Taylor says. "But he already has plans of pitting people against each other."

So too does Pinkett Smith's Fish. And the simmering showdown between the grande dame of Gotham's underbelly and the former underling who tried to dethrone her is set to ignite an all-out mob war over the Arkham area in the next few episodes. "Basically, she's trying to take everyone out," says Pinkett Smith with the vigorous laugh of her coldhearted nightclub owner. "Fish actually thinks she has what it takes to run everything. We'll see how that goes, but she wants it all."

Pinkett Smith was drawn to the idea of playing the show's only main character who's not from the comics because, for starters, it appealed to her inner risk-taker. "This is one of those projects that you knew for an absolute fact wasn't going to ride the middle. It was either going to work or it was going to fail hard," she says. "I'm a big gambler anyway, and I always like to do things that are different. So I was like, 'Let's just go for it.'" Second, there was the potential for her fascinating, maniacal Mooney to find a life beyond the small screen. "What a wonderful opportunity to create a character that really hasn't been explored yet," Pinkett Smith says. "It would be a dream come true if she ends up in the comics."

Before that, though, Gotham has bigger fish to fry. Heading toward their midseason finale, the major players will be facing major changes. With the GCPD under orders from Mayor Aubrey James (Richard Kind) to round up a rogue's gallery of villains to toss into the soon-to-be-reopened Arkham Asylum, more familiar baddies are set to step in. Viewers will also get to see what Logue considers "the seminal act" that turned Bullock into the dirty cop he is, and Mazouz's broody, self-destructive Bruce may even make a friend his own age in Bicondova's Selina Kyle. "They are thrown together for reasons I can't tell you now," teases Heller, revealing only that a mutual fascination between the rich orphan and the feral street kid will serve as "the starting point of their relationship. There's a lot of history between them that we will get to as we move forward."

Likewise, some light will be shed on the dynamic between Bruce and the far-from-fatherly Alfred. "He is very much in the story as a counterpoint to Gordon," says Heller, contrasting the cop's concern for the kid with the butler's explosive approach to disciplining his charge. "If you work backward to how the hell Batman was created, it's clear that whoever was guarding that boy, whoever was guiding him through his teenage years, was not someone who convincingly told him that violence is not the answer."

Through it all, of course, will be our hero, Det. James Gordon, fighting the good fight, avenging the murder of Bruce's parents, and trying to save his once-great city. As McKenzie describes his character: "One good man in a corrupt department trying to clean it up while the world around him crumbles apart."

And there is no crime in that.

Gotham airs Mondays at 8/7c on Fox.

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