Happens all the time in the Bat-verse: The bad guys get all the best material. And so it was in the beginning, or at least in the origin story as presented by Fox's stylish, vividly hardboiled Gotham (8/7c), an exercise in pulp-noir chic that, to be enjoyed properly, should be considered more Dick Tracy than Batman in approach.
As Robin might proclaim, if he were around (which he isn't): Holy corruption! The sordid Gotham City on display here reflects executive producer Bruno Heller's time spent on HBO's Rome rather than his sunnier stint with The Mentalist. This city of menace boasts a retro sheen cluttered with jarring contemporary details, projecting what's intended as an out-of-time (or timeless) quality to frame this iconic story. You know how it goes: Young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz of Touch) is orphaned when his wealthy parents are murdered in a back-alley robbery, inspiring a lifetime devoted to vanquishing Gotham's most-wanted goons.
But that's another tale for another time, because the focus of Gotham is on clench-jawed, strait-arrow Detective (future Commissioner) James Gordon, played with a pugnacious dour solemnity by Ben McKenzie. Warned "this is not a city or a job for nice guys" by his slovenly, ethically compromised partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue, lazily typecast), Gordon bristles with self-righteousness as he grimly takes the measure of Gotham's considerable underbelly.
And that's where the lurid fun, such as it is, of Gotham can be found. And savored, as in Jada Pinkett Smith's sinewy nightclub gangster Fish Mooney — a new character for the mythology, with a name like a Dick Tracy regular — when she purrs at rookie Gordon, "Well, aren't you a cool glass of milk." As her creepily sadistic underling Oswald Cobblepot, whom we soon glean is on his way to earning Penguin status, Robin Lord Taylor gives one of the fall's breakout performances, stealing every scene with psychotically gleeful and ghoulish fervor. (As mob boss Carmine Falcone, The Wire's John Doman appears toward the pilot episode's end to add some dramatic gravitas.)
Studiously avoiding the campy cartoon feeling of the '60s Batman series my generation grew up on, Gotham takes itself almost as seriously as its humorless hero does. Am I wrong in rooting for the criminal element here — at least until little Bruce is old enough to spread his wings?
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SMARTY PANTS: No worries about CBS's Scorpion (9/8c) taking itself too seriously. At this summer's TCA press tour, the show's executive producer Nick Santora coined the phrase "fun-cedural" to describe this derivative but diverting caper about a team of misfit geniuses who solve high-tech crimes. Do the math: The Big Bang Theory (with its own Penny-style waitress) + CBS's favorite genre, the crime drama = formula folderol. If Scorpion exhibited as much originality as it does brain power, it might be a keeper. But even though it's based on the real-life exploits of Walter O'Brien (here played by Elyes Gabel), a wizard with an IQ higher than Einstein's, the improbabilities in the agreeably fast-paced pilot episode mount up so quickly, I'm glad I'm not the one asked to calculate the odds for this show's success.
As often happens in series pilots, the production values are so heightened — in this case, involving planes flying blind after a computer glitch, and a wild stunt involving a Ferrari convertible scooting under one such aircraft — that you wonder if the show could ever top it. (Future storylines involve art and casino scams, so it's unlikely.) So we're left with a cast of stock characters, forgettably cast, and that includes Smash's Katharine McPhee as Paige, the aforementioned diner waitress, with a savant son. She becomes the emotionally stunted Scorpion team's conduit to the outside world. And you'll know the show is in trouble if, by sweeps, Walter stands outside his new friend's door, knocking and saying "Paige" multiple times.
THE IMMORTAL: Those with long memories for short-lived TV shows will feel one of those deja view rushes as the gimmick of the premise to ABC's Forever becomes clear. (The show premieres at 10/9c, before moving to its regular Tuesday time period, also 10/9c, with another new episode.) There's something familiar about the charming hero, Dr. Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd), a crime-solving Medical Examiner in Manhattan whose special gift is that he can never die — although he perishes extravagantly, three times in the pilot alone, always resurrected stark naked in the waters outside the city. Familiar, that is, if you ever saw Fox's New Amsterdam in 2008, starring Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, which covered similar thematic ground but in a much gloomier fashion.
Forever takes its tonal cue from its wry, droll star — and this is the best role the Welsh Gruffudd (Hornblower) has enjoyed in a U.S. series — as Dr. Morgan reveals his supernatural secret, equal parts blessing and curse, in elaborate voice-over: "There's almost nothing in this life I haven't done, except leave it." He quickly forges a partnership with female detective Jo Martinez (Law & Order's appealing Alana De La Garza) who's also well acquainted with death, being a recent and not-so-merry widow. But there's little that's morbid in this quirky fantasy-mystery procedural, which has Castle-level sleeper-hit potential.
Morgan demonstrates Sherlock-ian powers of observation and deduction, honed over 200-odd years of existence, and while he tries to stay aloof and detached, ready to relocate and reinvent himself should the need arise, his bond with curmudgeonly antiques dealer Abe (Judd Hirsch) — the only one who knows Morgan's story — is amusing and touching, and we glimpse his more romantic side in WWII-era flashbacks that reveal the one true love of his long life, a military nurse (Mackenzie Mauzy).
The mysteries he and Martinez tackle are rather pro forma, but that's not what tends to keep shows like Castle and Bones on the air season after season. It's more about enjoying being in the company of these charismatic characters, and there's strong chemistry between the debonair Gruffudd and the earthy De La Garza. Add the immortality angle, and a nice sinister twist suggesting Morgan may not be the only one of his kind, and you've got the makings of a show that could conceivably make it to 200 episodes, if not 200 years.
IN BRIEF: You'll want to pay close attention in the second-season opener of Fox's outrageously entertaining Sleepy Hollow (9/8c), which employs all manner of don't-trust-your-eyes trickery to resolve last season's multiple cliffhangers. As villainous Henry-aka-"War" (John Noble) remarks, "Anything [as in, anyone] can be tricked into believing a lie." And, to quote Tom Mison's dashingly intense Ichabod: "As usual, the impossible becomes our reality." Just how we like it. ... NBC didn't make the sophomore-season premiere of The Blacklist (10/9c) available for preview, but I'm excited at the guest-star list, which includes Mary-Louise Parker and Krysten Ritter. ... On an already overstuffed night, CBS takes on the dueling competition shows Dancing With the Stars and The Voice by airing back-to-back episodes of the blockbuster The Big Bang Theory (8/7c), temporarily displaced from Thursdays by pro football. Which for CBS must seem like a win-win, at least for the first month of the new season.