Fox's (NASDAQ:FOX) Gotham, the eagerly anticipated TV series featuring the early days of Detective James Gordon in a pre-Batman Gotham City, has just started filming, and is expected to premiere this fall.
The show stars Ben McKenzie (The O.C., Southland) as James Gordon, Sean Pertwee as Alfred, Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin), David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne, and Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle.
In Gotham, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are teenagers. Therein lies a problem for fans eager to compare Gotham with Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL)/Warner Bros.' Smallville, the Superman prequel that ran for 10 seasons. Whereas Clark was well aware of his powers long before he donned the Superman costume, Bruce only becomes Batman after he comes an adult.
Therefore, Gotham follows the early career of James Gordon instead. On paper, that's not a terrible idea -- the concept has been explored in comics with classic storylines as Frank Miller's Year One and in film with Batman Begins. To keep the show connected to the Batman universe, the writers have also promised early incarnations of classic characters such as the Joker, Riddler, and Catwoman.
Yet in my opinion, this premise is half-baked and pretentious. Let's take a look at three factors that could cause this show to flop.
1. Introducing Bat-villains would be absurd
Smallville took huge liberties in squeezing in characters from the adult Clark Kent's life into his teenage years, but for the most part it held together.
However, anyone familiar with the Batman comics knows that most of the higher-profile villains in Batman's Rogues' Gallery don't appear until after Bruce dons the cape and cowl. The idea that the existence of Batman is responsible for the creation of villains like the Joker is repeatedly emphasized in the comics. The theme was also reinforced in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight -- in which the Joker says to Batman, " I won't kill you because you're just too much fun."
Introducing early versions of Batman villains, likely in winking homages, seems silly in a world where Bruce Wayne is only 14 years old.
2. Yet another procedural 'monster of the week' show
Gotham was created and written by Bruno Heller, who also created CBS' (NYSE:CBS) The Mentalist. The Mentalist is a solid show, but it's also a highly procedural one. As Disney (NYSE:DIS)/ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD has shown us, the serialized format generally works better than the procedural one for comic book story arcs.
With the success of The Mentalist, which drew an average of 17.5 million viewers during its first season, and the strong viewership of procedural shows like NCIS, CSI, and Elementary, it will be tempting for the writers to turn Gotham into a cut-and-paste procedural featuring some Bat-villains in their early criminal careers. The show's pilot is even directed by Danny Cannon, a veteran executive producer and director for CSI.
Although it might be initially interesting to see Gordon tackle various Gotham criminals in episodic "monster of the week" installments, it's hard to see that formula satisfying audiences who were arguably spoiled by Christopher Nolan's thought-provoking Dark Knight trilogy.
3. It's on Fox
Whereas the first two problems can be rectified by clever writing and direction, the fact that it's on Fox is a huge red flag. Fox has had a dismal track record with sci-fi and comic book shows.
Firefly, Fringe, and Almost Human all suffered from the network's decision to air their episodes out of order. As a result, Firefly was axed after only one season, and the fate of Almost Human remains undecided. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse, Human Target, and Terra Nova were all canceled after two seasons.
In a previous article, I pointed out that Fox is impatient with these shows because it measures their ratings against The X-Files, which attracted 14.5 million to 19.8 million viewers between its first and fifth seasons.
Moreover, Fox notably canceled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (which it co-produced with Warner Bros. and C2/Halcyon Pictures) in April 2009, shortly before Terminator Salvation was released the following month. Although the show lost half of its viewers between the first and second seasons, it was probably also canceled to avoid the existence of two alternate Terminator universes.
Therefore, when Man of Steel 2 arrives in 2016 with a brand new Batman, Fox or Warner Bros. could cancel the series to clear the way for a new Batman origin.
What Gotham would mean for Warner Bros. and Fox
Warner Bros., which is producing the show, would benefit from the success of Gotham, since the show could expand its TV universe of characters, which include Arrow and the upcoming Flash solo series on Time Warner's CW network (which is 50% owned by CBS).
For Fox, it would be a helpful boost for its television segment, which is mainly fueled by sports programming and the long-running hit American Idol. The network currently ranks fourth -- behind CBS, Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) NBC, and ABC -- in both total viewers and overall ratings among 18 to 49 year olds.
Gotham could give Fox the shot in the arm it needs to attract viewers who have flocked to CBS' procedurals (NCIS, Person of Interest, Elementary) and comedies (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men). Last quarter, revenue at Fox's television segment rose 5.6% year-over-year, but operating income fell 11%.
Although Gotham will certainly face some major challenges, I'll still tune in and give it a chance. However, the show needs to quickly prove to audiences that a young Jim Gordon and teenage Bruce Wayne aren't just gimmicks to sell a new procedural crime drama to audiences who are enamored with comic book films.