In the fall of 2013 when Fox announced a new series simply titled Gotham centering around the career of eventual Commissioner Jim Gordon, many in-the-know fans of the Batman universe speculated that a small screen adaption of Gotham Central was on the horizon. As potential for the property gained traction, and rumors gave way to casting and set photos, excitement began to build for an episodic exploration of the individuals laboring within the over-burdened and tragically flawed system that failed its city enough to spawn The Dark Knight. Hopes for such an experience were further driven by interviews with series developer Bruno Heller, who teased a show that shunned traditional superhero conventions and looked at people before they donned the capes, cowls, and gimmicks that often don’t translate well in television. Throw in a special edition re-release of Gotham Central #1 planned to coincide with Gotham‘s premiere, and fans had just about every right to anticipate the direction of Fox’s latest venture. By 2014, nearly a year to the day of its straight-to-series order, Gotham made its television debut, only the story it was telling was far from the source material many believed it would draw from, and in many cases went on to tell stories that were already mined down to the dregs.
Created by comic veterans Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, Gotham Central was first published in December of 2002, and chronicled the lives of the city’s law enforcement. While James Gordon, and Batman himself featured frequently in the series’ run, the spotlight was reserved for the detectives who had in the past filled in the very distant background of Bruce Wayne’s vigilante adventures. More than that, Central often moved beyond the typical bad guy of the week trope to develop these characters motivations and explore their personal struggles.
Now, say what you will about prequels and you will probably be right. More often than not, this kind of storytelling is an attempt to use nostalgia to squeeze a fandom for every dollar not captured by origin stories, and is typically executed with half the skill of what brought people to the franchise in the first place. However, cynicism aside, Central endeavored to be more than a cheap rehashing of backstories fans already know by heart. For the first time, the very regular people that were caught in the crossfire of Gotham City’s super-powered turmoil were pulled from the background and given real lives. Over the course of its 40 issue run, the publication saw Detective Renee Montoya (formerly little more than a Batman: The Animated Series set-piece) face off against the fallout of being forcibly outed as a lesbian to her entire precinct. Other, and only vaguely more familiar faces such as Crispus Allen and Harvey Bullock battled rampant corruption and conflicts of morality, with consequences ranging from the futile to the deadly. Of course, the villainy and resultant bat-themed vigilantism always loomed somewhere close by, but the narratives were never about either of them more than they are about the human beings always left in their wake to pick up the pieces however they could manage.
In its beginnings, the televised story of Gotham made some notable attempts at exploring these same avenues, though more with James Gordon and Bullock than anyone else. Unfortunately, by the end of its first season it was clear the show was trending toward building up a rogues gallery of young, recognizable villains, and alluding to the dark figure of justice who would ultimately come to foil them. Characters who weren’t particularly iconic or essential to setting the stage for a city under siege by familiar antagonists fell away, once again relegating most of Gotham City’s finest to moving bodies to fill visual gaps in the scenery. Detectives Allen and Montoya, and the potential of their stories existed, until they didn’t, and rebooted origin stories became the name of the game.
With Gotham heading into the end of a five year stretch, one could logically assume it was too soon for yet another television prequel, particularly one tied in any way to a series of comics whose under-served themes still manage to cut too close to the Fox property’s framework. The announcement of the upcoming Pennyworth bucks half of those expectations and in the worst of ways. While there is still ample chance to delve into tales of the universe’s oft-sidelined denizens, Alfred is not among the stable of individuals in need of explaining or revamping. Undeniably the show will find a way to present some form of character innovation, or a variably interesting new facet of their development, but at the end of the day the trajectory of the Wayne’s loyal caregiver will remain the same, leaving any potential flavoring to be rendered close to pointless.
The time for any shot-for-shot, live-action adaption of Gotham Central has, for all intents and purposes, passed, but a spiritual successor still holds potential, perhaps not through the lens of police procedural, but in drawing out individuals who have always existed, but only as thin archetypes and [non-live-in] support staff. Individuals who are capable of doing more than waiting for either Batman or the Joker to show up and take plots down the roads they have always gone. Bruce Wayne and his shortlist of series regulars are not the only people living in the blast zone that his city often becomes, and they certainly do not need any more fleshing out. So called twists and turns aside, we know how these stories begin, and more importantly how they end, so a new cast with a new perspective is desperately needed if any future programming wishes to be anything short of repetition definitive of insanity, enough of it to warrant lock-up in Arkham itself. It is time for something new, and with very little doubt, Pennyworth will not be it.