With no Batman, who’s gonna solve the murder of Bruce Wayne?
That’s both the million-dollar question and central premise of the CW’s latest superhero show, Gotham Knights, premiering March 14.
Who indeed? Enter Bruce Wayne’s adopted son Turner Hayes (Oscar Morgan), a young student who faces the unthinkable when his Dad is found murdered and his secret identity as Batman is exposed to the world.
Turner has little time to mourn or even begin processing the fact Bruce Wayne was none other than Gotham’s Dark Knight, as he soon finds himself charged with Wayne’s murder along with a trio of likely but ultimately innocent accomplices.
As Gotham’s D.A./old family friend Harvey Dent (Misha Collins) struggles to maintain belief in Turner’s innocence, Turner and his newfound and uneasy allies must use every means at their disposal to find the real murderer and clear their names. Not so easy when you’re on the run and don’t have Batman’s vast arsenal of gadgets, wads of cash, and advanced computer software at your fingertips. And definitely not so easy when an anonymous and super powerful adversary with access to all of Gotham’s crooked cops would prefer the real identity of Batman’s killer be kept under wraps.
But before we get into it, let’s take a real quick look at that elephant standing in the corner of the room over there. At this point you may be thinking one of two things: Wow! Another superhero show! Or Wow! Another superhero show? There’s no denying that the CW has thoroughly plumbed the depths of D.C.’s intellectual property over the last decade with shows like Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Batwoman, Stargirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and Black Lightning to name a few, but as new CW owner Nexstar makes moves to slash budgets and cancel older shows (CW CFO Lee Ann Gliha previously stated that there will be “minimal” carryover programming under the new regime, with CEO Perry Sook also going on the record to say that The CW might keep “a couple of shows that distinguish themselves” going forward), is now really the best time for another TV series in the same mold to be making its tender debut?
That question is not easily answerable and may depend on a multitude of factors that can’t be guessed at with any real accuracy here. But as TV critics watching for the CW’s Fall 2023/24 lineup know, ratings will play a major role in any decisions. As I write All American is the only show guaranteed to be renewed for Fall 2023. Perhaps that’s not too surprising. The show is the CW’s current flagship series and ratings darling. Conversely, the fates of fledgling series The Winchesters, and Walker Independence, which both debuted mere weeks ago, are both up in the air. Simply put, for Gotham Knights to garner a spot on the programming calendar in 2024 it will have to earn and keep its audience.
In the wise words of Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.
Now that elephant is safely corralled let’s get into the nitty gritty of Gotham Knights. Before writing our piece this morning, we received the first 6 episodes of the show for review — more than sufficient screen time to understand the show’s mechanics and tone and learn what it does best.
Tight episodic storytelling and a simple but compelling central premise both make Gotham Knights an engaging hour of TV, but it’s the characters that truly carry the show. At the center of proceedings is Turner Hayes, a carefree spirit who seems at the outset to be a disciple of the Bruce Wayne party lifestyle… but you know … for real. Turner has no idea his Dad is — or was — Batman. So when his life is suddenly upended by the murder of Bruce Wayne he is forced to dig deep into his mental and physical reserves just to stay alive. Turner has not only lost his Dad and uncovered a huge family secret, but has become Gotham’s most hated man overnight.
Thrown into the mix is Robin, played with an earnest sweetness by Navia Robinson. Learning that Robin, aka Batman’s sidekick, aka Carrie Kelley knew his father and his many secrets in a way he never could does nothing for Turner’s confidence, but we get the feeling that he may yet learn to forge his own legacy from current events in time. Meanwhile, Carrie feels the sting of never having experienced the ‘Bruce Wayne as protective and loving father figure’ that Turner grew up with. The nuanced two-and-fro between these two grief-stricken characters, who never quite fully knew their mentor, works to the show’s credit.
Our would-be superheroes are joined by a motley collection of allies drawn from DC comic book lore, who in the premiere episode threaten to overwhelm the viewer in their number and similarity. (So much black leather! So much black eyeliner!) However, subsequent episodes duly take time to unroll the backstories of: Duela (Olivia Rose Keegan) the Joker’s daughter, and an unhinged, aggressive, skilled thief with Daddy issues to boot; Harper Row (Fallon Smythe) a genius engineer who was forced to quit school to protect her transgender brother from their alcoholic, abusive father; Cullen Row (Tyler DiChiara) who might be capable of many remarkable things if only Harper would step out of his way long enough for him to try; and Turner’s best friend and expert hacker Stephanie Brown (Anna Lore).
CW stalwart Misha Collins is a joy to watch as D.A. Harvey Dent, a man with eyes on the mayor’s job and aspirations to be more than just another two-faced politician (yes, we totally know what we just did there). But look closer and you’ll soon see a man who feels a terrifying lure to a dark place where he’s not fully in control.
Harvey’s storyline is a slow burn teasing a villainous turn that never quite seems to materialize. Dent is a man whose natural sense of empathy, heroism, and duty compels him to assist Turner despite the evidence stacked solidly against him. Collins’ turn as Dent is made more compelling when we are forced at intervals to consider there may be an equal and opposite force lurking behind his heroic stature and kindly eyes. Those moments make his onscreen appearances worth the wait and imbue Collins’ performance with an uneasy duality.
The show also deserves praise for its structure. Gotham Knights offers both episodic and serialized elements weekly, meaning we get to see a villain of the week AND learn more about Batman and the Wayne family’s past. So often genre shows promise to explore a deep mystery, only to place that mystery on a shelf for the remainder of the season or to be briefly dusted off for season finales. Thankfully, Gotham Knights digs deep into its premise, with each new episode peeling away another layer of the proverbial onion. Although we are forbidden from revealing too much in this article, we can tell you the onion core goes all the way back to Gotham’s origins, and that although the premiere episode may reveal how Batman died, the why is another story entirely.
If you’ve read this review and are now wondering if you’ll enjoy Gotham Knights, the answer may hinge on how much you’ve enjoyed previous superhero fare from the CW. For all of its structure, pacing, characterization, and delicious DC easter eggs, the series is built very much in the style of its predecessors — in particular Arrow. In fact, some of the similarities almost feel like cynical shortcuts. For example, expect the bad guys to wear studded leathers and to go down hard after a single punch or kick. Expect the action to take place at night in the abandoned warehouse on the edge of town. Unless it’s in the unusually tastefully appointed attic of the Hogwarts-esque school where the team has managed to secret themselves nightly, without ever, ever getting caught. Expect clues to be solved primarily from hacked computer servers that take the team’s resident hacker (in this case Turner’s friend-and-maybe-romantic-interest-at-some-future-point, Felicity. I mean Stephanie) a couple of minutes to access. If Stephanie is not on the job, then her genius rival-soon-to-be-friend Harper is at hand to defuse a bomb, analyze a chemical compound, or wield a baseball bat. Whichever is most convenient to the current predicament. Our hats are likewise off to the GPD, who arrive literally seconds after any alarm is tripped anywhere in Gotham, making them the most efficient corrupt police force in the United States.
Another nit to pick concerns Duela, the abandoned daughter of the legendary Joker! Duela should be a true literal wildcard. We should look at her and not know which way any given situation will play out. Yet the show seems determined to play this particular card stiflingly close to its vest. We are left to infer Duela’s unpredictability and instability from her excessive eyeliner, fingerless black leather gloves, and her tendency to smile broadly at inappropriate moments. With a little more care, Duela could be a truly magnificent standout and one of the CW’s more memorable characters.
While we’re at it, Harper’s little brother Cullen should have more strings to his bow than being the show’s one transgender character. What are his strengths? His fears? His hopes? What can he bring to the table? Given that all three characters are DC comic book legends, the space surrounding them feels disappointingly vague at present. Maybe this will be addressed in the first season’s back half?
None of these mischievous observations are dealbreakers. In fact, most shows on broadcast TV normally employ the same shortcuts and devices as routes to more efficient storytelling. Nevertheless, these are not normal times. At least not for the CW. As both new and existing CW shows line up to enter their premiere night starting gates, they are eyeing each other nervously, aware that the ratings race to Primetime 2023/24 is likely to have only one or two winners, and no runners-up. If Gotham Knights is to earn a second season it will need to stand apart from previous CW superhero shows, not emulate them. There are so many things to enjoy about this new show which we would enjoy even more if it were to take a couple of risks, spread its wings, and truly embrace its more unique elements.
Arrow is done. The Flash ends its run this season. Black Lightning, Batwoman, and Legends of Tomorrow are just memories now. Like the characters Gotham Knights has inspired, now seems the perfect time to forge a new legacy.
Gotham Knights premieres Tuesday, March 14 at 9:00p.m. ET / PT. on the CW.
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