Look, the freshly announced Gotham TV show may wind up being great. In fact, I hope the Fox series turns out to be the next evolutionary step in translating comic book lore for television. But, honestly, how excited can you get about a Batman TV show that doesn't have Batman?
Let's talk about James Gordon. He's been portrayed lots of different ways in the last two decades or so. But there's been a consistent thread running through the iterations of the character: he's the only honest cop in Gotham, a lone crusader fighting the tides of corruption in the gloomy city. That's great and all, but when it comes down to it, Gordon is pretty much doomed to failure. He simply doesn't work without Batman somewhere in the mix.
There's no way he saves Gotham City from being a cesspool without Batman. And he's only interesting as a character as in symbiosis with the Dark Knight. When they're friends, the plight of Gotham seems less bleak. When they're at odds, nothing about the world seems right. Gordon's a foil for Batman to play off of — and vice versa. The mustachioed cop reminds Batman that they don't kill. That justice isn't revenge. That there are still rules. Batman gives Gordon a way to skirt those rules, to fantasize about fighting crime with a limitless set of resources and outside of the rule of law. They need each other, which is why the absence of Bat in the Gotham show feels like a really onerous pre-natal birth defect.
There's a better way. A Batman show without Batman needs to focus on the effect that all the super-weirdness has on the citizens of Gotham. That's why Gotham Central would be perfect for a TV show.
The police procedural series ran from 2003-2006, focusing on the Major Crimes Unit in Batman's hometown. The delicious core tension of Gotham Central came from treating Batman as a force of nature. The cops hated him but needed him, like a colonoscopy. Turning on the Bat-Signal was a badge of shame, an admission that the detectives were outmatched and in over their heads.
You wouldn't have to spend a buttload of money on special effects on a Gotham Central series. The Bat would only swoop in, say, a few times a season and would never be the focus of the intricate set-pieces like he is in the movies. A Gotham Central show could still avail itself of all the villains and partner characters from the Batman universe, though. Even more frustrating, the possibility of an adaptation was being talked about.
It's the perfect template for a Batman show without Batman, one where his presence lingers and serves as a tease the whole time through. On the show that's actually happening, the Dark Knight won't be showing up. If that remains the case, viewers may not either.