During the cold open of last night’s Gotham I simply threw up my hands and quit. What even IS this show, where a crooked banker gets attached to a weather balloon and then fatally floated into the heavens? What kind of a tone is this mishmash of a show going for?
There are a lot of problems facing Gotham, but it’s this tonal one that seems to be the biggest. It’s what makes the show simply ridiculous, as opposed to fun or comic book-y. There’s a fine line between campy goodness and cartoonish badness, and Gotham clearly has no idea where that line is drawn. What’s doubly troubling about the show’s tone is that it’s only going to get cartoonier - this is the third episode and we have assassination by weather balloon, so where is the series going to go as it hits multiple seasons? By the time Batman shows up the show will be a full-on Schumacherian gigglefest.
On paper some of this stuff might work, but on screen it all comes across like an overly serious homage to the 60s Batman. This silliness is mixed with lots of gritty death and talk about police corruption, and everything clashes. It’s too serious to be this silly and it’s too silly to be this serious.
Gotham also suffers from the absolute worst case of prequelitis I have ever seen. Every character spends half their screen time reminded you who they will become when Batman comes to town; I can’t imagine the restraint the producers have exercised to keep Oswald Cobblepot out of t-shirts with cute penguins on them.
Cobblepot’s frequent reminders that he’s going to be the Penguin almost seem low key whenever the soon-to-be Riddler takes the screen, prefacing his every line with a cheeky question. Or when the young Selina Kyle talks about how she can see in the dark like a cat (which is new to me). I am dreading how the show will use the recently cast Harvey Dent - he’s almost two decades out from being Two-Face, but I imagine they’ll shove that shit right in our one-faces every chance they get.
And then there’s young Bruce Wayne, hanging out in his own weird TV show. In a show full of bad ideas having young Bruce Wayne in every episode could be the worst. Last week we saw Baby Batman self-harming, listening to death metal and drawing severed heads - these are the sort of things that work in cheeky web comics and don’t really work on the screen. Batman’s tortured psychology is the least interesting thing about him, but that’s all Gotham cares about when it comes to the character.
It’s all a bummer because Gotham is so well cast. Robin Lord Taylor single-handedly elevates the Cobblepot storyline, and I’d rather see him get his own show than have him wander in and out of scenes looking for people to kill for their shoes. He’s being wasted in this morass. Also wasted: Ben McKenzie as James Gordon, a cop trying to do the right thing. He’s a good actor with an interesting role that keeps getting overshadowed by the silliness around him.
Most of the rest of the cast is really good as well. Donal Logue is a perfect Harvey Bullock, Sean Pertwee is a fresh take on Alfred and while I can’t say I like Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Eartha Kitt impersonation, she’s keeping the club-bound Fish Mooney more interesting than the writers have. And even the guest stars are great: so far they’ve had Dan Bakkedahl, Lili Taylor and Frank Whaley.
Wasting those actors isn’t the show’s weirdest sin, though. The weirdest thing Gotham does wrong is that it has no long game; this is a series designed to go about ten to fifteen years, and yet by the end of the third episode you feel like it’s already set up half the pieces it needs. If there’s a Balloonman vigilante fifteen years before Batman - one who warns that more vigilantes are coming! - how many will fill the streets of Gotham before the Dark Knight himself shows up? With the ramped up weirdness and the pending vigilante streak, Gotham posits Batman as just yet another weird character to show up in Gotham City.
That lack of long game also makes you wonder how the producers plan to make the show last without spinning their wheels endlessly. The pilot saw Penguin left for dead and exiled from the city; in a show with a long game he might have spent a season or two elsewhere, establishing a power base for his return to his hometown. Gotham has him back two episodes later, the entire exile feeling like a distraction. So many of the major players have already been introduced and put into place that the promise of Gotham seems to be that we’re going to wait and wait and wait for these characters to get to the familiar points in their arcs.
A better version of Gotham would have come out the gate straighter. Have Gotham be on the brink of total corruption, caught between the warring Maroni and Falcone families. Bring in a Batman villain every few episodes, or only twice a season, and start with a character like Zsasz, the serial killer. Fill the rest of the show with police business and mafia intrigue. Go into the mafia families more. Have young Jim Gordon be an optimistic cop who maybe sides with a young, hopeful politician to clean up Gotham, and have the show be about the tragedy of that politician coming to power and betraying his friend and the city and becoming corrupt. Over the course of the seasons have the weirdness factor increase. Have the cops of GCPD react to the growing strangeness of their city. And most importantly, Bruce Wayne can’t be near any of it. He’s out of the story now.
Instead we have a show that begins one step below Dick Tracy and gives itself nowhere to go. At this point I’m not even sure that Gotham can really course correct; can its tone be fixed when it’s already this cartoony? I likely won’t be watching to find out.