In the end, it was the “Oy” that did it. That was the moment in this week’s episode (“Balloonman”) of Gotham that caused me to throw my hands in the air in disbelief and wonder aloud, “What the hell IS this show?”
It comes around three-fourths of the way into the story – a story which seriously involved a vigilante attaching weather balloons to bad guys and fatally floating them into the heavens. The two geniuses that are our ostensible lead characters, Detectives Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), had just been informed by a potential suspect that balloons pop. No, seriously. This was an episode in which three corrupt though technically not convicted men were floated above the city, and no one appeared to make any effort to try and get them down nor paused for a second to ask, “Hey, won’t those balloons eventually pop?” Nope, they had to be told as much by a balloon enthusiast. Once that happened we immediately cut to a red-haired Jewish grandma walking her dog only to look up and see that she’s about to become pancake on the pavement since one of the bad guys is falling back down to the surface from his balloon. We don’t actually see this unfortunate collision nor do we see the old lady say anything. Instead, we hear her mutter “Oy” (as in the Yiddish expression “Oy vey!”) off-camera, and then cue the requisite “Splat!” sound effect.
The very next scene shows us Gotham City Police Department officers (whose jobs must really suck) using shovels to dislodge the grandma and criminal’s now entangled corpses from the pavement, with Bullock, on scene, quipping to someone just outside the frame, “Where do you think they find shovels that big?”
That is some pitch black humor, right there. In the right setting, it would actually be pretty funny. Heck, in re-reading my description of the scene just now I actually laughed a little at Bullock’s line. It is, after all, just so ridiculous – a vigilante called the Balloonman? Come on, you’re going to have to make some jokes to get us to buy that nonsense. However, this is the same show where just 13 minutes before this scene we were watching Jim Gordon prepare for his day, closing in on his hands as they reach for his GCPD badge and tighten his tie, while heroic, Dark Knight-esque music played. This preceded a fairly standard “gritty cop show” sequence in which Gordon and Bullock updated their boss on the case and pledged to catch the bastard that was doing this. Then we watched Bullock comically consort with hookers and shake-down low-lifes while peppy, jazz-rock played in the background. Later we were supposed to actually take a clearly despondent Gordon seriously when he complained to his fembot of a fiancé Barbara (Erin Richards), “This city’s sick, sick in a way I hadn’t realized […] If people take the law into their own hands then there is no law, and we’re lost.”
No, show. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to be the Adam West TV show and the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy at the same time. You can’t be camp and gritty all at once. As BadAssDigest recently put it, “It’s too serious to be this silly, and it’s too silly to be this serious.” Ben McKenzie doesn’t get to continue playing a variation of a character from his prior real-world based cop show Southland, not while Jada Pinkett-Smith (as Fish Mooney) is around doing her best Eartha Kitt impression.
Prior to Gotham’s debut, I made an informal bet with a friend as to who would stick with the show the longest. Well, I already won. She quit halfway through the second episode, “Selina Kyle.” I can’t blame her. That was an episode so easy to mock ScreenCrush put together a pretty spot-on list of the 18 unintentionally funny moments that made them laugh out loud, e.g., “James Gordon saves all the captured homeless children, but then the very same people immediately capture the children again. The Gotham Police Department is the most inept fictional police department in history.”
The reason we made the bet in the first place was because we were both so down on Gotham, sight unseen, conceptually. It’s The Wire/The Shield but with James Gordon and the Gotham City PD. Wait – it’s Smallville but with Bruce Wayne. No, it’s both. The answer differed depending on who you asked. We wondered what their long-term plan was for integrating Bruce Wayne into the story so that every time we cut back to him from whatever Gordon is up to doesn’t feel wholly unnecessary. We worried we were heading for a TV show version of X-Men: First Class, which began as two separate projects (X-Men prequel, Magneto prequel) which merged into one. That worked far better than it had any right to there, and Gotham was unlikely to pull it off as well.
Three episodes in, all of that remains valid. What I didn’t expect, though, was just how thoroughly off Gotham would be in its execution. It feels like there are 75 years worth of Batman history all colliding at once in the body of a single show, with the campiness of Dick Sprang in the comics, Adam West on TV, and Joel Schumacher on film competing against not just the grittiness of Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central in the comics and Christopher Nolan on film but also the visual flair of Tim Burton’s Batman. As a result, there is a consistent, abrasive tonal dissonance, such as in the scene where we met The Penguin’s mother in “Selina Kyle.” She is interviewed by two very Gotham Central-like characters, Montoya and Allen from the Major Crimes division, yet she appears to have walked straight out of Batman Returns. These two things do not mix, and while that disconnect could be dramatically interesting in better hands it was just plain odd here, two straight-laced cops talking to someone (a very game, but very unfortunate Carol Kane) doing their best Miss Havisham impression (with a horrible, vaguely European accent).
There are already countless individual scenes like that across Gotham’s first 3 episodes, or, if not individual scenes, then sequences of scenes where the show wildly oscillates from one extreme to another.
This is a failure not of performance, necessarily, but of producing, writing, and directing. They’ve actually cast some good actors in this show, but as I watch them struggling with that they’ve been given I find myself having to actively remember things like, “Donal Logue was amazing in Terriers!” and “Erin Richards was the only – and I mean only – bright spot of Breakin In’s short-lived second season!” Yet if I have to watch Bullock get into Gordon’s face again for refusing to “Let it go!”, or Barbara apparently having no purpose other than re-inforcing Gordon’s moral code I’ll punch myself. They also keep landing ace guest stars, like Richard Kind as the Gotham mayor, Lili Taylor and Frank Whaley as last week’s villains and Dan Bakkedahl as the “Balloonman.” This draws to mind how everyone in Hollywood was tripping over themselves to ham it up as a guest star on the Adam West Batman show in the ‘60s.
At least in that case the show in question knew exactly what it was. Gotham, on the other hand, wants us to take them seriously when young Bruce Wayne holds his hand over a lit flame in “Selina Kyle” and later draws severed heads while listening to heavy metal. Don’t they realize they’re basically depicting the hilariously cliched version of Bruce Wayne’s childhood captured in Batman’s heavy metal song in The LEGO Movie?
Don’t even get me started on the incessant fore-shadowing or comic book easter eggs. As BadAssDigest put it:
“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”
The positive is that they should have plenty of time to try and fix all of this, that is if they think anything’s wrong. Agents of SHIELD has recently shown just how possible it is to course-correct mid-stream and turn into something pretty legitimately good. Gotham is going to have an extra-long leash to make that happen because the ratings have been good, particularly the Live+3, and Netflix already forked over a ridiculous sum of money for the first season re-run rights. So, if Gotham’s primary sin is tonal inconsistency that’s solvable, although not easily since everything centers around Gordon, and he’s just about the only one playing it straight. However, I don’t actually think that is Gotham’s primary sin. I think it is merely a symptom of a show which was flawed from the day it was pitched to the network.
You simply cannot do a Batman show without Batman but kind of with Batman. Bruce Wayne has no business being in this show, and in “Balloonman” his only link to anything was through the tried-and-true writing shortcut of “have him watch a news report about what’s going on.” Balloonman is a villain you either pick or make up because you feel the need to lay the foundation for Batman’s eventual “no killing” moral code as well as establish Gordon’s initial resistance to the concept of vigilantism. However, it is way, way too early for that, and you’re only forcing it because you’re desperate to find something which can inform your most tangential character, Bruce Wayne.
That is the trap Gotham will most likely consistently fall into as it also teases far too many of its villains far too early, kind of like what if Smallville had come swinging out of the gate with not just Lex Luthor but also mid-origin story versions of Braniac, Zod, and Doomsday. It all feels like Gotham doesn’t seem to have a particularly compelling long game at play. If it did it would have waited longer than 2 episodes to deliver the Penguin to Gordon’s doorsteps at the end of “Balloonman” after having been told to stay away from the city forever. His near immediate return renders his exile somewhat meaningless, and if the show is going to burn through story that fast it draws into question how long they’ll actually be able to stretch this all out across multiple seasons.
Right now, Gotham is most enjoyable for all the ways it unintentionally amuses. Have you been keeping track of the number of people The Penguin has killed ever since Gordon spared his life? Are you still playing the drinking game to the number of times someone says the name “Jim Gordon” in an episode? Do you still actively wonder if we’ll ever see Barbara leave her apartment (town home? loft?)? Do you delight at the supremely strange little things, like how Gordon’s bed apparently directly faces his front door? Do you chuckle every time the upstanding cop Montoya rushes to Barbara to spill the top-secret beans on her investigation?
Those all make me laugh. They’re not supposed to, though, and Gotham, in general, is a far funnier show than it means to be. That’s a problem, but Gotham might be so fundamentally flawed that no real fix is actually possible.
What about you? Where do you stand on Gotham after 3 episodes? Do you disagree about it being a fundamentally flawed premise? Let me have it in the comments.