On TVTropes.org, there’s one particular trope that comes to mind upon viewing this week’s episode of Gotham, in which detectives Gordon and Bullock are after a serial killer targeting crooked public servants by fastening them to weather balloons and launching them into the sky. It’s called “Narrowed It Down to the Guy I Recognize.” The idea is that it’s a waste of money to cast a recognizable actor as a throwaway character in any kind of whodunit, and so the characters played by such actors, no matter how innocent they may seem at first, will inevitably prove to be guilty.
Case in point: early in this episode, there’s a scene in which the young Selina Kyle is dropped off at Gordon’s police station by a character played by Dan Bakkedahl, a former correspondent on The Daily Show and a recurring actor on Veep. Sure enough, as he’s the most recognizable guest star, in the end we learn that Bakkedahl is indeed Davis Lamond, a/k/a “The Balloonman.” If that was the biggest problem plaguing this episode, it would be easy to dismiss. Alas, there are bigger ones.
Gotham‘s had a bit of a identity crisis since it premiered, in that it’s not entirely sure what kind of show it wants to be. It’s an understandable dilemma, what with seventy-five years of Batman history to draw from, from every known media, there’s plenty of conflicting tones and approaches that any show set in the Caped Crusader’s universe will have to deal with. Should it be light, dark, very dark? If it’s very dark, should it be larger-than-life like Tim Burton’s Batman or grounded like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight? And if it is grounded, how grim or nihilistic should it be before it stops being enjoyable?
The even bigger issue is one of genre. Since there’s no Batman in Gotham, the show can’t be a superhero saga. Yet it’s still escapist entertainment that wants to make use of the different types of stories that have shaped the Batman mythos. So Gotham sets out to be a gangster movie and a film noir and a police procedural and a colorful Dick Tracy-style comic-strip. All the while forgetting that no Batman story was all of these things at once.
This week we have an antagonist who, like many Batman villains, utilizes a whimsical motif in committing crimes, one that contrasts with the serious-minded MO of the story’s heroes. His balloon murders could work in an Adam West Batman story, or even a Michael Keaton Batman story, but they wouldn’t work in a Christian Bale Batman story, especially when one considers that the average weather balloon is completely incapable of hoisting an adult human being into the air. And it’s Nolan that Gotham most wants to emulate, at least on the surface.
Oswald Cobblepot also suffers from some confused writing – making his way back to Gotham, ostensibly smarter than those who cast him out of the city, yet indiscreetly killing anyone who gets in his way, or who has something he might want. Even something as trivial as a particular pair of shoes. Robin Lord Taylor continues to deliver a great performance with what he’s given, but his Oswald is just too intelligent to be making the mistakes the script demands of him.
At least, like Jim Gordon, Oswald’s given something worthwhile to do, as opposed to most of Gotham‘s women. Fish Mooney again remains in her club, fuming at the hold crime lord Carmine Falcone has on her. Gordon’s lady love Barbara Kean owns an art gallery, but we only ever see her walking around her apartment in various states of undress. And Renee Montoya – unbeknownst to Gordon, Barbara’s ex-lover and, as is revealed in this episode, fellow former junkie – demonstrates the kind of slipshod reasoning that wouldn’t get her through the police academy, let alone promoted to Major Crimes Division officer. (She believes Gordon killed Oswald because the latter is missing and because mobstress Fish Mooney tells her Gordon killed him.)
There’s some bittersweet warmth allowed via Bruce and Alfred’s relationship. The two get in a bit of swordplay, allowing Bruce to indulge in a childhood pastime while reminding us just how much of his childhood has been taken from him. But there’s yet another reminder of something the audience can never have – the Batman himself – as Bruce watches a TV report of the apprehended Balloonman and the on-the-site reporter asks, “Who will defend the people of Gotham?”
Plenty of TV shows take time in plotting an appropriate course or in finding their characters’ voices. And Gotham does have a good deal of potential. I could see it developing into a gritty Se7en-style crime thriller, or an Untouchables-type gangland epic about one man fighting for his soul in a city of sin. It might even be fun if it offers little more than its wacky villains-of-the-week. But, like its hero, in the end it will have to decide exactly which mission it must execute in order to survive.
Next week: The Penguin has arrived on Gordon’s doorstep, but is he friend or foe? And Fish Mooney is “looking for a weapon.” Meanwhile, the city’s Arkham district is set to be torn down and Gordon welcomes an old friend.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).