Superhero-ish shows are so in right now, but when I tried to pre-rank them by my excitement level, I was least pumped for Fox’s Gotham. I’m not right about much, but dear god did I hit the nail on the head with this piece of crap show.
This isn’t just a case of confirmation bias; I actually kinda liked the pilot episode. It definitely had its flaws, but it was entertaining enough. Besides, pilots are hard, so I try to grade them on a curve. Gotham‘s pilot had me reasonably hopeful that I had underrated it. But in two episodes since, the show has so thoroughly squandered any goodwill that I’m already at a breaking point where I have to decide whether to continue watching the show or drop it until things get better (if they do). The problem with the latter is that I’d be reliant on others’ reviews, and the reviews are already generally fairly positive for Gotham. Sure, the positive words usually come with caveats, but I’m genuinely shocked that people can find anything nice to say about last night’s “The Balloonman,” which was the dumbest hour of television so far in this young fall.
As I mentioned, Gotham‘s pilot had its flaws, but some of the things I hoped the show would improve upon have instead only gotten worse. Robin Lord Taylor plays an intriguing enough young Oswald Cobblepot, but speaks in some of the most stilted, unnatural-sounding dialogue you’ll ever hear. In “The Balloonman,” he adds painfully stupid plot developments. When he gets turned down for a restaurant job in part because he doesn’t have the right shoes, his solution is to murder one of the workers and steal the man’s shoes. It works, because of course it does, but jesus, there wasn’t a less risky way to procure fucking shoes? Maybe use the $100+ he stole off another of his murder victims earlier that day? He’s subsequently befriended by Sal Maroni, the rival to his former boss, solely because he says he’s Italian and close to his mother. Maroni comes across as literally the dumbest mob boss ever.
And that’s saying something, because the competition for that title is fierce right now. Jada Pinkett Smith is supposed to be one the show’s tentpoles as Fish Mooney, a character who’s coming across half as threatening and twice as ridiculous than she’s clearly intended to be. Smith is a fine actor, so maybe the blame lies with what she’s being asked to do; regardless, her overacting is reaching such dangerous levels that even Avery Brooks would say, “Whoa, pull it back a little, Jada.” In this episode, Mooney is questioned by our good-but-misguided cop duo of Montoya and Allen, whose policework strategy so far seems to be going up to everyone they suspect of wrongdoing and yelling “J’ACCUSE,” hoping someone just gives up and confesses.
But unfortunately, Montoya and Allen are nowhere near taking the cake for dumbest cops on Gotham. That title is reserved for our central characters of Gordon and Bullock. They crack the case of the unnecessarily theatrical Balloonman by the dumb luck. And by dumb luck, I mean the dumbest luck imaginable. The kind of dumb luck that shows just how incredibly dumb the writing is on this show. Gordon “deduces” the identity of the Balloonman because the vigilante just so happened to be a guy Gordon already knew, and just so happened to get into a scuffle with his second victim, and that victim (a corrupt cop) just so happened to pocket the custody transfer order that the Balloonman just so happened to keep on him while committing a murder, and that paper just so happened to remain reasonably undamaged when the victim fell back to earth. Gordon, brilliant man that he is, works out that maybe the guy he gave that paper to is somehow involved. (GASP!)
It’s a good thing the case wasn’t any more complicated than that, because I think our lead detectives might have given themselves an aneurysm if they’d had to use any more brain power. And we know that from their “interrogation” of the man who had stolen the weather balloons used for the murders. Gordon and Bullock were operating under the sincere assumption that the bodies had floated away, never to return, until the suspect asks, “You do know how weather balloons work, right?” (An ironic question, since the episode’s writer does not know how weather balloons work; it would take about seven of them to lift a single man.) It’s rather generous to use the qualifier “weather,” as if there’s something special about weather balloons that excuses the cops’ ignorance. What he actually then describes is just how balloons work: eventually, they lose the ability to stay afloat. Note the look of shock on Gordon’s face. Oh. My. God. You mean balloons don’t float forever?
Actors Ben McKenzie (Gordon) and Donal Logue (Bullock) have a chemistry that I once thought could carry the show, but not when their characters are written like this. I liked the idea of Logue’s Harvey as a gruff, shady, but still talented cop. Unfortunately, the show is taking him toward the extremes, making him too indifferent to crime and too much of a slacker at actual detective work. The result is that Gordon is having to do everything, while Harvey is there just to make snide remarks. And I like the snide remarks! Logue is great in this role. Just make it more three-dimensional.
Unfortunately, anything vaguely resembling three-dimensionality is treated as an anathema to this show. Take this episode’s first two victims. We’re introduced to the first, a white-collar criminal, as he yells at his lawyer that he’s not going to prison just because the little people of the world lost their pensions. We’re introduced to the second, a bad cop, as he openly tells a room of cops that he’s about to go mercilessly beat someone with a bat. The only way to make these people more openly silly stock characters would have been to name them Wall St. Evil and Officer Joe Corrupto.
Gotham may get better, but it’s hard to have much faith in that when its flaws feel so ingrained in its DNA. When Agents of SHIELD produced its surprising midseason turnaround last year, it was driven by something as basic as getting better plots. I feel like Gotham‘s issues are already running deeper than AoS‘ ever did. Gotham seems to be, at its core, a simple-minded show with simple-minded characters acting on simple-minded motivations. It’s a master class in lacking subtlety. “The Balloonman” didn’t feel like a show struggling to find its way; it felt like a show telling exactly the kind of story it wants to tell. And if this is what the entire season/series has in store, then the show needs all the oddly supportive reviews it can get — because spoiler alert: balloons do pop.