Week to week, Gotham is still trying to figure out its true calling. Is it a hard-boiled detective show about a decent cop trying to survive in a city run by corruption and sin? Is it a dark-but-colorful yarn populated with wacky villains, a program that's in on the joke, a la American Horror Story? Can it possibly pull off being something in between?
Five weeks in, Fox's Batman prequel is a lot of fun to watch and very slickly produced, but part of the fun has been watching its wildly disparate tones crash around; it's harder to figure out if Gotham is built for the long haul. Monday night's episode was a perfect example of the show's inherent problem, as the city was overrun by a drug that gave crazy homeless people super-strength, which the show tried to frame as a shadowy conspiracy engineered by big pharma.
You can't hold Gotham's inherent quandary against it—this show wouldn't exist without the Batman hook, but that's the hardest thing for it to reconcile. We need to check in with Baby Bruce Wayne, and Baby Penguin, and Baby Catwoman, because otherwise why would Fox pay to make the show look this good? And beyond that, how else would we buy into the premise of Gotham City itself? It's a massive, New York-like place run by ruthless mobsters, but also plagued by gimmicky weirdoes. That tension exists in every Batman property, but is unified by the hero himself, both gritty detective and gimmicky uber-weirdo. Gotham's biggest problem, of course, is that it's not allowed to have a Batman.
So instead we have Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), one a pretty straightforward hero, the other a pretty straightforward anti-hero (although Bullock's low-level corruption often doesn't extend beyond his desire to eat a cart burger rather than do his job). Their love-hate dynamic is beginning to develop but still feels very basic, and is one thing the show could easily fix to make everything more compelling. If the partners got beyond general distrust of each other, their story arcs each week wouldn't begin with the same old setup: Jim wants to investigate a crime, Bullock would rather not.
McKenzie is playing Jim very straight. That's fine—this show needs a straight face among all the insanity. Every week, it has to cut to the increasingly bizarre machinations of Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), a demented club owner/mid-level gangster who is plotting some general takeover of Gotham crime. Her plan so far involves recruiting a sexy lounge singer with which to ensnare aging mobster Carmine Falcone (John Doman) and last week featured a dockside fight to the death between her two candidates while Fish looked on like an even colder-blooded Simon Cowell. What Fish is doing doesn't really make sense right now, but Pinkett is playing things big enough to keep things watchable—and the same can be said for a lot of Gotham's cast.
For example, there's relative unknown Robin Lord Taylor as the slippery Penguin, who is a canny operator of the city's crime world and the Gotham PD but occasionally slips into psychotic bouts of murder for no good reason. Or Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma, a forensics guy with the police who will pop his head in about once an episode until someone drops the word "riddle." This is when Gotham's prequel problems almost become too much to bear.
But I still prefer that wackiness to more serious attempts at drama. A blow-up between Jim and his fiancée Barbara (Erin Richards) over her past relationship with a woman was risible; similarly, this week's episode tried to connect an outbreak of criminal activity connected to super-drug "Venom" to boardroom corruption at Wayne Enterprises. Realism, essentially, is not this show's friend.
You can understand the impulse to stop Gotham from becoming a reinvention of ‘60s Batman camp. The show can even have a villain who executes people by tying them to balloons (this happened in the third episode, and his name was Balloonman, and it was beautiful) without completely losing credibility. There's a sense of humor here, and a sense of humor has been sorely lacking in even the best Batman projects since Christopher Nolan updated the Caped Crusader for the 21st century. But Gotham needs to lean into that a little more. Give Jim Gordon a little more bite, give Bullock a little more of a skewed perspective, and make the struggle between the Penguin and Fish Mooney our major mob conflict.
The reason I'm still watching Gotham is that everything seems to be proceeding in that positive direction. I liked Gordon and Bullock bantering about the burgers this week, even though their chemistry was sidelined for the rest of the episode. The mob war between Falcone and his rival Sal Maroni (David Zayas) so far seems like a red herring as Fish and the Penguin build up their respective strategies. And even when a villain-of-the-week plot is unsophisticated, like the purveyor of Venom, there's enough goofiness to forgive any lapses in writing. Gotham remains tonally wild, and I hope it embraces that wildness and refines its voice. But honestly, being wild in any way is a net positive in today's drab network TV landscape. I'll match any complaint about the Penguin's improbable skill for survival or Fish Mooney's goofball monologues by pointing at every dull CBS crime show. Give me comic-book cops and robbers over bland ones any day.