New shows are often like wobbly one-year-olds. After struggling to get off the ground, they can only hope to continually move forward, no matter how uncertain their footing. But with each step, the possibility of crashing to the earth becomes evermore present and even the surest of foot eventually fall.
I was fully prepared to declare Gotham’s third episode a hurtling crash for the series after the first 20 minutes. It managed to regain its balance in the latter two-thirds, but only slightly, leaving it tottering, arms desperately waving in the hope of righting the ship.
Nearly everything in “The Balloonman” felt off, with the biggest issue being the script, which, from plot scheme to dialogue, was poorly written. Gotham desperately wants to be a serious drama, but is, at this point, incapable of executing a story worthy of that moniker. Moments that were supposed to be disturbing, such as the first Balloonman victim floating into the Gotham sky, were instead humorous. The amount of camp that ran wild in this episode was astonishing—from the opening scene which saw The Penguin take in the grisly sights of Gotham, to Bruce and Alfred’s fencing, to Gordon and Bullock hitting the streets. There were more laughs here than in many of the new comedies this year. If only that were the intent.
Like last week, though, the writers displayed an ability to at least generate interesting core ideas. A man who takes it upon himself to rid his city of dregs (sound familiar?) is not devoid of intrigue. And one who accomplishes the feat by tying his victims to weather balloons and setting them loose upon the horizon is just ridiculous enough to work. Had it been handled correctly, the Balloonman storyline could have been twisted and absurd. What it became, however, was laughably silly, recalling more than a hint of Schumacher-era Batman. If that wasn’t enough, near the end of the episode, as Bruce watches a news report on the vigilante, it became clear that this story had more to do with establishing Batman’s famous credo, to rid his city of crime without taking lives, than anything else. Bruce’s continued presence remains both unnecessary and crippling for the show, and now the hold on who this show is really about, which seemed firm in the pilot, has loosened to a sincere point of concern.
No one performed well in Gotham’s third hour, though it’s mostly not their fault. Actors are given their lines, and told to make good with what they’ve got. What they had in “The Balloonman” was drivel, and every actor, from usually solid Ben McKenzie and Robin Lord Taylor to grating Jada Pinkett Smith, sounded like they were merely reading lines, going through the motions. Plotting fared similarly, faltering due to congestion once again, leading one to wonder how long the Gotham writing staff thinks an hour actually is. There are simply too many faces to care about and, even when a relationship is explained (such as Barbara’s connection to Detective Renee Montoya of Major Crimes in this episode), you can’t help but wonder if the show would be better off having left some of these characters on the page.
It’s hard to say where Gotham needs to go, because it seems unlikely that it will travel along the desired path. Awkwardly positioned at 8 o’clock, late enough to be a primetime drama, but early enough that the legion of Batman fans too young to remember Bat-nipples can still watch. How much that is affecting Bruno Heller from making Gotham the dark, twisted serial it ought to be is unknown. But to completely discount it would be foolish. What it’s given us is a show that is an odd concoction of violence and camp, both shockingly disturbing and silly.
?Only three episodes in, it is certainly not time to give up. The core story ideas are there, which hopefully means it’s only a matter of time before the writers figure out how to properly tell them. They need to figure it out soon, or we’ll have more episodes like “The Balloonman,” which popped before it ever left the ground.
Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.