“What’d you expect? It’s Gotham.”
Harvey Bullock, the cantankerous, morally unsound detective uttered these words to his partner, Jim Gordon, near the end of the latest episode of Fox’s Batman-less crime-drama. He meant Gotham, the city, but it just as easily could have meant Gotham, the show.
I’ve written for five weeks now about Gotham’s inability to create tension, to build a single-episode storyline that is captivating from beginning to end. Last night, it almost duped me. Going into the final act, “Viper” looked ready to break the habit, thanks to a decent setup that put important characters at true risk. But as quickly as it let me think it was different from the four episodes that came before, it reminded me that it was just the same. Once again, Bullock and Gordon strode in and saved the day without breaking a sweat, and the 50 previous minutes of competent storytelling felt wasted.
But what did I expect? It’s Gotham.
That may seem harsh, given this is a show only five episodes old, but it’s hard not to be discouraged by the series’ performance given its apparent potential. The last two hours of Gotham have been the best thus far, and that’s the good news. The bad news is the show is stuck in limbo, desperately wanting to tell larger, more complicated stories, while feeling beholden to the “villain-of-the-week” system that so many crime dramas employ.
“Viper” centered on an insidious drug loosed upon Gotham that turns it’s users into calcium-craving supermen and, ultimately, piles of bone dust. It’s not an alien concept; Arrow has used similar storylines, and it was perfectly fine territory for a decent hour of television. And, truthfully, the story was handled quite well until the late stumble. While this week’s villain remained mostly voiceless, his reasons were explained effectively through third parties and just about everything else (writing, acting, directing) was solid across the board. It even included a natural, and subtle, Easter egg for comic fans (Viper is the precursor of Venom, the drug Bane uses to increase his physical abilities to superhuman levels). The trouble, once again, came with the climax, which was anything but.
While past episodes have had clear reasons for the main storyline faltering at the final blow, “Viper” didn’t have the same excuses—a fact that is both encouraging and disheartening. The downfall of Gotham has primarily been congestion, the ambition to tell multiple stories involving multiple characters that will come to pass over multiple hours has often gotten in the way of what is happening now. It got so disruptive last week, I suggested ditching the hourly stories to instead focus on long, gestating arcs the way many modern comics do (I still think this is the direction in which the show should head). But in the fifth episode, those distractions were kept in check, though not without problems. The main storyline was given its due, allowed to be the focal point, and still failed to deliver any sort of punch in the final moments. It is pointless to merely watch things happen on a screen. Without any investment, or emotional evocations, television is simply just a collection of images, and a way to pass the time. Gotham has yet to create these connections, and the longer that remains, the more tiresome weekly viewing will become.
On the other end, for a show that has, thus far, devoted so much valuable time to setup, it is incredible how often the setup has been ineffective. This week’s most unnecessary storyline came courtesy of Fish Mooney, an all-star in the category. The, albeit brief, side-plot of the mobster training her new ruffian was nothing more than a chore. It was apparent the first time Mooney professed she wasn’t just looking for a parlor-singer, but a weapon, that she planned to use the fair face (whose name is apparently Liza) to hurt, possibly kill, Carmine Falcone. Anyone paying moderate attention to the show from its outset would have put this together in a matter of seconds, yet the writers still felt the need to use this episode to show Mooney training her weapon, and then revealing (though that is a strong word) the ultimate plan in the final moments. But, it’s not all a lost cause. This week also featured a well-handled first meeting between Sal Maroni and Gordon, the latter now indebted to the former in a way that should be compelling moving forward.
The true fear is what will happen when all these long-reaching stories come to their payoff moments. Gotham has yet to have an episode with a climax worthy of discussing around the water cooler Tuesday morning. So much is, seemingly, riding on everything that Bruno Heller and his team have planned, that if all the powder they’re packing in the cannon doesn’t give a satisfying boom, but instead misfires, it could be the end. It’s one thing to lay an egg with a single-episode story, but to do so with your long-term plan is indicative of lack of creativity and poor storytelling.
That’s where Gotham sits. Some good, some bad. Some reason to stay tuned, some to give up. It’s not terrible, no; but it’s not good either. It’s fine, and it’s not unexpected for a new show, and certainly isn’t a death sentence (in fact, it definitely isn’t, given that Fox has already ordered a full season), but it is difficult to suggest whether you should tune in now, and hope the big payoff comes, or wait until you know it’s worthwhile. People have often asked me what I think of Gotham, and much of what I give them is unintelligible gibberish that is essentially the verbal version of “eh.” From now on, I think I’ll just say “It’s Gotham,” and pray that they know what that means.
•After a promising start, Robin Lord Taylor’s portrayal of The Penguin has become grating. Once the epitome of what this show wants to be, a fresh take on old faces, it has instead become what this show actually is.
•Oddly enough, I enjoyed the inclusion of young Bruce in “Viper.” Perhaps I’ve become numb to the annoyance of his inclusion, but David Mazouz’s performance this week, particular in his interactions with Alfred, felt wonderfully familiar. Baby Batman might not be so bad, after all.
Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.