‘Gotham’ 1.03 Recap: “Where Do You Think They Find Shovels That Big?”

I think one of the reasons that some viewers haven’t embraced Fox’s ‘Gotham’ is a matter of tone. The show has a very heightened and, for lack of a better word, “cartoonish” vibe that may seem fairly appropriate for a series based on a comic book, but doesn’t mesh at all with Christopher Nolan’s recent trilogy of Batman films, which tried to ground the character in an allegedly more realistic universe. For better or worse, that’s the Batman viewers have grown used to, and the new TV show sometimes feels like a regression to a campier era.

This is most evident in the depiction of crime and corruption in the city, which is exaggerated in a flagrantly over-the-top manner. Dirty cops extort bribes in big, fat rolls of cash right out in the open on the streets while ignoring muggings five feet away, and gleefully brag about beating perps. Crooks boast about paying off the courts to get away with their crimes. The systems of law and government are so broken that they couldn’t possibly function in any sort of real world. This is Comic Book Land, but that broad stylization often clashes with the grittiness and violence – at least, it does in live action. It would probably play better in comic panels.

With the third episode, I think I also see why people have complained about the performances of stars Ben McKenzie and Jada Pinkett Smith. I liked both of them previously, but the way McKenzie snarls all of his lines through gritted teeth and Pinkett Smith does an unsubtle Eartha Kitt impersonation both seem really overdone this week. Have they gotten worse in this episode, or did I just overlook the problem earlier? I’d have to rewatch the first two episodes to be sure.

‘The Balloonman’ puts Gordon and Bullock on the trail of a masked vigilante who tries to clean up the streets of Gotham by sneaking up on his victims, handcuffing them to weather balloons and sending them aloft, flailing in the air to plummet to their deaths later. It’s a silly conceit but, again, we’re in Comic Book Land. His first two targets are a sleazy Ponzi schemer who stole millions of dollars from elderly pensioners and a child molesting priest. Despite Gordon’s insistence that, “Everybody has to matter or nobody matters,” Bullock has no interest in pursuing the case. As far as he’s concerned, the victims were dirtbags who deserved what they got. However, when the Balloonman hits a dirty cop next, the police department is forced into action.

What’s interesting about this storyline is that the Balloonman is ostensibly a crazy villain, but he’s embraced by the public as a vigilante hero. Although Gordon and Bullock eventually catch him, he introduces the city to the concept of costumed crimefighters who take the law into their own hands, and provides some inspiration for young Bruce Wayne.

While all this is happening, Oswald Cobblepot returns to the city. When recognized by one of Fish Mooney’s thugs, he kills the guy (his first taste of blood?). Later, he murders his way into a busboy job at a restaurant frequented by powerful mobster Sal Maroni. Clearly, he schemes to align himself with Falcone and Mooney’s biggest rival. By episode’s end, he will also mysteriously show up at Jim Gordon’s door, much to Gordon’s surprise (he warned the Penguin to stay out of town), and also to the surprise of Jim’s girlfriend Barbara, who’d been told by ex-lover Renee Montoya (the Major Crimes detective) that Jim murdered Cobblepot.

I enjoyed this episode overall. It has a few moments of really effective humor, such as Bullock living out ’70s cop movie tropes as he hunts for the Balloonman, which culminate with a very funny scene where he gets beaten up by an Amazonian woman. At the same time, something feels decidedly off about the episode. The show’s going to need to find the right balance between its inconsistent tones if it’s to survive in the long term.

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