Any superhero story requires a certain suspension of disbelief. We’re not even talking about the secret origins and incredible powers here, mind you — a culture that can accept Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut can handle a few radioactive spiders, green power rings, and super-soldier serums with no problem. The real storytelling stretch that superhero stories ask their audiences to accept is one of basic human behavior. After all, no billionaire has ever spent their ducats to become a masked, armored vigilante, fighting crime in a gaudy costume under a nickname ending in “-man.” A good caped-crusader story — even one like Gotham, which several crusaders but no actual capes — convinces you that “well, yeah, no one acts like that…but what if they did?” is a question worth asking.
By that standard, Fox’s year-one prequel to the Batman story not a good superhero story. Oh, it’s a fun romp, from time to time anyway. As it approaches the mid-season mark under showrunner Bruno Heller, it’s created a more visually entertaining Gotham City than Christopher Nolan’s dour concrete canyon, a place where buildings, bridges, burlesque clubs, even bathrooms are just a bit bigger than our workaday world’s. The score, by Graeme Revell and David E. Russo, is similarly souped up, swelling and humming and clanging and making everything feel, well, like a comic book. (That’s a compliment where I come from.) The setting looks and sounds like a world where a man who dresses up like a bat and punches evil clowns would fit right in.
But tonight’s episode, “LoveCraft,” reveals a fundamental problem with Gotham‘s tone: Evil clowns, sure, bring ’em on. Larger-than-life heroes who battle injustice in spectacular style? Not so much. With a lack of actual bona fide Batman built right into the premise, the show pitch-shifts real life up a few octaves, sure, but almost always in an unpleasant direction. What should feel camply thrilling, and often does in the moment, winds up leaving you feeling as dirty as Harvey Bullock looks.
Harvey and his ersatz partners, James Gordon and, for some reason, butler-to-the-rich-and-traumatized Alfred Pennyworth, are as good a place as any to start. They’ve collectively replaced the old “good cop/bad cop” model with “loud cop/really loud cop,” communicating almost entirely in gravelly shouts. Whether it’s Gordon growling “This is on you, Dent!” at hapless ADA Harvey Dent when his negligence sets killers on the trail of star-witness Selina Kyle, Bullock griping about the girl “gettin’ attacked by assassins at Wayne freakin’ Manor,” or Alfred bellowing “Bruuuuuuuuce!” when young Master Wayne flees with mercenaries on his tail, almost all of their cranked-to-11 dialogue sounds ridiculous when isolated.
Then you throw guns into the equation, and the silliness turns sour. Even though they’re supposedly Gotham’s last two good cops, they charge in guns-a-blazin’ so often the show felt the need to have Harvey crack a joke about it mid-shootout. Turning Alfred into a skilled hand-to-hand fighter and marksman takes a page from the books themselves — superhero comics have been steadily ramping up the badass quotient on their supporting characters for so long that Lois Lane could probably take on The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane. But it’s as regrettable here as it is there, flattening everyone out into an interchangeable mass of highly competent butt-kickers and base-jumpers. And given the role gun violence played in shaping Bruce Wayne’s life regarding his parents, watching his faithful butler go full Dirty Harry was more head-slapping than pulse-pounding.
And in a world where all the good guys do very bad things, the bad guys must be even worse to stand out. Carmine Falcone can’t just kill an incompetent underling, or even kill him at the dinner table — he has to insist everyone eat their meal while a corpse bleeds into the spaghetti. Flamboyant jewelry fences can’t just pay Selina for her stolen Wayne heirlooms, or even steal them and give her the boot — they have to leer and insinuate at sexual violence toward children. Power brokers can’t just hire hit men to silence witnesses — they have to tap a squad of black-clad assassins led by a woman who makes sexy small talk as she hugs you to death with her thighs. (For a contract killer, she sure is awfully forgiving toward eyewitnesses, though.) Even a relatively harmless antagonist like Mayor James is so one-dimensionally loathsome you expect him to take a break from picking on Gordon to toss a puppy out his office window. Speaking of which, the idea that the mayor of a major American city would publicly call out a cop for being “overzealous” in the line of duty may be the most unbelievable thing in the series so far.
The one place where Gotham scales up into excitement instead of down into darkness, however, is the relationship between Selina and Bruce. Oh, there’s a lot of cheese on the menu: the slo-mo rooftop jumping, the Hollywood-punk underground “mall for street kids.” But their scenes together convincingly evoke the thrill of your first girl-boy friendships, where the hormonal cauldron of early adolescence creates intense emotional intimacy almost overnight. Whether it’s Selina’s disarming “Wanna kiss me?” or Bruce’s blunt but sympathetic assessment that Selina’s more “good” than “nice,” the pair’s dynamic is friendly, flirty teen turmoil to a tee, and child actors David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova are just enough of an odd couple to make it work. It’s unlikely that the show will scale back the chaos and carnage surrounding them (no show that names the Penguin‘s first nemesis “Fish” is gonna suddenly turn into The Wonder Years: Batman & Catwoman Edition.) But it’s them, not the cops or the crazies, who made Gotham worth visiting this week.
Previously: One Side of the Same Coin