Season One, Episode Three, “The Balloonman”

By Matt Fleming. With their third episode, “The Balloonman,” Gotham begins to show the signs of everything fans feared could go awry with the Batman-prequel-procedural. The money Fox spent on the pilot is spread thin, and this episode looks like a new spin on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman. “The Balloonman” is too campy, too busy, and unfocused, and save for the continued return of Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot, too awful.

This episode begins with the introduction of a new vigilante/baddie, who is sending crooks and other crooked ilk into the sky with weather balloons. Detectives Gordon and Bullock are on the hunt, and they chase clues and argue, which seems to be a trend with this show. In the meantime, Montoya and Allen from Major Crimes pursue the “murder” of Cobblepot, and signs point toward Gordon. This bleeds into the subplot of a former romance between Renee Montoya and Barbara “Gordon” Kean, where this week we learn of substance abuse in their past. So, the Balloonman gets caught by Bullock and Gordon, and it turns out he runs the orphanage Selina Kyle stayed in, and holds a grudge over the declining state of Gotham. His apprehension plants Bat-seeds in the mind of young Bruce Wayne, who spends this week not eating and shadow-swordfighting with sad Alfred. Amidst all this, Cobblepot returns and infiltrates the Italian restaurant of mob boss Sal Maroni (awkward David Zayas), looking to continue his plot of revenge against Fish Mooney and Carmine Falcone.

The tone of this episode deviates severely from the pilot, and works against the dark and brooding beginnings of the promising show. The wrong kind of camp pervades every layer of “The Balloonman,” and the episode waits until the final scene to provide any incentive to tune in next week. The primary story of the weather balloon vigilante is meandering at best. Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock continue their dance of aggression, but the two balance each other with stares, glares, and chin-flexing. Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Fish Mooney continues to consume scenery with fervor, but her grimace and debatable accent is beginning to wear thin. Her passive-aggressive battle with her boss, Don Falcone, seems to be running in place, but with the addition of Sal Maroni, business in the Gotham underworld should pick up soon, hopefully.

Speaking of passive-aggression, Alfred Pennyworth’s rearing of the Batboy Bruce Wayne proceeds to bore. Alfred spends this episode dour and pouty over his pledge’s lack of an appetite and thirst for justice. He gives him a brief swordplay training session (with canes) in the Wayne Manor library, which further stokes the vitriol of the orphaned billionaire. The show seems to rush toward Bruce’s inevitable future, and that distracts from the subplots and threads the show should focus upon. While David Mazouz and Sean Pertwee deliver fine performances of droll dialogue, they seem shoehorned into the series’ overloaded plate.

That overload spills everywhere this week, as the weak whodunit is shoved in between Major Crimes’ investigation, Barbara’s checkered past, the crumbling of Falcone’s racket, and Penguin’s sly return. I’m still leaving out the Bruce/Alfred bit and the forced inclusion of Selina Kyle into the ongoing Wayne murder investigation. If I missed anything here, it’s because this episode is so busy fitting in as much as possible that it becomes dizzyingly hard to follow.

This week’s highlight, per usual, is the performance of Robin Taylor, and the genesis of The Penguin. Taylor creeps and crawls and stabs his way into a compelling arc, and this week provides just enough incentive to keep on trucking. His brutal and unwieldy methods of infiltrating and destroying Gotham’s organized crime syndicates are cringeworthy, yet cannot be ignored. The more screentime for Penguin, the better.

The opposite goes for Erin Richards’ Barbara “Not Gordon Yet” Kean, whose every scene made me sneer. There is no chemistry between Richards and the charming leading man, Ben McKenzie; more exists between him and Donal Logue, for crying out loud. She undermines Gordon perpetually, and her only modes seem to be judging, or wearing little clothing. The show keeps attempting to insert more Barbara, while I keep clamoring for less. Her acting is wooden, and her subplot with Montoya is too much to keep on the back burner of a show with too many pots cooking. While I know the role won’t be recast, her involvement needs to be pared down to make more room for the stuff fans want to see.

Unfortunately, this episode of Gotham tries too much, and with degraded production value, which confuses and distracts the viewer. Instead of pacing itself and spacing out all the tattered threads of its stories, Gotham seems intent on keeping all the plates spinning, and adding plates for no good measure. The previews for upcoming entries tease the reopening/redevelopment of Arkham Asylum, as well as more familiar-ish faces from the Caped Crusader’s Rogue’s Gallery. If Gotham doesn’t start evening out it’s storylines and giving more focus per episode, it stands to become so overwrought that no villain can keep the audience tuning in. Where the show began as a promising procedural set in a beloved universe with the potential for occasional fan service, Gotham is beginning to fall victim to the bloatedness most network series don’t achieve until after a full, successful season.

Passing thoughts:

-The tease of Professor Pyg was for nought. Actually disappointing, because everything else was so predictable.

-Credit is due to our dutiful EIC, Jarrod, for pointing out how Lois And Clark this episode was. I posit that this show could use 100% more Teri Hatcher, though.

-The creepy weather balloon factory owner lives in my most Twin Peaks-related nightmares. Also, Tod Browning’s Freaks-related nightmares.

-With the overabundance of plotlines, Camren Bicondova’s Selina “Catgirl” Kyle is criminally underused. When you have good young actors, use them over the hammy adults.

-Three cheers to Donal Logue, the Harvey Bullock this show needs, but doesn’t deserve.

-Hey Gotham. Maybe don’t leave us with such an awesome tease ending after such an abysmal episode, huh?