[This is a Review of 'Gotham' Season 1, Episode 5. There Will Be SPOILERS!]
With a footing established beneath Fox's Gotham, the early episodes served to position the show as a tale of corruption and mob war so widespread, even the criminals have started to take on eccentric personae. But with its first leap into the world of comic book 'superpowers,' the series manages to deliver its most absurd - yet somehow strangely predictable - entry yet.
In "Viper," written by co-producer Rebecca Perry Cutter (The Mentalist), Detectives Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Bullock (Donal Logue) investigate a mysterious new street drug granting its users superhuman strength - until it kills them - while Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) continue their individual treks up the criminal underworld's hierarchy. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) begins his own detective work into a possible connection between his parents' company and Gotham's crime bosses.
Over the past few weeks, Gotham's writers have been working to establish an identity for the show's universe and style. With equal parts organized crime drama, police procedural, and Batman origin story, it's no easy task. But by relying on some talented guest actors and the relationship between its two lead detectives, the show seemed to be finding its groove - even if it wouldn't be for everyone.
It's because of that that "Viper" is an unfortunate deviation: once a full-fledged super-strength serum is introduced into a world previously depicted as grim, grimy, but possessing a 1970s attitude with next to no disbelief (limited to "a drug did that? Wow."), there's really no going back.
It's not a question of 'believability' - after all, Arrow, The Flash and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. embrace the impossible wholeheartedly - but the special effects-driven superpowers seem out of place for a reason. To this point, the effects of 'Viper' (a relative of the 'Venom' formula used by Batman villain Bane) seemed the exact kind of 'comic book' element that Gotham was avoiding in its effort to craft a mature, stylized take on New York City.
What is perhaps most worrying is the fact that the drug's symptoms have no bearing on the plot; its purpose is served by simply killing its users. Its ability to cause reality-bending super-strength seems due only to the Batman comic source material, despite it being greatly - if not totally - detached from Gotham's existing logic.
After featuring a homicide, a kidnapping ring, a vigilante, and a hired killer in its first four episodes, having a story hinge on a disgruntled chemist intent on infecting the city's upper crust with a fatal super-strength serum is... a significant leap. And one that diminishes the storylines played out in parallel, a truly gripping Penguin subplot chief among them.
On its own, seeing a young Bruce Wayne begin to suspect his family's company has fallen under questionable leadership could be a satisfying subplot; even comic fans could see the new potential in establishing the boy's detective skills at so early an age. While the writers attempt to end on the promise of that development (and how it may color his relationship with Alfred), it's hard to overlook the use of Bruce as a prop; a means of raising the stakes in the show's third act simply because it's expected (a was the case in the previous four episodes).
The opinion that Gotham has been playing a mob/cop drama by the numbers, relying on a weekly monster for good measure is an accusation that the show isn't really attempting to refute. The emphasis on sizzle over steak might have been overlooked in the show's first episodes, as viewers understood Gotham was showcasing each cast member's niche, but the novelty will wear off quickly.
In the end, it's hard to claim this is what fans had in mind when creator Bruno Heller promised 'a Gotham story'; it would be far better described as 'a Batman story,' through and through. There's no question there's an audience for just that, but the showrunners had best determine which direction they plan on sticking to.
At this point, we'd recommend they play to their strengths.
Gotham returns next Monday with “Spirit of the Goat” @8pm on FOX. You can check out a preview of next week’s episode below:
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce for updates on Gotham as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.