You know how you had that one bad year at school, and somebody counseled you to enjoy your summer and then start over in the fall? Like, put that year behind you and hit the ground running, because the new year was a chance to start over? Yeah, Gotham didn't do that. Welcome back; you've gotten a D on your first test.
Gotham got decent ratings but a lot of lambasting last year, with its inability tell a prequel story about Batman without resorting to, well, Batman. In fairness, Bruce (David Mazouz) is still in elementary school, and nobody wants to see a show called “Batboy.” The problem is the show overcompensated for its lack of ears and capes by throwing everything else Batman-related in the show, and hitting us in the face with their battishness like some kind of brightly shining symbol with a big bat on it. (I’m sure there’s a name for that sort of thing.) One of Gotham’s stronger points was the good cop/bad cop duo of a young Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), but their terrific interaction was often overshadowed by being caught up in repetitive a proto-bat villain of the week story.
And then the show got downright silly. Jim’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) went from boring to useless to creepy (juuuuuust skirting pederasty) to downright psycho. The villains just got goofier. (We’re all looking at you, Balloonman.) Nobody could figure out what to do with Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Fish Mooney, who was–apparently–mercifully killed in an ambiguous-but-let’s-hope-it’s-for-real death. The proto-villains just kept coming, like having a young Scarecrow getting freaked out by, of course, scarecrows. Still, the ratings demand that this show must go on, so we’d all hoped that a summer break would let this show sort of reboot and refocus on some quality scripts.
Instead, we got “Rise of the Villains,” an episode that’s split between a rehashed police procedural about a cop who’s compromised his ethics, and a doubling down on shoving bat-villains in our face. The former plot–look, it’s been done. We’ve seen this. We’ve seen this enough times that it’s been repeatedly parodied on The Simpsons and South Park. I’ll admit to being surprised that they actually went through with having Gordon make a deal with the Penguin with the idea that the ends justify the means, but we all know that Gordon’s going to be haunted by this decision for the rest of the season, if not the series. And for pity’s sake, he does this after getting advice to do so from a teenage kid. Way to go, junior Batman. (In fact, way to go, Gordon! What kind of cop goes to a teenager for advice?)
On the latter plot aspect–let me start by saying that I’ve believed for awhile now that Gotham would do well to borrow from Batman: The Long Halloween and show us the city’s transition from a city of mobsters to one of freaks. Granted, Long Halloween premised this on Batman already existing, but I think we can work around that. This show could do that very well as a police procedural in a corrupt city with hints of future villainy in the background. Hints. Subtle, this show isn’t. We have leftover mob elements in the form of Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin–the only character who I think makes sense in a pre-Batman environment–but the rest of the villains really, really need to be kept in the background. The “villain picking off the mobsters” plot of The Long Halloween could be very well adapted into a Gotham storyline…if the show’s creators had enough sense to back off on the villainy.
But they haven’t. The title of this episode makes it incredibly apparent that we’re getting nothing but villains, villains, villains this season. From the introduction of the intentionally ridiculous “Zaardon the Soul Reaper” (who I’ll admit has some surprise relevance to the story) to the addition of an unlikely comic villainess, this season is going to focus on the second most-obvious aspect of the Bat-mythos possible. And really, I think the show is going to be all the poorer for it. How are you supposed to stop these clowns when their main opponent is still a decade away from suiting up?
I’ll give Gotham credit for one thing: its actors are strong and believable. Look, I think Ben McKenzie is working from a lousy script, but doing the best he can. He’s believable in his role as the pained cop who’s torn between conscience and calling. I even like some of the villains. Cameron Monaghan took some flak for his unsubtle proto-Joker last season, but I actually felt that he channeled a good mix of Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger without it being a painfully bad imitation. Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin also still works as its own unique spin on the character, and indeed, he’s clearly going to continue to be an obvious threat through the season.
Shame, however, that this episode reduced Donal Logue’s Harvey Bullock to a brief cameo. He worked well as the corrupt foil to Gordon’s by-the-book ideals, but in that good corrupt foil sort of way.Let’s hope this isn’t permanent. Double shame that Gotham has increased the spotlight on Erin Richards’ Barbara Kean. Sorry to be emphatic here, but the show just did not know what to do with her last season. They settled on “psycho killer,” because, screw it, everyone in Gotham is nuts anyway. It looks like they’re keeping her as a rising threat this season, although which villain she’s supposed to be, I can’t tell. Fans have speculated that she might turn out to be the Joker herself, and that’s the only kind of twist that might redeem the terrible use of her character.
So Gotham, you’re 0-1 this season, the only positive aspect of which is that it’s currently a better record than either the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens have. Let’s not make this a trend.
Rating: One caped crusader out of five.