For tonight’s new episode of Fox’s DC Comics drama “Gotham,” it’s best to imagine the opening moments as narrated by the voice over guy from the old Adam West “Batman” series:
GOTHAM CITY MUSEUM. AS THE CITIZENS OBSERVE THE PRICELESS MASTERPIECES, A MASKED MAN LURKS NEARBY. WHAT’S THIS? HE’S LIGHTING THE FUSE ON A GIANT BOMB? AND COULD THAT BE…GREEN SMOKE? AS THE MUSEUM EVACUATES, HE PILFERS A PRICELESS PAINTING ONLY TO LEAVE A QUESTION MARK IN ITS PLACE. IT APPEARS WE HAVE A RIDDLER ON THE PROWL.
But it’s not only the off kilter camera angles and pulpy setup that make the cold open of this week’s “Mad Grey Dawn” like a ‘60s throwback. It’s also the fact that for once the show has pushed one of its characters fully into their supervillain persona, if only briefly. The story of Edward Nygma’s riddle-driven sabotage of Jim Gordon is one step away from a straight up Batman story, and for as long as it sticks with that idea, it’s a fun twist on the show’s normal modus operandi. Too bad the best answer for the riddle of the story offered is “Reply Hazy, Try Again Later.”
The investigation starts out well enough. While checking out the museum crime scene, Gordon quickly (perhaps too quickly for credibility’s sake, but anything but an immediate solution would drag) discovers the message in the art thief’s vandalism. The assumed mad bomber has promised to set another blast off at a nearby train station. The police rush to the scene only to find an explosive device planted in a rented locker. Once again, Gordon plays the hero as he tosses the explosive out of harm’s way just in time, but the viewer is left wondering what exactly Nygma’s endgame is here. There are no more clues, no more games, and as Jim goes about this case with his hand-picked help including Eddie himself and one of the incorruptible rookie cops from earlier this season called Carl Pinkney, what the exact point is becomes the core concern of the viewer.
Swirling around this psuedo mystery are a number of tantilizing storylines. For one, we have Gordon’s own guilt over him complicity in the death of Theo Galavan. Our boy’s struggle to accept what he’s done is causing tension in his relationship and earning him nervous looks at the precinct with no good end in sight. Meanwhile, the happy pills version of Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot attempts his own forgiveness tour to make up for his terrible crimes against current mob mastermind Butch and his partner/Galavan’s sister. That particular meeting leads to a weak tar-and-feathering, an awkward encounter with the revenge-obsessed Nygma and finally to mama Cobblepot’s grave where Penguin crosses paths with his previously unknown eccentric millionaire father.
All that holds promise for the future, but the action of the episode centers on the life of young Bruce Wayne. On the streets for a run at learning how the criminal mind works with young Selina Kyle, the boy billionaire finds his first gig is knocking over a drug-growing dunderhead named Sonny who just happens to be next in line for one of the city’s major crime families. When the kids’ job goes bust, Bruce won’t let Sonny take the hammer to Selina. Instead, he attempts to take a beating until the upper hand presents itself as Alfred taught him. Unluckily for Bruce that strategy seems about as smart as stealing drug money from a guy named Sonny, but once the mafioso makes a crack about the boy’s terrible parents, a switch is flipped that allow the future Dark Knight to…barely escape.
Even though the moment of rage is meant to underscore the hardness of Bruce’s mindset on his road to Batman-dom, the whole thing arrives with a decided lack of drama. And it’s not the only story in the episode that loses all its steam in the telling.
Elsewhere, Oswald’s reunion with daddy dearest goes from promising to awkward to afterthrough in only a few seconds. Casting Paul Reubens as the father who never knew he had a little Penguin is a genius play. The actor’s over-the-top style seems a perfect match for “Gotham’s” better gonzo moments. He looks as close to Robin Lord Taylor’s actual dad as you can imagine. And for longtime Batman media fans, he already played Penguin’s dad once in an hysterical sequence from Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns.” But from his immediate realization that he has a son to his quick confession of guilt over his failure to stand by his lowclass love Mama Cobblepot to his invitation for Oswald to join his family, nothing feels strange or fun or vital about this story. It’s all empty space until the rest of the extended family parades across screen with the hint of some weird family drama to come. Here’s hoping the producers and the actor can salvage this part before it’s too late.
More frustratingly, the Nygma/Gordon plot careens from passable Riddle whodunnit to tepid crooked cop story in a heartbeat. Yes, Oswald’s whole plan was to get a piece of forensic evidence he could use to frame up Gordon for murder. The supposedly whistle-blowing Pinkney was the perfect patsy for Ed, who caves in the head of the rookie with a Gordon-printed crowbar before pointing Jim in the direction of the crime scene on a fake tip. So what was the point then of the whole Riddler-esque setup? Sure, we get that Nygma is obsessed with outwitting his foe, but in the end all his gamesmanship was thrown by the wayside. Anyone who’s ever read a Riddler story knows part of his pathology is that he wants to win on a battle of wits – not simply pull off scummy murder setup.
Things get no better when the whole episode flashes forward a month to a time when Gordon has lost a lopsided trial. Any hint that this story was going to satisfy is blown out of the water for a contrived “Good cop goes to a bad place” story that is essentially a repeat of Gordon’s previous banishment to Arkham only set at Blackgate Prison. Toss in a nonsensical “I’ve decided it’s better if I abandon your and our unborn child” scene with Leslie Thompkins and the whole thing crumbles. Is this Jim Gordon the guy we’re supposed to see as the admirable hero of this universe? If so, they’ve done a great job of making him an unlikable slug on the way to some kind of eleventh hour redemption.
The story ends with the awakening of Jim’s crazy ex Barbara – promising that things are going to get way worse before they get better – but by then any semblance of the quirky Adam West-esque opening sequence is dead. Once again, “Gotham” is painfully uncertain about what kind of show it wants to be or what it wants to accomplish with its characters, and the audience is made to suffer for it.