Usually a big name guest star pulling a multi-episode arc means a big shakeup for a network drama. But after three weeks of psychopathic shootouts, don’t expect Gotham’s latest “Strike Force” epsiode to steer the series into new water. This time out, the addition of cop drama icon and “Hey, remember when he was the Thing?” actor Michael Chiklis sees the Fox drama swerve away from brand new territory and instead settle into its new status quo.
From his first moment’s on screen, Chiklis’ Captain Nathaniel Barnes is a one-note song. Gotham has been corrupt. He will be incorruptible. Its police have been criminals. He’ll prosecute them starting by firing six of the worst offenders. Its past has been a freakshow of violent acts. Its future will be a glorious new day of peace…with the help of Detective Jim Gordon.
Playing the new Captain as a would be savior for the beleaguered department just as Gordon is embroiled in his own brush with being a mob hitman does deepen the moral quandary the writers threw Jim into, but in this first outing with Barnes, the conflict is all setup. Sure, Gordon’s all too pliable partner Harvey Bullock can warn Jim how bad believing in a great white hope will end up. But for the most part, the hour is spent diving into a third rate recreation of the cadet recruitment scene from Brian De Palma’s immortal The Untouchables. The four rookies who make up Barnes and Gordon’s new “Alpha Strike Force” have the barest bones of unique backstory – a woman who can fight, a sharpshooter and two other guys who have a hard on for real justice – but so far the new characters barely display any personality. Even their names are unmemorable.
Equally stuck in low gear is season villain Theo Galavan. While the mastermind of the Arkham-fueled murder spree and supposed savior of young Bruce Wayne has shown moments of ominous promise, his first connection to Gotham’s traditional crime syndicates only dulls his edge. Inviting the frustrated new king of crime the Penguin to his penthouse, Galavan not only turns over his previously perfectly hidden cards re: being a criminal mastermind. He also reveals an ambitious plan for razing Gotham’s lower class heart to make way for sparkling new high rises. That the plan is completely at odds with his previously stated goals of destroying the city seems worth noting, but what to make of it? Is Galavan teasing Penguin as part of a long game fakeout? Or do the writers simply have no masterplan for the motivation of the most pivotal addition to their show this year? Perhaps a better question: when the scenework feels so lifeless, does it matter whether the plot makes sense or not?
The Penguin, of course, resists the offer to murder two mayoral candidates in a feint to prop up Galavan’s own bid to be the city’s top administrator. But after Oswald Cobblepot delivers a typically sneering threat to take down the Galavans as swiftly as he did his Season 1 rivals, the family reveal their ace in the hole: his sainted and demented mother in terrifying captivity. Using Mrs. Cobblepot for blackmail is a predictable turn, but it’s also the closest the show has come to finding a decent use for national character acting treasure Carol Kane, so hey why not?
The ensuing bloodbaths are textbook Gotham. Penguin’s personal killing of one candidate reads like such an incredibly stupid and impulsive choice that even his brain damaged muscle/comic relief Butch thinks it’s a bad idea. Hitman Mr. Zsaz’s attempt on another is barely squashed by Gordon’s Strike Force who survive without one lesson learned or one personality grown.
Meanwhile, the episode’s B plots move forward the series’ doomed romances at a slow clip. As Bruce Wayne fails to adjust to life at prep school, the show’s most emotionally volatile parental figure Alfred Pennyworth scares off Selina Kyle with a slap across the face and then moves on to pushing his young charge into running six miles in brand-new, blister-certain sneakers. Later, Bruce meets up with Galavan to thank the secret murderer for saving his life, and after some awkward talk of the police failing to catch the boys’ killer, creepy uncle Theo decides to pimp his young niece Silver St. Cloud out to the boy who would be Batman. Aside from Bruce’s horny teenage gawking at the “such a free spirit she dances in a water fountain” girl, the story is all set-up and no character.
Slightly more nuanced but infinitely more stomach-turning is Eddie Nygma’s first date with the longtime object of his stalking Mr. Kristen Kringle. Long story short, Ed’s last minute heroics during the recent police station shootout have made Ms. K final start to warm up to him – even as his split personality has him coughing up hints that he murdered her ex. The pair end the episode in a kiss, but the moment falls flat for the same reason Gordon’s last minute semi-ethical stand against the Penguin fails: because we don’t care about any of these characters.
As Gotham settles into the stories it will be exploring for the next ten episodes at least, the show has definitely improved its consistency of tone, its dialogue, its action. On a basic level of professionalism, the show looks and feels more like some of its DC Entertainment sister series like Arrow. But the pre-Batman world can’t match the CW shows for likeable leads or creative twists on comic mythology, and so it continues to get dragged down by awkward plot holes fans might forgive in other circumstances. So yes, while there may be a few new faces in play, it’s still the same old Gotham.
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