Even in these early days of the superhero TV renaissance, it’s hard not to notice that DC Entertainment’s many shows tend to fall into patterns. “Arrow,” for example, spends each season with a charismatic strongman trying to dismantle Star City while Oliver Queen fights back through his own demons until one of his confidants is killed in the third act. Or there’s “The Flash” where Barry Allen races against a mystery speedster bent on destroying his legacy who turns out to be a mentor he thought he could trust. Of course, there’s nothing that says the DC shows outside the Berlanti/Guggenheim/Kreisberg axis have to shape their seasons in a similar matter. But if tonight’s episode of “Gotham” is any indication, the show is working towards a similar shape from last year. And that may not be a bad thing.
If Season 2 is any indication, the going rate for “Gotham” season moving forward involves an action-oriented opening salvo with a high body count before things settle into a soap-operatic status quo until the so-called “winter finale.” And while the two-part “catch the mutants” opener this year didn’t pack the gory punch of last year’s “Maniax” war, tonight’s “Look Into My Eyes” episode actually gets the ball rolling on the “Mad City” era with a few promising threads that play to the show’s relative strengths.
It begins with the arrival of Jervis Tetch, a mesmerizing hypnotist who’s set up shop in Barbara Keane’s nightclub. While actor Benedict Samuel is only the latest cross-comics show player to make the scene (he appeared on “The Walking Dead” last year), he feels more like a “Once Upon A Time” character here – overly theatrical to the point of being more goofy than threatening. Even as he convinces his hypnotized patrons to murder their spouses and turn their houses over to him, the villain who will morph into Batman’s Mad Hatter comes off as a little lightweight. But even though he doesn’t carry the sinister growl of last season’s fall big bad Theo Galavan, Tetch finds his way to mix up the proceedings nicely.
For most of the hour, the Hatter’s path is linked with Jim Gordon, who’s living a bit of a romantic nightmare without the aide of any sleep therapy. The serial monogamist is bewildered by the casual nature of his latest lady friend Valerie Vale on the one hand and vexed by the return of his former flame Leslie Thompkins, who’s back in town with her dashing doctor fiancé in tow. Ben McKenzie has always been pretty flat as Gotham’s square-jawed leading man, but this week there was something kind of endearing about his awkward toothy smiles and penchant for beating any resistance to his investigation to a pulp. And at least as Gordon works to track down Tetch’s long lost sister (and Indian Hill mutant escapee) Alice, our hero begins to realize that the hypnotist’s sob story isn’t all it’s made up to be. For one, Alice’s blood turns anyone it touches into a raving psychotic, and her best method of dealing with that is burning her victims to a crisp. And even then she’s still afraid of her creepy brother’s intentions. Gordon’s tarnished cop persona reemerges as he learns this, and the now-bounty hunter seems happy to bring them both in to face charges if he can.
On the other side of the law and order coin, not so-reformed mobster the Penguin is going to war for a new prize: the office of Mayor of Gotham. Oswald Cobblepot earned his status as a fan favorite on this show as a sniveling schemer, and those chops shine in the plotline as he threatens both his chief rival for the office and the Arkham administrator who could slow his plan with a kind of “You brought a gun? I brought a bazooka!” logic. All in all, “Gotham’s” carnival-esque gangland stories provide its most consistent flavor, and this stretch of scenes hits a comfortable status quo feel right up to its “twist” reveal. Because of course, who else but Eddie Nygma could be the player Penguin wants released from Arkham to help run his kooky campaign. These two have been silliest funsters this side of Meredith and Gorshin at times, so for now this thread easily carries the audience along to future shenanigans.
Far less impressive is the show’s work with Bruce Wayne – the one corner of the series that seemed to be improving in recent weeks. The scarred genetic twin of the boy billionaire is growing designs on replacing his twin/benefactor (because of course he is), but beyond modulating his voice to sound a bit more like Batman Jr., the dueling roles offer little spark. Props to young Selina Kyle though for delivering her most emotionally effective scene of the series when she breaks down over the loss of her pal Ivy to the real Bruce. By the time fake Brucie slides in to white knight her, though, we’re back to the series’ typical teenage humdrum.
The hour ends with the kind of cliffhangers “Gotham” loves to throw into the mix – ones that seem like they’ll shatter the status quo but likely won’t last long. On Gordon’s end, he’s saved from Tetch’s suicide-inducing hypnosis (which must have some supernatural and/or sci-fi origin if they’re going to expect us to keep going along with this) by Alice herself. Yet Jim turns right around to slap cuffs on his rescuer like the white hat he is at the core. Still, odds are that both brother and sister will be out on the street within the first 20 minutes of next week’s show. More enticing is the late game revelation that Gordon’s ex is actually engaged to the son of deposed mob boss Carmine Falcone. That this Michael Corleone wannabe is named Mario is only one of the many bone-stupid stereotypes throughout the episode (see also: Alice’s lecherous yet cartoony landlord and the goombas at the bar she worked at), but if future episodes keep this level of soap opera comic bookiness going, the plot could provide an entertaining distraction.
Yet somehow in “Gotham,” the promise of absolutely ridiculous, borderline nauseating scenework never seems too far off. Before long, we’ll get another dopey killing spree, toxic bit of sexism or dinosaur-claw craziness to send the show careening off the rails. In a way, that pattern provides its own kind of comfort.
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