Woe to the Batman fan who can handle a bit of freezer burn. In the icy depths of winter, “Gotham” has made its TV return on Fox.
The first half of the show’s sophomore season presented an marked improvement on year one’s tasteless, repetitive slog through 22 braindead procedural cases. But even as this year’s run worked hard to present a complicated super story centered on Bat lore, it never reached the heights of its many, many competitors in the superhero TV game. At this point, no one is expecting “Gotham” to deliver the fan servicey thrills of shows like “The Flash” or “Supergirl” nor the consistent action set pieces of “Arrow.” Ditto the cheeky world-building of Marvel’s “Agent Carter” or the gut-wrenching morality of Netfilx’s “Daredevil.” It’s not that Fox’s series has to replicate any of those successes, but it should be expected to show a consistent and entertaining approach to the material. Instead it’s remained uneven with a number of laughably wooden performances and plotlines alongside a “so grim it’s boring” approach to “Dexter”-esque crime tales.
So as the series returned to air tonight with the story arc-launching “Mr. Freeze,” the question hanging over Gotham City remains whether the show will ever smooth out its edges and be the real “comic book come to life” it so badly wants to be.
Jim Gordon starts the episode off in the role he’s held for most of the series run: the truth teller at odds with what the truth really means. Quickly recapping the botched battle against villain-making madman/flash in the pan mayor Theo Galavan, Gordon gets most of the details right for the questioning DA Harvey Dent…right up until the part where Jim lets Oswald Cobblepot kill the bastard. Jim tells himself it’s for the greater good while the Penguin knows it’s for revenge, but the lie holds well enough to get Gordon reinstated with suspicion in the G.C.P.D.
Meanwhile, Oswald himself is on the lam. But it’s not the police he has to worry about. His former brainwashed capo turned one-handed boss of bosses Butch is on his trail. And when Galavan’s twisted sister Tabitha reappears in his presence for the latest of “Gotham’s” one-dimensional bad girl sexpot cliches, the only witness to their unholy union is a wayward Selina Kyle.
All these plotlines get complicated in the most minor way possible when master planner Cobblepot gets brought in to police custody and (for now) backs Gordon’s story, but if that particular wheel-spinning move can’t hold the interest of the viewer, the show has a few villains up its sleeve to jumpstart the proceedings. As “Wrath of the Villains” develops, the show will be hanging its hat on the appearance of (at least) two Golden Age Batman foes making their return to television. And from this first episode, it appears that Mr. Freeze and Dr. Hugo Strange have some pathos and promise, though the potentiality for the show’s more revolting failures is always looming.
Freeze is the headline, of course. As recognizable a villain as Riddler or Penguin in his own way, the cool, cruel scientist has one of the best backstories of any “evil doer” in comics (thanks, Paul Dini!). In “Gotham’s” take, the cold gun-wielding criminal (powered by “liquid helium” which is slightly less ridiculous than “diamonds…because”) is earlier in his career allowing the show to cast dashing actor Nathan Darrow in the role as opposed to the kind of balding character actor the show usually leans on. This Freeze (or Fries as the particulars spell him out) still struggles to save his dying wife Nora from a mysterious ailment, but as he experiments on a wave of frozen bodies collected from those who would offend him, the heartwarming part of his story falters. One episode in, Darrow’s performance is adequate in his concern for his sick bride but otherwise unmemorable when the rage of a belittled man takes over.
Though he carries the distinction of being in a Gotham rogue longer than almost any other Batman baddie, psycho psychiatrist Hugo Strange is almost entirely unknown outside diehard fans. Luckily, the newly minted director of Arkham Asylum is played by the always entertaining BD Wong who calmly slides in to the role of nuthouse keeper who’s plenty nutty himself. As Strange turns the screws on the “criminally insane” Penguin, the depths of how he digs into inmates’ minds is revealed when he subtley pushes one Arkhamite to gouge his own eyes out. Another gory detail in a show stuffed full of them, but it’s one that sets the stage well.
Actually, the one thing these characters share in common so far is the one thing that constantly impresses on “Gotham”: the visual style of their presentation. Darrow’s Fries leans over his sick wife to take in her ashen face by the warm glow of their cozy home before he descends into an icy blue basement laboratory complete with the show’s classic out-of-date technology (tape recorders this time). Meanwhile, Strange’s interrogation of patients is enhanced by titled focus on his shaded eyes -Â the kind of camera angel that’s reminiscent of the 1966 Adam West “Batman” in the best way possible. For a show that so consistently screws up its big ideas, that “Gotham” remains a source of delicious small details is fascinating.
Luckily for the viewer, the small details of this plot do pay off by episode’s end. While Gordon and Harvey Bullock’s investigation into the so-called “Mr. Freeze murders” plaguing the city is as weak as every investigation in the show’s history, those moments are smartly relegated to the back burner. The real story of the hour is Mr. Fries’ hunt for a formula that can thaw out one of his victims so he can safely keep his wife in cold storage until a cure can be found. Fries’ latest body hunt ends up being after a pharmacist who refused to refill his wife’s prescription (the scene of which provided the obligatory attempt at black comedy to diminishing returns), but his anger blows up in the public eye and leads the detectives to his home where they slap cuffs on poor Nora and then inexplicably threaten her with jail time if she doesn’t turn on her own spouse (which is totally illegal practically everywhere, but okay). Fries thinks his only chance at getting Nora out is to turn himself in, but when the frozen pharmacist jumps naked out of the morgue and proves that the latest revival solution works, our mad scientist narrowly avoids
More intriguing is Hugo Strange’s descent beneath Arkham to the mystery facility glimpsed earlier this season known as Indian Hill. The base seemingly built by Wayne Enterprises to experiment on would-be supervillains is one of the more promising twists in the show’s history, and as Hugo learns that Fries’ experiments can help him in his quest to do…something sadistic we’d wager, the collision course for this phase of the season is underway.
In the end, both of the new villains remain promising despite a few narrative hiccups, but the show’s textbook melodrama could certainly derail that story as the regular cast of characters step back into their lead roles in the weeks ahead. Fingers crossed that this run will remain focused on the villains’ wrath.