People have a funny way of talking in Gotham. There’s the arch affected manner Oswald Cobblepot has with the pair of college bros he’ll soon murder and kidnap. Or the way Alfred Pennyworth shifts between various English dialects almost as quickly as he snaps at the damaged young boy in his charge. Or Fish Mooney’s faux-aristocratic annunciation every time police darken her door.
The problem with all of these little touches in the second episode of Fox’s DC Comics adaptation is that they come so infrequently and have so little impact on what’s happening. Like the girl whose second identity gives name to this episode – “Selina Kyle” – the show is far too schizophrenic.
Again written by developer/showrunner Bruno Heller, Gotham‘s second outing is driven by a procedural plot on one hand and a wide range of fanboy Easter eggs on the other. In the former, detectives Gordon and Bullock become embroiled in a street kid-trafficking scheme thanks to Jim’s do-gooder nature. And so of course, on the way they cross the paths of more than a half-dozen Batman cast members to be.
Lab tech Ed Nygma tracks the pin prick-distributed knockout drug used by the kidnappers and is still entirely one note. Mob boss Carmine Falcone puts Fish in her place by having his men rough up her favorite boy toy (a Lazlo who is almost certainly on track to become Professor Pyg — aka a villain that can be shown in full without upsetting the Batman long game). And most importantly, the street urchin who prefers to call herself Cat (because, you know, foreshadowing!) is forced to come to Gordon for help after she witnesses her second godawful street crime in a week.
However, for having the episode named after her character, Camren Bicondova’s Selina Kyle is surprisingly lightweight in this outing. Half the episode sees her repeat the wordless, slinking performance from last week, and when she finally does have something more to do, the character is presented with all the dramatic dynamism of a litter box.
That goes double for Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon. Despite the show repeatedly telling us about how much of a torn, damaged good guy he is, the character never shows more emotion than carrying a little gravel in his voice. No, repeated characters telling him “you’re a terrible liar” doesn’t mean he’s playing it this way on purpose. Nor does the endless repetition of how he’s “with the program” really express whatever guilt Gordon’s supposed to feel about his place in Gotham. More than in his brief scene with the heavy metal-listening, self-harming Bruce, this Gordon feels too much like an observer to someone else’s story than the star of his own.
The bright spot amid this litany of still-muddy leads, was a murderer’s row of character actors filling in at the edges of the story. The number of “I know them from somewhere” appearances this week is an embarrassment of riches, starting with the kidnapper one-two punch of Frank Whaley and Lili Taylor. The actors gleefully embrace their parts as scenery-chewing baddies in the Adam West vein, and their scenes are all the better for it. Even when the show dips into its unfortunately frequent graphic gore, the way these two remain playfully indifferent carries you along. And best of all, the performance adds some general menace to their mysterious child-swiping boss The Dollmaker. It’s the first tease of a Batman villain (like Pyg, a new enough invention to appear at this stage of the prequel) that actually adds a little anticipation to the mix.
Add to those performances the radical Carol Kane doing her best Miss Havisham as Oswald’s mother, and Coen brothers vet Wayne Duvall as a sweaty, corrupt chemist, and the background characters overpower the core cast with their charisma. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Richard Kind’s turn as Mayor Aubrey James. When a bland Gordon challenges the mayor’s all-politics, no-heart take on the kidnapping case, Kind’s delivery of “Thank you for your valuable input” is a truly entertaining little character turn. Where is this stuff from Donal Logue? We know you can do better! Flat writing can only be an excuse for giving Harvey no layers for so long!
Between leads who can’t quite commit to the kind of madcap show this probably should be and upstaging turns by villain-of-the-week players, Gotham has a lot of ground to cover fast in order to find its footing. Even the Easter egg aspect – what should be the easiest dunk for a show like this – is coming off needlessly awkward (tonight’s “neon arrow” moment came when the chemist completely went off topic to deliver the second obligatory Arkham Asylum reference of the night).
But the show is inching toward something worth watching. Around all the main action in Gotham, Robin Lord Taylor’s would-be Penguin still lurks. And while his early murderous moments were as predictable as could be, his inability to sound menacing enough to convince a woman that he’d kidnapped her son provided an unexpected moment at the episode’s end. If it keeps pushing forward like this, Gotham might find its voice yet.
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