In a landscape practically bloated with superhero spinoff media, the one thing Fox's pre-Batman drama "Gotham" has always had going for it is a stylistic flourish. The "Adam West-meets-Tim Burton" tone of the series has let the show stand apart from the inconsistent realism of Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." or the upbeat escapism of the CW's suite of DC series. But as it entered its third season tonight, the question surrounding "Gotham" was whether it could finally find away to offer something beyond "it's different" in order to win over a real dedicated fandom. Season 1 was a chaotic mess of a procedural that leaned far too hard on its "you know who this character will become" prequel notes. Season 2 inched forward in quality in terms of its serialized plotting but still sunk under the weight of its inconsistent tone and laughable character work. What will Season 3 be?
With tonight's premier – the ominously titled "Better To Reign In Hell..." which leads this year's so-called "Mad City" branding – the series has an opportunity to push past its many, many faults and deliver something at least watchable. With years to come before the Dark Knight descends on the city, "Gotham" can stop playing the origins game and let its characters take full advantage of their weird world. But one episode in, it's unclear whether something original is in the offing for this cast.
Eternally flawed leading man Jim Gordon's storyline at least holds promise. A brief scene where an overexposed lighting scheme TV dramas use to indicate an idyllic setting buries the idea that Jim would get back with his former love Leslie Thompkins. She's moved on without him (for the time being). Now in Gotham "Six Months Later," Gordon finds himself in the best creative position he's been since the show began. No longer trying (and failing horrifically) to be the white knight of the GCPD, he's working as a bounty hunter on the trail of a busload of mutant freaks released at the end of last season. That list includes what appears to be a quick burning off of the show's take on Killer Croc, on again/off again primetime player Fish Mooney and rafts of forgettable henchmen (in lieu of the show naming them, let's call this week's entries the Re-Ager, Dirtbag High School Vampire Bro, S&M Lady and Heroin Chic Quicksilver).
In general, the idea of Gordon playing an against-type role in the city's darkest years is exactly the kind of territory that "Gotham" should excel at. But over the course of the episode, the producers don't quite find a way to make this status quo stand out. Jim still hangs at the GCPD with former partner (and criminally underused asset) Harvey Bullock and new department science whiz Lucius Fox – both of whom help him stay on the straight-and-narrow. While little twists like Jim's reverse punking of the perky reporter who's hellbent on find the real story of the escaped mutants are fun, this story feels a bit too much like a police procedural retread right now. Let's give it time.
Also working to push far afield from previous seasons are the various villains of the series. The producers attempt to inject a little girl power into the series with Barbara Keene and Tabitha Galavan running their own club where they cut down any goombas who try to horn in on their racket. But sadly, the show seems incapable of portraying a same-sex relationship between two women as anything but titillation, and inserting Butch into the proceedings as the jealous ex isn't helping. Faring better are the Penguin and Riddler: a weirdly effective bromance that tweaks tough guy gender roles in a show stuffed to the gills with them. But the only holdover bad guy with a real sense of direction here is Fish herself, who wants to organize the Indian Hill escapees but is poisoned by her own mutant hypnosis power. The clock is ticking on how long Jada Pinkett-Smith will stick with the show this time, but knowing she might drop out again adds a layer of drama.
One bright spot for the moment is the boy Bat himself. Bruce Wayne shouldn't really last long in a show like this – eventually he's supposed to travel the globe, remember. But "Gotham" seems to be justifying his part by having the tween billionaire grab hold of the corporate powerhouse persona we associate with the adult Bruce. Beefing up Batman's alter ego is a worthy direction, and putting the kid on the radar of the Court of Owls (the popular new comic villains who've scarcely been used in DC media to date) pays dividends in the action department this week as a Wayne Company sleazeball attacks as a low budget take on the Court's Talon enforcers. (Bruce's crazy doppelgänger spins his wheels meanwhile, but at least that whole story is all-potential for the moment).
But for a season premier, the hour is decidedly lacking in event. Bruce's kidnapping by the Court is a decent cliffhanger with flow potential for longterm ripples. The tease that Gordon's jilted reporter will try to pin the death of Hugo Strange's former #2 on him points Jim's solid story potential in a depressingly familiar direction. And the various villains' jockying for power amidst the drawn out mystery of why Indian Hill's mutants ever existed does nothing to excite the viewer. Even the promised twist of an adult Ivy Pepper at the hands of Fish's aging-powered henchman is the kind of twist that this series might easily drive towards more bland network sexiness.
If "Gotham" wants to capture headlines this year, it'd be far better off cycling through its dangling plot threads as quickly as possible and cutting loose with some of the gonzo black humor that's provided its best moments. As it stands, we're only getting mild tweaks on the kinds of stories that so far have taken the biggest franchise in comics into dull, dirge-like territory. Embrace the madness, "Gotham." It's all you've got going for you.