With a bloody, bombastic episode, Fox's pre-Batman series Gotham showed off some of its most stylish action and dullest drama this week. The decidedly mixed "Knock, Knock" brought a Joker-sized crime to a show that (while still better than its awful first season) can not seem to wring a genuine human moment out of its cast.
As always, that struggle begins and ends with Jim Gordon. While the snarling, dunderheaded do-gooder of last year has been toned down, the character brings little motivation or emotion of any kind to his part in the story. Reinstated on the G.C.P.D. and put at the head of a task force set to bring down escaped psychos from Arkham that include his ex, Jim acts like it's any day on the job. Teaming up for "A New Day" of crimefighting with Commissioner Sarah Essen (Gotham's first clean top cop), he seems...sort of pleased? Even when trying to recruit his best pal Harvey Bullock back to the forced, Ben McKenzie's performance is a walking cop cliché. At least the on screen chemistry between the actor and his real life fiancée playing Leslie Thompkins feels legit.
But the real fireworks this week came courtesy of the escaped maniacs themselves. Or the so-called Maniax as they christen themselves by tossing innocent bodies to the street to spell out their title. Led by scenery-chewing all star Jerome, the baddies embodying the "Rise of the Villains" subtitle for the season are the perfect kind of Gotham performers. They fully absorb the absurdity of this world and spit it back at the camera ten times over. Sure, there are plenty of moments where a viewer could question the basic logic or baseline creativity of the story. What motivates the future Joker Jerome to follow the fiddle of season Big Bad Theo Galavan when he's also supposed to be an ambitious renegade killer? How can the audience keep a straight face as a motiveless crime spree so cliché it includes a literal busload of cheerleaders? The answer to all these questions is "Who cares?" so long as we get more tense goofery like Jerome's Russian Roulette standoff against a rival nutjob. The pre-Joker schtick will likely wear thin quickly, but for a few episodes it provides an appreciated bonkers Batman quality.
The life of the actual Batman doesn't get off so easy. Young Bruce Wayne continues to dig at his father's hidden legacy of Wayne Enterprises espionage only to have Alfred tear apart dad's computer in an unexpected fit of "This is too dangerous for you" rage. What is mean to be the grounded, emotional storyline of the episode plays more like bad soap opera. And with each dull exchange between the pair, you can't help but let your mind wander to issues like how any caretaker could possibly think destroying a piece of a dead father's legacy is a smart move in front of a child eight months after his parents were murdered in front of him. It's a stupid detail to quibble over in a comic book show, but if the producers want us to take this seriously, they should too.
Things get marginally better with the reintroduction of Lucius Fox as the man tapped to bring the computer back to life. Actor Chris Chalk mostly delivers a Morgan Freeman impersonation in the part, but it mixes well with some snappier than average Gotham dialogue.
By episode's end, the best parts of the run win out as the Maniax lure Gordon out of the action in order to commit a widespread massacre at the precinct. One thing that Gotham has always done well is design its city sets and compose its shots for maximum Tim Burton effect. From Galavan's opulent penthouse to the claustrophobic bus battle, this episode was no exception, and the precinct shootout was equally weird, wild and exciting. Jerome's final faceoff with a tied up Commissioner Essen provided the latter her best moments in the series (juxtaposing it with Gordon taking a beating only heightened the enjoyment). And while not every note hit in the sequence was perfect (in another pale Chris Nolan comparison, Jerome's video threat felt too much like a cover of Heath Ledger's), the stakes were raised for the better as hour wrapped.
When Gordon returns to find Essen dead, Gotham delivered its first legitimately surprising shocker of the year. Maybe ever. And overall, the improvements of the Season 2 premier remain in tact. But there's a lot to worry about going forward. Jerome's gang likely won't last past this opening arc, and once they've left, the series has scads of weaker material to fall back on from the obnoxious and offensive Eddie/Kringle "romance" to Gordon and Bullock's tough guy-driven detective work. But if the show can keep leaning on its mad strengths, it may survive or even elevate its weak spots from here.