'Gotham' Recap: 'Rise of the Villains' Offers A Surprising Breakout Episode

Like the members of Batman's rogue's gallery, the first season of Fox's Gotham was a schizophrenic mess. For every small moment of solid black humor or engaging genre performance, the DC Entertainment TV drama was weighed down by a dozen instances of bone stupid dialogue, dead end plotting, dull gore or leaden scene work. The series survived its first year with rating boost from the Batman brand, but it fell far below the likes of the CW's DC dramas with critics and fans.

Of course, all of that's not to say that Gotham doesn't have a shot at redemption as it enters Season 2 with tonight's "Damned If You Do..." episode. Plenty of shows find their voice in the sophomore frame, and from the looks of the series new "Rise of the Villains" branding, producers are looking for something of a soft reset for each of their core characters.

While he's still the supposed voice of honesty on the GCPD, Jim Gordon is occupying the lowest peg on the police payroll: traffic duty. A testy exchange with his latest useless partner has finally given corrupt Commisioner Loeb an excuse to fire Gordon once and for all, but not before Gotham's white knight takes down Zaardon the Soul Reaper. This purposefully buffoonish Tron-meets-Blade cosplayer is the first clue that the show is working towards a more consistent tone. Whether burping up knockout gas or declaring "dark days are coming" in a manner that's purposefully laughable compared to Season 1's endless string of clichéd prophecies, Zaardon jiggles his way into the show as a fine example of the "Timm Burton crossed with C.S.I." humor that last year's episodes could never hold onto for more than a few moments.

That nightmare carnival feel extend into the world of Gotham's new boss of bosses The Penguin. Last year's breakout star Robin Lord Taylor finally gets some consistent material that lets him play the gleeful, slimy predator rather than the sniveling lapdog who fumbles his way into power. After Gordon taps the supposed lesser of two evils to help him get back on the force, Penguin's banter with his unhinged hitman Mr. Zsasz strikes the right comedic notes again and again. Their "Do you have any peanut butter?" schtick during a midnight shakedown at Comissioner Loeb's house added just the right black humor fringe to what was a surprisingly tense scene whose endgame felt legitimately in doubt.

Equally ridiculous was the return of Gordon's former fiancée Barbara Kean as an inmate at Arkham Asylum. Last season's eleventh hour breakdown which saw the character go from awkward caricature of a bisexual alcoholic to parent murderer always felt like a bit of a Hail Mary from the writer's room, but recasting Babs as a psychotic spoiled rich girl is a much better fit for actress Erin Richards. Her diffidence in a "Who's toughest in the yard?" bit with Jerome (the elevated guest star Cameron Monaghan who's surprisingly delightful as the Joker-to-be) made for breezy scene work. And the style of the series again felt more confident and consistent with series directing vet Danny Cannon's off kilter framing. When the series captures the feel of an Adam West episode performed in a slaughterhouse like that, it's easy to suspend disbelief on how ridiculous the idea of a co-ed asylum full of inmates in grubby prison stripes really is.

Less cartoonish but ultimately entertaining was the return of young Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth bombing their way into the future Batcave to find a hidden message left by Bruce's dead dad. The whole "secrets hidden in Wayne Enterprises" subplot is still spinning its wheels, but at least actor David Mazouz seems more assured in a part that lets the eventual Dark Knight slide from one the spectrum analytical mind to raging teen nutjob. And Sean Pertwee screaming, "Don't speak French to me!" wouldn't feel out of place in an episode of Fargo.

In fact, everyone in the cast seems to be embracing the silliness of what is far from a prestige drama in the best way. Even Ben McKenzie -- the actor whose perpetually constipated growl proved the weakest link in a stunningly weak opening year -- is settling into the part of Gordon with a series of scenes that let him silently smolder rather than bark and gnash. While the PR draw of the episode is a gathering of bad guys, the actual heart of the premier is in Gordon's descent into Gotham's grayest shades. As he slowly accepts Penguin's bargain to be mob muscle in order to get back on a Loeb-less force, Gordon crosses a line with an outright murder that feels satisfyingly shocking where last year it would have been forced and fumbled (remember Bruce pushing the junkie out the window?). Ending the episode with a Bruce-delivered monologue about how the heroes may have to break their happiness in order to fulfill their quest for truth is the closest the show has ever gotten to a solid thematic point. And letting Gordon's role in that morality play be one of a brooding maniac plays this kind of show's tough guy tropes as well as ever.

Even the characters on the edges of this drama feel more a part of Gotham's newfound confidence. Eddie Nygma's internal sex predator is a welcome and creepy twist played with sick charm by Cory Michael Smith, and Donal Logue's Harvey Bullock finally felt like the working class ballbuster we always wanted him to be in his one appearance. James Frain shows smarmy promise as season big bad Theo Galavan both when he hob nobs with Gotham's elite or breaks out Barbara and Jerome's nuthouse coalition. And Galavan's sister Tabitha is memorable as a potential Catwoman mentor figure (let's ignore that they already tried this trope at the end of last season). Meanwhile, the central casting Italian gangster stereotypes from last year have been replaced by Warriors-esque gang members, and worthless cast hangers on like Detectives Montoya and Allen have been cut all together. All the better, say we.

Which is not to say that Gotham has yet redeemed itself. There are plenty of nits one can pick at in this episode that could foretell a backslide into Season 1's mediocrity. The men characters are still little more than cop drama clichés at heart, and the women embody the networks contemptible urge to portray their entire gender as either humorless nags or vapid prostitutes. And both the long arcs and the procedural one-offs this show continually fails at are all potential at this point. Gotham's ability to execute legitimately engaging plots without letting its tone completely collapse will always be in doubt, after all. But so far, it appears the quality is rising with the villains.

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