Monday, September 21, 2015

REVIEW: 'Gotham' - Jim and Bruce Are Faced with Something Ugly in the Hopes of Doing Something Good in 'Damned If You Do...'

FOX's Gotham - Episode 2.01 "Damned If You Do..."

After a shakeup at the GCPD, Detective James Gordon's moral compass wavers, as he seeks help from Penguin. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne continues to explore the secrets from his father's office, while Gotham newcomers Theo Galavan (James Frain) and his sister, Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) make friends with some unlikely allies, a group of dangerous inmates from Arkham.

Jim Gordon started the series determined to make a difference in Gotham. His morality was uncorrupted. He wanted to bring the criminals to justice and clean up the streets of the city he loved so much. Over the first season, he was corrupted a little bit because the criminal dynamics were more overwhelming than he initially thought. He did get some small victories at work. But those largely came from the case-of-the-week stories. They became a storytelling element that was a huge hindrance for the show. It did not create interesting character work for Jim. He promised to find the killer of Bruce's parents. But he made no significant progress on that throughout the season - in fact, at times he completely forgot about it. Instead he largely formed relationships with criminals like Falcone, Oswald and Fish. Bad people who were able to convince him it wasn't in any of their best interests for him to lock them up. That dynamic was apparent in the first year but so much of the narrative felt like it was holding back from what it was capable of doing.

Jim is in a much different place at the start of the second season. Commissioner Loeb has gotten him demoted to a traffic cop before taking his gun and badge completely. Jim reaches a low point in his career in this episode. Who is Jim Gordon if he can't be a cop? That question isn't adequately answered because there's so much story to cover in this first episode back. Jim needs to know just how bad he wants to be a cop. Does he want to be an enforcer for Oswald just in order to get his badge back? The answer is yes. He complies with Oswald's favor. He collects the debt and Oswald takes care of Loeb. But a man was killed in the process. The guilt of that action doesn't weigh heavily on Jim. He sees it as taking the ugly option in order to do something potentially good. His friendship with Oswald is only going to get more complicated as the season progresses. The favors won't stop here. Jim is back to being a detective and Captain Essen has been promoted to Police Commissioner. The two actually have the means to try and clean up the city. But the villains are only continuing to rise which could make that task even more daunting than it was last year.

Only one month of time has passed in between the seasons. That time jump happens early in the episode. It's largely a device so that the show can introduce new dynamics without having to worry about the character trajectories from the end of the first season. That works for several of them. Bullock has been able to leave the police force and actually find happiness. That character shift will make it much more apparent when he's forced to join the fight with Jim again. He is living a healthier lifestyle and is no longer being corrupted by the world of this city. That's meaningful character work even though it's largely just introductory stuff here. Similarly, Barbara has taken a huge turn into full-on crazy and it's such a vastly more interesting performance as a result. Barbara was a horrible character last season. Whenever, she appeared all the energy, momentum and urgency came to a screeching halt. Now, she pops up and is a lot of fun. She has actually earned the fear Jim and Lee feel when they learn she was among the inmates who escaped Arkham Asylum. And then, there's Nygma aka another character who was so void of purpose in Season 1. He had his predictable breakdown at the end of the year. And now, it's manifesting in a split personality performance. They may become aggravating as the season goes along. But here, it works in a way that is much more intriguing than his hopeless pining after Kristen Kringle.

However, the time jump does lead to one really weird decision by the creative team. Bruce and Alfred discovered Bruce's father's secret room hidden off the study at the end of Season 1. That was the big final moment of the season. It wasn't a satisfying end to the story they were involved with all season long. But it was an iconic moment that the show got to recreate. This premiere needed to provide an answer as to what was down that staircase. The answer that this hour gave was a stalling technique. Bruce discovers a door armed with a coded lock. He spends this entire premiere trying to crack it before just giving up and rigging explosives to the door. First of all, how in the world did neither Bruce or Alfred think to use "Bruce" as a code to get into the room? Second, why in the world did the show think this was necessary? It was a way to connect the Jim and Bruce stories - but only in a thematic way. They are both taking the ugly way in order to do the right thing. With Bruce, it's literal. With Jim, it's emotional. It just wasn't a smart decision. It was all building to the moment where Bruce sees his father's note pleading for him to choose between happiness and the truth. That's a great quote that can apply to so many characters on the show. It just didn't feel as important as all the buildup suggested. Of course, Bruce will keep digging. Wouldn't it have been more satisfying if he actually learned what all his father was doing down there? That's certainly something to look forward to in the future. But the enjoyment will decrease the longer the show continues to drag this entire story out.

The other big development from the premiere is the debut of Theo and Tabitha Galavan. This brother-sister duo have come to Gotham with a plan that seems very villainous. He has been appointed to some crucial government position. But he has also staged the escape of six Arkham Asylum residents - which Tabitha was able to carry out for him. These two are meant to be feared. Theo has the power and the cunning mind while Tabitha is the killer. They have no problem disposing of one of the inmates when he doesn't want to listen to their offer. Barbara and Jerome have their opinions as well. This could be very beneficial to them. But they don't know if they should trust these people. A team of villains sounds very exciting. But the execution and the trust amongst them will determine whether or not this enterprise will radically change the city. The prison break will be a top priority for Jim and Essen. That means the police will be coming for the Galavans. Hopefully, that creates an interesting story arc for this season that is sustainable while also being fun and compelling to watch.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Damned If You Do..." was written by Bruno Heller and directed by Danny Cannon.
  • Cast turnover for this season means Jada Pinkett Smith, John Doman, Victoria Cartagena and Andrew Stewart-Jones are out, Morena Baccarin and Drew Powell have been promoted, and James Frain and Jessica Lucas are amongst the new additions. Several more characters have been promoted or added but don't pop up in the premiere. This cast is huge. That was a problem last season. Will it continue to be this year?
  • Selina and Zsasz have officially joined Oswald's criminal kingdom after their respective bosses - Fish and Falcone - were ousted from the city. Zsasz is much funnier here than he was previously but still with a twisted sense of humor.
  • How long will Bullock be bar-tending? Will he put on the uniform again soon or will his new place of work soon be corrupted by some criminal element that forces him to stand up as good.
  • Cameron Monaghan had potential as Jerome in his episode last season. It was too brief and broad a performance for it to really be anything of real substance. But now, it seems like he'll recur which has already led to some interesting moments. I wonder how long he'll be around though given his series commitment to Showtime's Shameless.