“Yes. Yup. That big hemi’s in there. Somewhere.”
– Oswald Cobblepot describing his new truck
It’s hard not to feel like the Penguin. Trying to hitch a ride on the side of a highway, getting passed by at every opportunity and just when something looks promising, it turns out drivers are a bunch of stereotypes who would rather watch you struggle through embarrassment than actually let you in. That is to say, everytime I think I have my hand on Gotham’s door, it speeds up and makes this whole ordeal of watching it a pitiful struggle.
Perhaps though, that’s inaccurate. Gotham isn’t losing me when it speeds up, it’s letting me in, asking me where I want to go, and then just sitting there, spouting off expository dialogue despite the obvious fact that there’s a big hemi under the hood.
That hemi is Robin Lord Taylor, and goddammit, he is an exciting actor. In an episode named after Selina Kyle, the once and future Catwoman, Taylor’s Penguin is far and away the best part. Sadly, Oswald Cobblepot’s really fun origin story is a double edged sword. Due to the fact that clearly involves his rise to prominence at the expense of his old boss, we have to sit through unbearable scenes literally composed of nothing but Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney describing her emotions to a henchman.
“I know. Not yet. I need more money, more men, more territory. I know. I’ll play this thing loyal and bide my time. But I swear, Butch, on my sainted mother’s grave: someday soon I am gonna kill that old man with my bare hands and my teeth… I just wish that Penguin was still alive. I didn’t make that little punk suffer near badly enough.”
– Fish Mooney telling us everything that’s on her mind
If Gotham’s writers could somehow get away with putting some trust in today’s highly literate TV audience and start showing character emotions rather than having them vomit explanations all over the supporting cast then we’d be cooking with Bat-gas. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in episode two, “Selina Kyle”, and what we’re left with is about 40 percent of a great show wrapped in a bunch of pandering bubble wrap for people who watch this show while talking on the phone or having a bunch of naps or something.
There are three plots in “Selina Kyle,” each addressed in the cold open, each connecting to Jim Gordon on some level, but otherwise existing in a thematic isolation. The A plot is delightfully comic booky and involves two henchpeople named Patti and Doug abducting street kids for an overseas entity they call the Doll Maker. The B plot involves Cobblepot trying to make his way back to Gotham City, hobo style. The C-plot gets about five minutes of total screen time and focuses on Bruce exhibiting all the telltale signs of the TV character version of post traumatic stress.
The titular Catgirl factors into the A plot, as she has been imagined as a wayward homeless youth with a thing for blinding bad guys. She escapes Patti and Doug’s first harvest in the cold open only to fall back into their hands when the henches hijack her and a bunch of kids being sent off to juvie on orders from the mayor.
The Doll Maker story is a procedural element to the show that seems to be obligatory in serialized crime dramas these days and it works well enough. Lili Taylor (Hemlock Grove) and Frank Whaley (Swing Kids) give Batman-worthy performances as a couple of ultra-professional magoo murderers trying to please a faceless big bad.
Camren Bicondova cuts a good Selina Kyle too, even if she’s not given very much to do. In the confrontation between li’l Catwoman and Patti, I was sincerely hoping for some badass, eye-popping fun that would have Gordon and Bullock scratching their heads when they got to the scene. Instead, Jim saves Selina with a half-hearted tackle in the nick of time. To be fair, it is Gordon’s show, but Catwoman is such an icon it’s a shame not to use her with the gravity her name commands.
The B plot contains both the best parts of the show and everything that is killing it for me. All of Gotham’s potential is shown in Oswald Cobblepot’s road trip back to the city. He hitches a ride with jock bullies that make the mistake of telling him he looks like a P-word when he walks. This final insult turns his always sunny and pathetic demeanour sour, causing him to kill a passenger and take the other hostage. Robin Lord Taylor is playing such great opposite states in his opening scene, balancing humiliatingly grateful with the self-righteous violence of a scorned Greek god. He’s just really fun to watch.
Penguin awkwardly acquires a rental trailer from which he schemes his comeback and attempts to score a cool ten Gs by ransoming his hostage back to the little scamp’s mom. The trailer scene in particular has all the tone that the rest of the show needs to embrace in order to be great. Taylor hits some really dark comedic beats when he’s negotiating the price of his taped up jock (“Madam. Madam. Calm yourself. If ten thousand is too much I’m sure we can-”), while the cool as comics image of Cobblepot lying on his back staring at a collage he made on the ceiling depicting the power imbalance of Gotham City is pitch perfect storytelling and characterization.
Last week, Penguin had to tell Gordon and the audience that he has the ability to make obscure connections, but this scene really illustrated it.
While all of this is happening, Fish Mooney and Carmine Falcone take up their roles as Penguin’s targets in some insufferably exposition heavy scenes. When Cobblepot inevitably stages his coup, I expect the biggest payoff will be the promise of no longer needing to sit through scenes involving this poorly drawn character and her perpetually vocalized feelings.
Finally, checking in with the little Wayne boy this week, he’s in full fledged sexy-TV-mental-illness mode. The episode opens with Alfred catching Bruce burning his hand on a candle to conquer fear, moves on to quickly show him later listening to not-dark-at-all metal and doodling in black pen on a notebook, then settles on Jim Gordon’s arrival at the behest of an emotionally abused butler.
Now, I get it, this show needs to have Bruce Wayne in it to remind people it’s a Batman show. He also is there to act both as a dark angel tasked with inspiring Gordon to find his inner bat and a backboard for the writers to score little self-aware jokes off of. The issue with the obligatory Bruce presence, however, is that his story is so familiar by now that it has become redundant and boring. And then there’s the issue of his PTSD.
The lazy shorthand that’s being used to characterize his condition (a very real one with a lot of present day stigma) doesn’t just trivialize Bruce’s story, it also illustrates the overall problem I see with Gotham after its first two episodes: all of the parts are here for something really great, but they aren’t being used.
Gotham has a great premise, an exceptional cast and a license to use some of the most beloved characters in pop culture, but they all seem lost in the big shiny idea of what a hit TV show has to be nowadays.
There’s a big hemi inside this expensive truck. Somewhere.
– More proof that Gotham is bloated with exposition: the previously on montage made the pilot look really great. It wasn’t.
– Glad to see that no one tried to characterize the city in this episode. Instead we got to meet Mayor Aubrey James (played by Richard Kind) and see the people that Gordon is in conflict with when it seems like the place he lives in is smothering him.
– Gordon killed a janitor this week by shooting him into a well. Episode two seemed to make a big point of differentiating the future commissioner from the plainclothes Batman surrogate in the pilot.
– Cory Michael Smith once again nails the Riddler’s emerging madness.
– Arkham Asylum has been shut down for 15 years. Definitely thought that hinted at Patti and Doug working for Hugo Strange.
– On that note, how about that reference to Nickelodeon’s Doug?
– Who do you think the Doll Maker could be? The Ventriloquist? Professor Pyg? Baby Doll? I can’t see any of those making me feel good about what those kids are being used for.
– Lots of laughs this week. It feels good to see some humour in Batman after the laughless Christopher Nolan movies.
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