This week’s Gotham was a fine-enough connect-the-dots episode, one whose implications are characteristically more interesting in the abstract than in the moment. Almost every significant subplot in “Harvey Dent” contributed to the series’ big picture without being memorably fun. And the worst part is: Last night’s episode wasn’t half-bad. The Selina Kyle–Bruce Wayne scenes were a bit monotonous and saccharine-y, but they mostly worked. And as usual, Oswald Cobblepot’s story was fun, since Robin Lord Taylor is still the only actor in the show who’s charming enough to be endearingly hammy (more on Fish Mooney in a moment).
Not surprisingly, Harvey Dent (Nicholas D’Agosto) was the only character with an immediately involving subplot. Dent, a white-knight district attorney, is a snooze any time he does something related to Two-Face, like flip his signature two-headed coin or freak out at Dick Lovecraft (Al Sapienza), a very rich suspect in the Thomas and Martha Wayne murder case. But D’Agosto brings Dent to life in any scene where he’s a hard-headed but naïve civil servant, like when he explains to Gordon his scheme to charge Lovecraft with fraud just to “get [his] cage rattled like the dickens.”
That line make sense in a cartoony, Batman: The Animated Series kind of way, but Gotham isn’t fully grounded in that context. You can see Animated Series’ influence in some scenes, like the one where a security guard wonders aloud, “Wait a second: You hear that? Sounds like ticking,” just before villain of the week/mad bomber Ian Hargrove’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) gift-basket bomb blows the guard up. And you can see it in Cobblepot’s scenes, thanks to Taylor’s typically assured performance.
But the Animated Series’ humor, poise, and unfussy ambience is sorely lacking in most other aspects of the show. Case in point: any scene with Fish Mooney. To be fair: Tonight’s Fish Mooney subplot was thoughtful inasmuch as it was well structured. Her scheme was not only set up, but also paid off all in one night, when Butch blew up Falcone’s stolen money. Her opening scene — where she conspires with Butch — pays off nicely later, when she tells her henchman how uninterested she is in stealing Falcone’s money. That’s not nothing in a show where a major conflict comes to a head one week — Zsasz shoots at Gordon, deepening his alienation from the GCPD — but is then resolved a week later (Essen backs Gordon and the GCPD follows suit).
Now the bad news: Jada Pinkett Smith still isn’t both funny and campy. This has been a fairly negligible problem until now, but it’s week nine, and Smith’s performance still hasn’t coalesced into anything more than a collection of tics. This is especially true of the scene where she greets Cobblepot with a heavily accented, Cruella de Vil–style “Oswald, you’re back.” She then immediately goes back to normal speech and only pauses long enough to vamp whenever she half-admonishes, half-instructs Butch. Generally speaking, there’s no juice to Smith’s performance because she’s trying to look composed while also being vicious, sexy, and over the top. She’s trying to do too many things at once, and that either mean she’s not driving herself far enough or she’s not being being properly directed (my money’s on the latter).
By contrast, tonight’s Selina Kyle–Bruce Wayne subplot had problems but was generally enjoyable. The worst thing about this story was how vestigial Alfred felt after last week’s episode. Episode writer Ken Woodruff did address the whole “Teach me to fight” thing, but only perfunctorily, in the scene where Alfred spars with Bruce. Granted, Bruce’s budding friendship with Selina is directly related to his anger issues inasmuch as Selina gives him a healthy outlet for his volcanic hormones. But couldn’t they have given Bruce one episode where he follows through on his unhealthy desire to learn how to be a hooligan from Alfred? Fast-forwarding Bruce’s subplot makes him look like a toothless version of Harold from Harold and Maude: He acts out, Alfred says he’ll indulge him, then a convenient plot-twist shows up and makes their discussion moot.
Thankfully, that plot twist is Selina Kyle, a character who has, until now, ostentatiously skulked around Gotham’s margins. Selina does a great job of quashing Bruce’s naïve dreams of physically training himself until he feels less emotionally vulnerable. But she does this in at least one confrontation too many: The diving-board pep talk could have easily been conflated with the scene where Selina scolds Bruce for thinking that being brave would have made a difference: “You’re dreaming, kid: A gun’s a gun.” Then again, Selina and Bruce’s food fight was endearing, and so was their diving-board talk. Selina and Bruce’s story may develop into more than just a cute tangent. But for now, it’s decent … by the show’s standards, anyway.
Which brings me back to my larger point: it feels unwise to hold Gotham to hard and fast standards of quality, and that’s just silly. “Penguin’s Umbrella” felt like a turning point, but the show hasn’t turned a corner yet. Too many episodes have failed to settle on a single style or tone, and that’s not a problem a drama should have by episode nine. There is, as usual, a lot to like here, but Gotham’s got to get it together.
- Remember when I joked about how a Melrose Bat-Place–type show could be fun? Because that’s where Barbara Kean’s lesbian rebound is leading the show.
- D’Agosto wasn’t really convincing when he snapped at Lovecraft: “Don’t — threaten me. I. Will rip! You — open.” I miss Harvey Dent, and I just met him.
- Fish Mooney: “And Gregor? Break a leg.” Seriously, Smith is never both campy and fun, never, ever.
- How do we feel about the “Final Countdown” gag: pandering, or good enough? Not surprisingly, I’m somewhere in between.
- Is there a warehouse, armory, or factory in Gotham City that hasn’t been explored yet? This is why I’ll never apologize for my “Balloonman” love: It’s got a hot-air-balloon factory. Now, that’s funny!
- Taylor is on a roll: The scene where he threatens Liza was especially good.
- Gordon to Kean: “Come back. I don’t have anything without you.” Finally, McKenzie gets a good line!
- Nygma sneaking up on Bullock tonight and shouting, “Do you play video games?” was pretty funny.