TV Review: Gotham – “Better to Reign in Hell”

Gotham - "Better to Reign in Hell"
Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find all of my Gotham reviews here.
Gotham‘s back, and it’s… about the same as ever, really. Still the show that could best be described with a half-hearted shrug. Still the show that cares less about telling a coherent story than about throwing stuff onto the screen and shouting, “Isn’t this cool?!”
Case in point: “Better to Reign in Hell” didn’t deliver any sort of self-contained narrative, no story with a beginning, middle, and end. It was just a collection of scenes, some related, some not, but with no larger structure connecting it all. And more importantly, no sense of where the season is going, which is somewhat surprising for a premiere.
Yes, there was some indication that Fish Mooney intends to build an army of superpowered villains to do… something. What that “something” is doesn’t matter, though. The whole point is to generate a handful of bad guys to throw at the audience, hoping the recognizable Batman rogues will be enough to satisfy them. It’s the old cliché of all flash and no substance.
But Gotham doesn’t need to change, because by this point, it’s comfortable enough in its own skin, and it’s cultivated an audience that likes it for what it is. And what it is is a hodgepodge showcase of recognizable Batman villains. Look, it’s Mr. Freeze! Over there, the Mad Hatter! And how about we contrive a way to make Poison Ivy suddenly grow up so we can use her too?
Gordon and Valerie ValeIn fact, nothing exemplifies Gotham‘s approach to storytelling as much as opening scene of “Better to Reign in Hell”. A major cliffhanger from last year’s finale was brushed aside in an incredibly brief scene where Jim saw that Lee had moved on and—oh well, that’s enough, cut to six months later! It was an awkward and clumsy way to start an episode, let alone a season.
I’m being too harsh. There’s enough enjoyment to be had from this show. Penguin is still a highlight, though this season had better find something useful for him to do and fast. In “Better to Reign in Hell”, he, Butch, Barbara, and Tabitha were in their own little bubble, separate from the main events of the episode. An entertaining bubble, to be sure, but a distant one nonetheless. I don’t want a repeat of last season, when the show still needed him but couldn’t find a reason to have him there, so they sent him off to discover his family or something. What purpose did that serve again?
The aforementioned “main events” involved Jim Gordon hunting down Fish Mooney, and that part actually wasn’t too bad. I really like Jim as a bounty hunter; it suits this interpretation of the character much more than anything so far. We were also introduced to Valerie Vale, who is a legitimately promising new character. And of course, Bullock is still the best.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne continued his struggle for relevance on a show where he, quite frankly, doesn’t belong. Much as I respect David Mazouz’s efforts and always enjoy Sean Pertwee’s performance as Alfred, the truth is that a show about James Gordon never needed Bruce Wayne for any other reason than “he’s Batman, we must keep him around.”
First, it was the search for his parents’ killer that kept him around. Sure, I can buy that. In Season 2, that evolved into the search for the man behind the man who killed his parents. Fine, I guess. And now it’s the search for the secret society behind the man who was behind the man who killed his parents. Okay, now it’s getting ridiculous.
Yeah, it’s cool that Gotham‘s diving into the Court of Owls. But I’ve yet to be convinced that they are worthy antagonists, more than just a wink at comic readers, like everything else before them. So far, the latter seems to be the case. The Bruce subplot started in a very promising way when he confronted the Wayne Enterprises board, then quickly took a nosedive as we waded back into familiar territory. “Bruce Wayne knows too much! Send someone to kill him! Even though the audience knows he’ll be okay, because he’s Batman! And also because they’ve seen this exact subplot a thousand times before!”
All in all, it wasn’t a disappointing premiere, but only because Gotham‘s bar is not particularly high. “Better to Reign in Hell” was business as usual for a show that desperately needs an overhaul.

Rating: 3/5 (Passable)

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