Ben McKenzie

The biggest problem with the first season of Gotham was that it lacked any sort of identity or direction. It was a season that coasted on the built-in leeway provided by the brand that is Batman and the current propensity for every network to churn out a superhero TV show. Fox’s thinking seemed to have stopped there, settling on the hook of exploring the city that created Batman rather than the caped crusader himself, hoping that everything else would just fall into place after that. Unlike Arrow, Marvel’s Daredevil or The Flash, Gotham failed to establish a consistent tone and aesthetic, and that left the first season, even in its better moments, feeling like nothing more than a timely capitalization on the popularity of superhero fiction.

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The season two premiere, “Damned If You Do…,” by contrast, is more promising than anything in the first 22 episodes. What’s remarkable is that Gotham didn’t even need to do that much to make its first hour of this season captivating. The pieces have been there all along; it’s just that the quality of the show depends on how they all get arranged. The biggest change in the premiere from all previous episodes is in the tone of the show. There are still silly villains and stilted dialogue, but it’s clear that the show is no longer taking itself too seriously. Where the first season never managed to balance its campy elements with its more gritty ambitions, “Damned If You Do…” strikes that balance almost immediately.

The premiere takes place one month after the events of the season one finale. Gordon has been demoted to directing traffic, Barbara is heading to Arkham Asylum, Cobblepot has taken his place at the top of the criminal factions of Gotham, and Bullock has left the GCPD and is tending bar at the local dive. Using a montage to catch all the storylines up isn’t particularly inventive, but on a show where tedium too often sets in, such efficiency is welcome. Plus, it’s a great excuse to use ”Perfect Day” to soundtrack your montage of people looking sad.

More than just the product of a shift in tone though, the premiere is promising because it introduces a ton of variables into the mix. Gotham feels unpredictable for the time being, which is not something that could be said about any stretch in the first season. Where the first season consistently winked at the viewer and nudged narratives towards everything canon, “Damned If You Do…” seems more focused on establishing Gotham as its own thing, with its own unique voice. The biggest jolt to the show comes in the form of the new band of villains, as Theo Galavan (James Frain) and his sister Tabitha free a handful of prisoners from Arkham, including Barbara and her new pal Jerome (with Shameless’ Cameron Monaghan back, thankfully), in the hopes of bringing chaos to the streets of Gotham. Right now, Galavan and his team don’t need more motivation that that. The presence of the villains, and the shakeup they represent, in the premiere is enough of a hook for the rest of the season.

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Not only does the show’s focus on creating a new threat to Gotham have the potential to move the series away from the laborious case-of-the-week tendencies of last year, but it also allows underused performers to really find their groove. While the first season had Jada Pinkett Smith appropriately hamming it up, this season seems prepared to give both Cameron Monaghan and Erin Richards significant time to revel in their more sadistic sides. Both of them are the highlight of the premiere, from Richards turning Barbara into an actual character, complete with menacing nonchalance, to Monaghan reminding everyone that his hints at being the Joker are delightfully twisted and fun.

Fun really is the key word in the premiere. From the performances provided by Richards and Monaghan and the sharp comedic beats, to the scenes where Alfred and Bruce joyfully build a bomb to get into the “batcave,” “Damned If You Do…” has a looseness about it that suits the show. It’s not silly in the way the first season often was; rather, Gotham seems more aware that a show about cartoonish super villains can have a sense of humor every now and then.

There’s still a darkness at the heart of the show though, be it the hinted turn of Nygma or the morality crisis that Gordon faces throughout the premiere. What that means is that Gotham still has the same blend of humor and gritty drama, but “Damned If You Do…” is much more focused and compelling in terms of storytelling. Essentially, the second season premiere gives Gotham a sense of direction, and that alone is enough to warrant interest in future episodes.

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This is still an imperfect show with dialogue that occasionally makes you cringe and a Batman origin story that’s moving along at a horribly sluggish pace. Still, with its new band of villains and a shakeup in the city of Gotham, be it Cobblepot becoming the man who pushes Gordon to compromise his ethics or billionaire Theo Galavan preparing to disrupt the order of the city, “Damned If You Do…” presents a rejuvenated and reworked version of Gotham that, for now, represents a significant step forward for the series.

Stray observations

  • Never Mind The Bullocks: “I’d serve a sandwich to Beelzebub, but that’s just me.” - Bullock giving his old partner advice on whether or not to do a favor for Cobblepot.
  • The “good cop compromises his ethics” story has been done to death, but it’s exactly what Gotham needs. Last season hinted at it time and again but never followed through. Here’s hoping the show sticks with it this time around. Let’s make Gordon a real, fleshed-out character!
  • “Don’t start talking French to me!” Alfred has no time for Bruce’s highfalutin criticisms.
  • The scene where Cobblepot and Victor intimidate Loeb into retiring is evidence that this show has a bit more bite this season. Great balance of humor and viciousness.
  • I’m very ready for Jessica Lucas as Tabitha Galavan/Tigress.

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