'Gotham' Recap: Asylum Seekers

The before-Batman series returns, with a Bruce Wayne-free episode that highlights the show's strengths and weaknesses

A scene from the January 5th episode of 'Gotham.' Credit: Jessica Miglio/FOX

Movies, video games, toys, movies based on video games based on toys: The Bat-Signal has cast the Dark Knight's shadow on such an enormous portion of the pop-culture landscape that it's now possible for a generation of Bat-fans to never once crack the cover of a single comic book. And now that Gotham exists, they really don't need to. Episodes like tonight's return from winter break — "Rogues' Gallery" — recreate the experience of reading a mediocre Bat-book so perfectly that they all but feel plucked from a back-issue bin at a Comic-Con dealer's table. The isolated moments of zany inspiration and compelling atmospherics, surrounded by scene after scene of ham-fisted character work, inert dialogue, and rehashed crime/cop/horror clichés — it's not a great deal, but at least Gotham is free with your broadcast package, and Senator Clay Davis makes a cameo.

The episode starts on its single strongest note, taking us inside the harrowing halls of the newly open-for-business Arkham Asylum as its inmates stage what can only be described as a school play. As the more poetic patients recite lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest to an increasingly agitated audience, we see Detective Jim Gordon — demoted to a glorified security-guard position after rubbing corrupt Mayor Aubrey James the wrong way — breaking up his fourth riot since starting the gig. It's a visually and verbally striking way of showing how out-of-the-ordinary Arkham is even when compared to the macabre mean streets of Gotham City, and how out of place Gordon is in its confines. Given how much the subsequent storyline about a rogue electroshock therapist's rampage among the inmates relies on atmosphere rather than anything remotely approaching logic (does a building full of maniacs have more than four people on staff at any given time?), this establishing scene does a lot of work.

The episode's final scene is a worthy bookend, though it's the kind of thing the show cribbed from GoodFellas rather than The Silence of the Lambs. After an episode-long storyline about the questionable loyalty of ambitious Fish Mooney's right-hand man Butch, the henchman meets with his old friend Saviano, Fish's rival for Carmine Falcone's throne, to settle accounts. The waterfront setting and doo-wop soundtrack are straight out of a million post-Scorsese mafia movies, but the dialogue is thoughtfully done. After deceitfully telling his childhood friend he'll support him, Butch reminisces about a petty-larceny caper that the two of them embarked on as teens: They stole a shipment of meat from a butcher, but Butch saved the best cuts for himself. "I apologize for cheating you out of your beefsteak," he says, and Saviano immediately dismisses the transgression as water under the bridge. But Butch isn't satisfied: "Brothers don't do that...why did I do that?" You get the sense that his inability to answer that question has as much to do with his subsequent murder of his buddy as anything else. That's strong, surprising writing.

And it's not alone. Gotham's got a surprising knack for occasionally — very occasionally — cutting through its own clichés, having characters say exactly the things you wish people would say in the stock situations the show recycles. Take a look at the debuts of two characters played by alums from New Golden Age of TV Drama contenders, for example. As Dr. Leslie Thompkins, the Arkham Asylum physician who treats the patients assaulted by the institution's mystery Mengele, talented actor/alpha-level attractive human Morena Baccarin's role is thus far thankless even by the degraded standards of, say, Homeland's third season. But dig how she deflates Gordon's tough-guy bullshit: "Another day, another dollar," he says of some poor mope's crude electric lobotomy, to which Thompkins replies "Really? This is rather unusual and sinister, isn't it?" Chastened, Gordon agrees, and so do we in the audience.

Later, Director Gerry Lang, the head honcho of the asylum played by The Wire's Isiah Whitlock, Jr., is dragged into GCPD HQ for questioning by Jim's one true friend on the force, Harvey Bullock. Partnerless, Bullock handles the entire interrogation, creating a tedious bad cop/bad cop dynamic that Lang defuses faster than you (or Clay Davis) can say "sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeit." "You're hiding something. What is it?" Bullock barks. "Well, everybody's hiding something!" Lang retorts, accurately. I wish cop shows that aren't ultimately about how a little boy decides to dress up like a bat and punch criminals had the chutzpah to handle tough-guy interrogation tactics like that.

Sadly, the remainder of the show is nowhere near as clever. For the most part, characters collide in the most obvious possible manner: Gordon and Lang are instantly antagonistic; Gordon and Thompkins have an instant, romantically charged rapport; Fish and Butch tiptoe around the issue of divided loyalties with all the subtlety of sasquatches; a subplot involving the Penguin and his former boss Maroni may as well have "The Penguin Is Going to Murder This Man" flashing as a subtitle the entire time. The villains of the Arkham storyline are pure comic-book cheese: an insane wannabe nurse named Dorothy Duncan who looks like she's cosplaying as Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Gruber, a refined gentleman-doctor psychopath pulled directly from the Hannibal Lecter playbook. The debut of the comic-book villain Aaron Helzinger, aka Amygdala, is a hoot if you're a Nineties kid who spent your allowance on every issue in the big Knightfall crossover, but that's about all it's got going for it. The troubled relationship between Gordon's fiancée Barbara Kean and GCPD detective Renee Montoya has a bit more depth, but you still can't help feeling it was cooked up by fanboys who thought it'd be sexy-funny for Jim Gordon's future wife to hook up with a lady.

It's clear at this point that Gotham is not gunning to be The Wire for superhero TV, or even its Law & Order. As those marvelous cityscape skyline shots make clear, the element of exaggerated unreality is one it treasures — and if you're telling the origin story of Batman, you might as well. You just have to make sure to remember that the best thing about fantasy is doing the unexpected, not the anticipated and exhausted.

Previously: Cat and Mouse