Holy Writer's Guild, Batman! Gotham's producers may have honest-to God figured out how to tell a story. A violent, depressing story, to be sure, but still one with some style, verve and actual élan. I'm not sure they can keep it up, but this wasn't bad for television.
The difference is simple--focus. Last season Gotham was all over the place with more characters and conflicts than you could shake a stick at while trying to stuff all that into a standard episodic, police procedural format. The effect ranged from boring to ludicrous. Giving up its pretensions to become a comic book on screen has shed dead weight. We now have one main villain with clear motivation, a couple of dynamic subvillains in his employ, and a substantial story arc upon which to hang stabs at characterization. The benefits are enormous. For example, now that he has a clear threat to face, Jim Gordon's haphazard persona almost makes sense. Maybe it will by next week.
Theo Galavan is our main villain. He wants to purge Gotham in a great cleansing. Make the city terrified for its life, then offer it a salvation for which any price will be paid. In true comic book form he has a sexy, evil sister who saunters about as lethal eye candy. It is a cliché, but simple, competent cliché beats the heck out of last season's tired mob war with too many players, too many constantly shifting motivations, and the aggravating absurdity that was Fish Mooney.
Theo has six psychos at his disposal, of which only two matter. One is Barbara Kean, Gordon's ex-girlfriend. As I said last week, the actress is a revelation this season now that she can cut loose. What Jim calls sickness she calls freedom. Again, simplicity works. The other psycho of note is Jerome, who will ultimately be annoying if they try and turn him into the Joker, but who works well enough as a stand-alone charismatic killer prone to giggle fits. Both are rendered more than adequately for current needs.
There's even a little restraint on display now. Penguin has nothing to do in this episode, so they don't waste a scene on him doing nothing like they would have last year. Nygma still grates, but even he actually did something to justify his presence tonight. Baby steps.
The plot is straight forward. The psychos, going by the nom de plume "Maniax," escalate all hour long, culminating in a brutal set piece of destruction. They start by lobbing bodies off a building to spell their name. The overture as Theo calls it. Jerome then seizes leadership of the Maniax from a rival in a Russian roulette face off where he pulls the trigger three straight times before handing the gun over. It's a nice bit if you like dark.
The next act consists of trying to burn up a bus full of cheerleaders using a stolen gasoline tanker. It's genuinely unpleasant to watch the buildup. Gordon seems truly heroic when he risks his life to drive the bus out of peril with seconds to spare.
The end game? Barbara is finally used as a lure to get Jim away from police headquarters. She calls him. They argue over the phone until she says "you always did make me laugh." There's a nice moment when he hears her laugh in stereo, slowly realizing that she's at the stairwell. Barbara splits to lead him into a beat down ambush outside, at the end of which she gives him a kiss. Theo, it seems, has plans for Mr. Gordon.
Inside, Jerome and the other Maniax kill lots of cops, including new Commissioner Essen. Jerome leaves behind a video tape that concludes "You ain't seen nothin yet!" He also kills the Maniax guy who challenged him for leadership earlier. The man's sin? He stepped on one of Jerome's best lines.
This A storyline has bite and holds your interest. Even Nygma has a moment, hurling himself in front of Ms. Kringle to save her during the final carnage. She's obviously appreciative afterward, which finally gives that lame subplot about his crush on her some actual footing.
In the nicely brief B storyline, Bruce fires Alfred for breaking a computer that might have held his dad's secrets. Alfred understandably thinks a mere boy doesn't need to be meddling in what got his father killed. Bruce eventually relents, cuz', you know, he's just a kid who can't begin to protect himself. The quid pro quo? English tough Alfred will teach Bruce how to protect himself, with Bruce promising to listen. That leads to a nice "can I trust you or not" conversation between Alfred and Lucious Fox about fixing a certain computer. Lots of English slang, too.
All in all, neither boring nor ludicrous. This show may have learned how to juggle camp with a comic book vibe.
It's a start.