Synopsis of 3×01: Now a bounty hunter in Gotham City, Gordon follows the trail of Fish Mooney after Cobblepot puts a $1 million hit on his former boss. Bruce goes too far in his hunt to find out who really runs Wayne Enterprises.
In the season three premier, Gotham most resembles the latter seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a big, messy, comedic action story with multiple figures all after their own goals, riffing off ‘80s comic books with shameless aplomb. Scenes like Gordon’s wisecracking tangle with a mutant in the opening scenes and Cobblepot’s entrance into the Barbara and Tabitha’s new club feel like they’d be very at home on a ‘90s WB show and your nostalgia and tolerance for this show’s often wildly varying levels of camp will determine your enjoyment thereof.
The stuff that doesn’t match that tone though, eh, it has the exact same problems Gotham has always had. Selina’s angst over her relationship with Bruce and loyalty to Fish is flat and fundamentally out of character and the scenes with the Court of Owls are stuffy, over-serious and lack the camp that could at least acknowledge how fundamentally silly the show’s take on this premise is.
A variety of characters, namely Bruce, keep hinting at how dangerous and deadly they know the Court to be but all we see of them is one old lady in a plush sleeping mask and a bodyguard in a domino mask pretending to be extremely serious. It’s not exactly menacing and it’s far from intimidating.
The thing is, Gotham can do some more serious moments well enough. The show’s best pairing has always been between David Marzouz’ Bruce and Sean Pertwee’s Alfred and the character focused beats between them work well. Marzouz’ has started to really get a feel for the hardened, singularly focused man Bruce Wayne is becoming, particularly as the show’s timeline gets closer to Wayne’s leave of absence from the city and the training he undertakes to become Batman.
Still, the show wrings laughs out of remembering that Wayne is very much a child. A running joke between Bruce and Alfred about breakfast is a charmer and feels as at home here as it would in Tom King and David Finch’s run on Batman or in Batman: The Animated Series.
Jada Pinkett Smith also handles herself well, still playing Fish to the hilt as a sadistic, vengeance-seeking narcissist out for little else but the drugs that will keep her powers and mind intact. Other character beats work well too. The premier again pairs Cobblepot with Nygma, with the Riddler still behind bars at Arkham and serving as the Penguin’s somewhat less than enthusiastic sounding board.
The premier also introduces Valerie Vale, the famous Vicki’s aunt, who arrives in Gotham City chasing the Indian Hill story and finds a partner in Gordon’s borderline alcoholic bounty hunter. They have something not far from a buddy-cop thing going but the episode keeps twisting who holds power in their mostly transactional relationship in a fun enough way. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before but it’s well executed, provided your standards are suitably calibrated for Gotham.
All in all, “Better to Reign in Hell” is a bit of a lopsided premier, offering a distinctly new shift in tones from what’s come before while still suffering from the show’s ridiculous mythology and uneven performances. It’s not exactly a promising hour but it’s one that stands a far better chance of connecting with an audience than much of anything in last season. At the very least, that’s a step in the right direction.