Nine episodes into Gotham, the show has done a relatively savvy job of building its world for viewers, fleshing out the throwback versions of established Batman characters it introduced in the pilot. There are a lot of people to account for: Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Jim Gordon, Catwoman, Penguin, Riddler, even Poison Ivy (though she hasn’t showed up again). So why, why, why, so early on in the season, do we need to get a half-baked take on Harvey Dent, who will one day become Two-Face? His portrayal played into all of Gotham’s worst impulses: Everyone seemed to be winking madly at the audience for every second he was onscreen.
“Harvey Dent! You know, one day he’ll be Two-Face!” the show, essentially, screamed as Nicholas D’Agosto stalked around flipping a coin about as much as he possibly could. Dent has been portrayed a variety of ways over the years—there’s Tommy Lee Jones’s vaudevillian psychotic of Batman Forever, Aaron Eckhart’s fallen hero in The Dark Knight, the truly coin-focused crime boss of the ‘90s animated series, etc. D’Agosto is making the slightly unusual choice of lending him an unhinged air before his face is even scarred. His Harvey Dent screams in the faces of criminals maybe a little too gleefully, perhaps suggesting he’s halfway to schizophrenic even before any gruesome injuries.
I’ve feared the introduction of famous Batman villains since Gotham kicked off, because it’s one area where the show has struggled to strike a consistent tone. The characterization of the Penguin so far has been great, and lil’ Catwoman is hard not to like, but every time the future Riddler pokes his cackling head into the frame, I groan and wonder how the show’s writers plan on ever making him intimidating.
D’Agosto is not my favorite actor, but I recently enjoyed his work as Ethan Haas in Masters of Sex. Still, he’s an odd choice for Dent, lacking that character’s inherent magnetism. Even Tommy Lee Jones, slathered in purple makeup for Joel Schumacher’s cartoon vision of Batman’s rogues gallery, played him like a showy Southern lawyer gone off the deep end, down to his mellifluous monologuing. Every time Gotham takes a chance on an established villain, it needs to find a unique spin that leaves an impression, and so far this isn’t it. I continue to dread the Joker’s introduction, although I imagine that won’t come until the end of season one at the absolute earliest.
Probably the most compelling plot in “Harvey Dent” had nothing to do with Harvey Dent at all, but with Bruce Wayne’s burgeoning friendship with little Catwoman. By the way, with Dent introduced as an adult, it’s clear that everyone’s ages on this show are going to be out of sync with typical Batman chronology, and I’m fine with that. The more Gotham wants to mess with tradition, the better off it’ll be, since then it won’t just be telegraphing the same plot twists fans have been enjoying since they were children. So if Dent is a grown-up when Batman and Catwoman are teenagers, I can deal with that.
Alfred is trying to teach Bruce how to fight to toughen him up, but Catwoman knows there’s more to winning fights than simple boxing skills, and she gives Bruce a real runaround after Jim Gordon drops her off at Wayne Manor (for some reason). There’s a cute romantic element to their partnership that just manages to skirt being corny by virtue of their chemistry.
I generally like the idea of Catwoman’s corrupting influence on a young Bruce—if he’s staying in Gotham, Alfred’s boxing lessons aren't going to be enough to turn him into a bat-costumed crime-fighter. Batman’s push and pull with Catwoman, who stands on the other side of the law while sharing a lot of his values, has always been an important one in the Batman universe, so I approve of the show getting to work on that early. Plus, it’ll give Bruce more to do than just mope around the manor getting his hair ruffled by his earnest butler.
You’ll note I’m skirting the actual crime of the week on this week’s episode. That’s because it was by far the weakest of Gotham’s crime plots to date. Perhaps our cops needed a week off from the real tough stuff after all they’ve been through with Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni. Even Penguin and Fish were rather sedate as they continued to set up their plans for citywide domination. But on a show that has made an effort to carefully build out its world, “Harvey Dent” felt like the first huge misstep. Here’s hoping it was just a bad first impression.