How the Penguin Saved Gotham

The good news for Gotham fans is that the show has been expanded for additional episodes. One of the main reasons for that is Robin Lord Taylor’s scene-stealing role as Oswald Cobblepot, AKA the Penguin. These extra episodes will allow the series more time to find its footing because it’s still raw and needs to cook a bit more before it reaches its potential. In the meantime, however, Taylor’s scenes as the Penguin are always the highlight, and viewers can be carried along through the weaker points of the show by the anticipation of his scenes.

The show as a whole is not bad but it seems to be suffering from an identity crisis, torn between the street grittiness of the Nolan Dark Knight films and the more fanciful Burton/Schumacher version from the 90s. (The balloonman killer would definitely not work in the Nolan bat-verse). There are obvious tonal problems, and so far, the villains-of-the-week have not been overly impressive. The best storyline currently is the Mob War between Falcone and Maroni, which has been elevated by the addition of the Penguin into the plot. Without the Penguin involved, even this story would be just so-so.

The Penguin has not been one of the more popular Bat bad guys in recent years. He became a fan favorite in the 1960s when the Adam West Batman TV series came out, and the Penguin (played with wonderful comic flair by Burges Meredith) had more appearances than any other villain on the show. After that, his popularity waned despite some occasional brief leaps of increased notoriety. Mostly, he is not at the level of the Joker, Two-Face, Bane, Ra’s al Ghul and others. That may change now, because of Taylor.

The best thing about Taylor’s performance is that despite the character’s slimy ruthlessness and untrustworthiness, he is also strangely likable. He manages to simultaneously be a killer and an underdog. Even though we know he’s a self-serving crook who will go on to become one of Batman’s major enemies, we can’t help rooting for him as he manipulates and positions himself in Maroni’s organization.

Taylor claims he took much of his performance from Danny DeVito’s portrayal of the Penguin in Batman Returns, and he does have aspects of the more primal, animalistic way DeVito played the character as opposed to the comic book version or Meredith’s quirky portrayal.

As for the rest of the cast, there are pluses and minuses. On the ‘plus’ side, Donal Logue is doing a very good job as Harvey Bullock, the jaded, world-weary veteran detective who knows you have to join ‘em to beat ‘em. The rest of the cast and characters are, sadly, not quite as strong.

Ben McKenzie makes a pretty good leading man as Lieutenant  (and future commissioner) Jim Gordon but since he’s playing a normal guy surrounded by these larger-than-life psychos and grotesques, he needs more presence and star-power to elevate himself above his supporting cast. Also, he isn’t quite sufficiently conveying his angst at being the ‘only honest sheriff in Dodge City’. Erin Richards is an annoying ditz as his girlfriend Barbara and Jada Pinkett Smith seems to be doing an Eartha Kitt imitation (Kitt played Catwoman in the third season of the 1960s Batman TV series) in her attempts to be a menacing villain, but she isn’t as entertaining as Kitt was. Carmen Bicondova does a fairly good job as young Selina (Catwoman) Kyle, but the overdone cat references, and pointless additions (like her unexplained ability to see in the dark) make young Catwoman more of a gimmick than a real character. Corey Michael Smith is artless as the future Riddler Edward Nigma, and the writers seem insistent on hitting us over the head with the fact that he’ll one day become the Riddler by having him constantly pose questions to people. And then we come to the kid playing young Bruce Wayne; David Mazouz has the plumb role of pee-wee Bruce, who is in mourning for his recently slain parents but the kid is not a strong enough actor to convincingly capture Bruce’s damaged psyche on a weekly basis. It would be better if the lad were relegated to a recurring role.

But let’s not end on a negative note. The show is still developing (it took Agents of SHIELD almost a whole season—and a boost from the plot of Captain America: the Winter Soldier—to get in the zone) and may still hit its stride in the months to come, if the writers and the cast can shake off the baby fat and get to the lean, mean Gotham scenes we are all waiting for. In the meantime, you can still enjoy “the Penguin Show”, starring Robin Lord Taylor, who makes even the weakest episodes of Gotham worth watching. His performance has helped expand the series, and he’ll be a big part in ensuring that it gets renewed for a second year. By then, hopefully, the rest of the show will have caught up with him.