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When it was announced last year that Fox would be bringing a Batman prequel to the small screen in the form of Gotham, I was cautiously optimistic. The cast, centered around Ben McKenzie as James Gordon, was a competent one comprised of veteran actors and promising newcomers. Director Danny Cannon’s pilot, scripted by showrunner Bruno Heller, was dark and atmospheric, a fitting tone for the noir crime story set in the underbelly of the title city. Season 1 got off to a promising start, but it didn’t take long for it to start going downhill. What had been my most anticipated new show of the fall quickly became a dreaded weekly experience.
Then Fox revealed that Season 2 would be focusing on the “Rise of the Villains,” promising viewers a Gotham overrun by crazies, with Gordon at the center of a dysfunctional police department trying to maintain a semblance of order in the city. This, plus the introduction of James Frain as the new big bad Theo Galavan, piqued my interest. Perhaps the show found its footing in the time between seasons and would come back with a stronger identity and more polished storytelling. Then I got a chance to check out the Season 2 premiere “Damned If You Do” and the second episode of the season, “Knock, Knock.” The most amazing thing about Season 2 is how it manages to start off worse than the way Season 1 ended.
Let’s revisit where we left off at the end of Season 1: Penguin defeated both Maroni and Fish Mooney in order to claim the title of King of Gotham, Bruce and Alfred discovered a hidden passageway that led to a mysterious hideout behind the fireplace, and Gordon’s ex-girlfriend Barbara Kean ended up being a parent-murdering psycho who booked a ticket to Arkham. Gordon and Bullock were actually pretty terrible detectives; lots of innocent civilians lost their lives while these two were on the case, and most criminals were apprehended thanks to sudden bursts of unearned inspiration from Gordon. Despite their poor performance, it was actually a corrupt commissioner and police politics that have Gordon as a traffic cop and Bullock off the force completely to start Season 2.
We return to Gotham roughly one month after the Season 1 finale: Bruce is attempting to break into his father’s secret bunker that’s protected by a locked door and a keypad, Barbara is getting cozy with the inmates in Arkham, Penguin is restructuring his criminal enterprise with the help of the hitman Zsasz, Bullock is tending bar, and Gordon is enjoying the sweet life with Dr. Leslie Thompkins … despite being relegated to traffic duty. It doesn’t take long for things to get zany. Season 2 has fully committed to being over the top and ridiculous, which could have worked if handled correctly. Instead, what we get is a strange mixture of campiness worthy of the 1960s Batman series mixed with the brutal violence of The Following. It’s too dark and violent to (responsibly) watch with the kids, but far too silly to get invested in.
For example, when Bruce finds a locked door impervious to his random and frustrated attempts to “hack” the code — using the highly analytical tactic of button-mashing — Alfred sagely advises that perhaps he’s too young to see what’s behind the door; perhaps he’s just not ready. What could have been a season-long tease that would reward viewers’ patience once Bruce matured a bit ended quickly with Bruce suggesting they blow the door up with a fertilizer bomb and Alfred saying, essentially, “Yeah, that’s a great idea and here’s how you do it!” Alfred soon gets another chance to prevent Bruce from growing up too quickly — by acting in as immature a way as humanly possible.
Maybe things are better with Gordon and the GCPD; after all, they’re responsible, level-headed adults, right? Well before we even get to Gordon, we’re introduced to Theo Galavan in a brief scene that sees him forcing a henchman to drink a flask of electric-blue liquid. Totally normal. That henchman — calling himself Zaardon the Soul Reaper — stirs up trouble in the streets for a few seconds before Gordon takes him down. Let’s just say that the first few minutes of the premiere give you an idea of the tone of at least the season’s first two episodes, so if you’re not hooked, do yourself a favor and get out.
Things quickly take a dark turn for Gordon, which actually adds some depth and interest to his character. And while his conflicts aren’t resolved within the first two episodes, he’s soon overshadowed by the insanity of new villains: the ultra-rich Theo Galavan and his enforcer sister Tabitha. Without giving too much away, their plan is to recruit a team of criminals to wreak havoc on Gotham. And wreak havoc they do, in some of the most obnoxious, ridiculous, and violent ways you can think of (and that’s just by episode two).
Gotham may shy away from actually using a lot of the mythology and characters from Batman’s long history, but they sure do love going for comic book levels of craziness. That would be all well and good if it wasn’t for the serious noir tone established in the first part of the first season. Season 2 has also apparently done away with the procedural aspect of the show, betting instead on a season-long arc that pits Gordon and his allies against the rising villains, few of which come close to resembling anything from Batman comics. Actually, the best part of this show distancing itself from Batman lore is that the average viewer might never even realize that Gotham is supposed to take place in the same universe.
A more obvious strength of the show is the cast itself. Those who are returning to their roles already have a sense of their characters and are now attempting to add some depth to them. Gordon’s tough decisions for the greater good, Donal Logue and Bullock’s new-found solace in sobriety and a loving relationship, and, my personal favorite, Cory Michael Smith’s dual-nature duel between his own Edward Nygma character and his mirror self, The Riddler. Cameron Monaghan returns as Jerome Valeska, a.k.a. The Joker, and goes full-tilt into his character, which you have to at least respect. Even Erin Richards gets to go off the rails as Barbara Kean falls in with the psychos in Arkham. The bad side of this is that just when some characters are finally getting interesting, they’re killed off, along with any plot elements they had been anchoring. The cast is composed of capable and competent actors; it’s the writing for their characters and plot that makes me feel sorry for them.
Gotham is too silly to take seriously, but its mean-spirited nature makes it difficult for viewers to enjoy that silliness. What we’re left with is a pale imitation of the darkness and depth that makes Batman’s mythology such a rich world to explore. If you feel the need to continue the painful weekly experience that Season 1 provided, proceed at your own peril; to do so is to buy a one-way ticket to Arkham Asylum.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated