GOTHAM works best if you think of it as just another part of DC Comics’ vast Multiverse. The Batman narrative has been interpreted numerous times on TV and film, and with no less than five live-action Bruce Waynes in the last 27 years, the story has become part of modern myth. So GOTHAM always presented something of a hurdle to audiences, being set in a Gotham City filled with some familiar characters, but at a time before the introduction of the Bat vigilante. Even the most casual viewer would be looking for signs of that future icon, and the comparison is invariably a negative one. So in order to get the most out of this “prequel” series, it’s best not to consider it as a prequel at all, but rather embrace it for what it is: a very strange cop drama set in an even stranger town. Which is exactly where the series heads in its second year, even if it is still a little stuck between the panels.
The second season of GOTHAM is divided into two distinct parts. The first and highly publicised section is the ‘Rise of the Villains’, playing on the idea that this period is about giving birth to many of the familiar rogues of Gotham City, orchestrated in this case by Theo Galavan (James Frain), initially acting as a white knight (and eventually mayor) of Gotham. The second half, ‘The Wrath of the Villains’, sees cop Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) on the outs with the police department as the mysterious Hugo Strange (B.D. Wong) conducts bizarre experiments underneath his Arkham Asylum.
The ‘Rise of the Villains’ section is somewhat mired in the tension between the established and the original elements. Take for example the storyline around Bruce’s cave discovery, a first season cliffhanger that leads to the year’s first disappointment. It’s another road that doesn’t so much lead nowhere as take us down further side-streets. Similarly, the much-hyped storyline of the maniacally laughing villain Jerome (Cameron Monaghan) is all but holding up a neon sign and asking to expect a Joker origin story. Whether it was fan outrage or another cul-de-sac, it’s another tease before letting the audience off the hook. This kind of obfuscation is to be expected for GOTHAM, but it starts to be tedious when the ‘winking at the camera’ bluff was already done in the first season with Scarecrow.
Having said that, there are times in the first half of the season that you almost expect Batman to drop out of the rafters, so authentically is Gotham rendered. The narrative of Theo Galavan as the too-good-to-be-true mayor is classic Gotham City, and handily sets up the back half of the season. The ‘Wrath’ side of things is far more successful. Mr. Freeze (Nathan Darrow) appears in a universe-perfect introduction of an iconic villain. This is where GOTHAM shows us his true colours, with Freeze a mere entrée to the wider Hugo Strange/Indian Hill conspiracy. This is more in line with what the show originally promised, showing the growth of Gotham’s crazy side, sidestepping the ‘Batman equals escalation’ argument altogether.
Which brings us back to the problematic nature of treating GOTHAM as a prequel. If viewed purely in this function, there would be no drama for the perpetually endangered Gordon, who seemingly loses a job we know he is destined for every other episode. Young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) and even Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) are in a similar boat, merely playing their parts until the curtain drops. This isn’t so much of an issue with the strength of the delightfully over-the-top Taylor, who devours every scene that he is, for his arc also intersects with the birth of the equally important and scene-chewing Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith). Both convey a sense of pathos with their madness, and it would almost be a more interesting series if it concentrated purely on these two bad guys. Mazouz’s Wayne is either too cold or earnest to the point of embarrassing, somehow evaporating any sense of sympathy for kid who just lost his parents. It’s almost a shame that GOTHAM feels the need to follow Wayne at all, unwilling or unable to bravely make a Batman series without even a fledgling Wayne. McKenzie’s straight-arrow performance as Gordon, on the other hand, gives us very little to root for, leaving arguably the biggest character hole in the centre of the production. The real heroes turn out to be Donal Logue’s Harvey Bullock and the rough-as-guts Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee), delivering not only pounds of charisma, but much-needed levity to this often serious series. Michael Chiklis adds his weight to this season as well, ensuring that everyone around Gordon is far more interesting than the future Commissioner.
Maintaining a decent modicum of mystery amidst beautiful photography and some fun episodes scattered throughout, GOTHAM made up for a lot of lost faith after the first season. Despite a disappointingly flat season finale in “Transference,” indicative of the tonal imbalance throughout the season, it drops some fairly major teasers about a shadow council (the Court of Owls?) and a mysterious new player with a familiar face, and the show has set itself up for a third year that could literally go anywhere. Taking the attitude that this is something new, and not simply a precursor, allows us the joy of now seeing what happens with these characters going into Season 3, and genuinely not knowing where it will go. The show is still undoubtedly hamstrung by its own legacy, and shares some of the same shackles that Marvel’s Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D. does with its cinematic counterparts. Yet if it shows the same healthy respect for the Multiverse that The Flash has done this year, then GOTHAM has a chance at being a stylish counterpoint to the big-screen adventures.
2015-16 | US | Executive Producers: Danny Cannon, Bruno Heller, John Stephens, Ben Edlund | Cast: Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue, David Mazouz, Robin Lord Taylor, Erin Richards, Zabryna Guevara, Sean Pertwee, Camren Bicondova, Cory Michael Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Victoria Cartagena, Andrew Stewart-Jones, John Doman, Morena Baccarin, James Frain, Jessica Lucas, Chris Chalk, Drew Powell, Nicholas D’Agosto, Michael Chiklis | Distributor: Fox (US) | Episodes: 22 | Rating:★★★½ (7/10)