‘Gotham: Season 2’ Is a Muddled, Middling, and Messy Fare

Gotham steeps itself in Batman lore without ever becoming too faithful, its piety only extending far enough to communicate its loose ties to the source material.

Hot on the blood-caked heels of its first season, Fox’s Gotham returns with renewed zeal, this time delving into darker, more mature territory with that same reckless abandon that now characterizes this middling series. There’s no coherence or cohesion here, making the show unnecessarily difficult to follow at times and downright frustrating at others.

Perhaps it’s hindered by the constraints of network television, perhaps it’s bogged down by weak writing, but one thing is certain: Gotham doesn’t boast the quality we’ve come to expect from DC’s televised efforts. It lacks focus, clarity, and any real sense of fun, becoming something of a chore to watch as it slogs through hours of meandering. Although this second season is bolstered by an exciting conclusion that successfully caps its various arcs, this is not the Gotham we grew up with. It’s certainly not the Gotham that we’re particularly fond of, either.

Gotham steeps itself in Batman lore without ever becoming too faithful, its piety only extending far enough to communicate its loose ties to the source material. Liberties are carelessly taken and mistakes are sloppily concealed, resulting in a program that’s as canonically irreverent as it is clumsily conceived. The abandonment of the source material wouldn’t be as destructive or distracting if it was done with any kind of intention or invention. Instead, the show feels like a shot in the dark, a blind, blundering attempt at circumventing disaster that amounts to nothing more than soulless shlock.

Halfway through this 22-episode season, it seems to assemble itself into something that resembles a competently-structured narrative, only to crumble under the weight of its own unchecked ambition. The show wants to do so much, but it skips a critical, foundational step that would have allowed it the agency to become a solid addition to DC’s pantheon of television series.

At a certain point, the show seems to lose itself in its own darkness, gleefully indulging in matters both morbid and macabre while simultaneously abandoning qualities that initially made it engaging and endearing. It revels in its own perversion and becomes something of a monster as it plods along at a painfully sluggish pace.

Characters like Edward Nygma (Corey Michael Smith) and Theo Galavan (James Frain) kill with a brutality that’s as upsetting as it is unsettling, while David Mazouz’s Bruce Wayne and Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon display bloodthirstiness that doesn’t become them. The latter two have darkness in them, but they’re not evil characters. It’s true that the citizens of Gotham have always been conniving beasts with penchants for unlawful, often violent behavior, but the lengths to which the show goes to depict its violence are unnecessary.

Gone is Gordon’s unwavering commitment to good, a hallmark of his character. Gone is Penguin’s ruthlessness, a quality that made him frightening and compelling. Something important, something human, is lost here, even if it’s lost under the guise of attempting to be more vulnerable and relatable. The series excels at dressing up bombast as meaningful dialogue that carries heft; in fact, it has become very good at disguising itself as something insightful and inclusive when, in actuality, it’s neither.

Inevitably, Gotham places itself in a purgatory of its own making, becoming too “new” for hardcore Bat-fans and too muddled for casual viewers. Fans of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight or even of Zack Snyder’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice will find little of interest here, which is surprising, considering the aims of each interpretation bear a close resemblance to each other. Neither of the aforementioned interpretations are particularly faithful to the source material (looking at you, Batfleck), but they at least acknowledge and respect where they come from and ensure that the characters retain what makes them so iconic and unique. It’s why they succeeded. It’s also why they continue to endure and endear.

Like Nolan and Snyder’s respective takes on Batman lore, Gotham strives to stand out. Unlike those universes, though, the show tries so hard to create its own mythos that it neglects the roots from which it sprouted. For a piece of art that strives to be “fresh”, it all feels worn, played out. We’ve never seen these characters do and experience these things in this way before, but the show somehow manages to evoke an overwhelming sense of familiarity despite its seemingly unexplored angle.

It’s not a welcome familiarity, either. As self-referential as this statement is, it’s caught in that aforementioned purgatory, that dreaded space where it’s both refreshingly new and undeniably derivative and yet isn’t either. It has not an inkling of what it is, and that’s a problem. A big problem.

Thankfully, there are positives here. While the first two-thirds of this second season fail to engage and enthrall, the last handful of episodes manage to deliver a compelling conclusion that spells good news for the impending third go. Numerous plot threads are revamped and revisited, breathing new life into “dead” arcs (especially the Azrael storyline) and imbuing the goings-on with real urgency, real stakes that weren’t present before. This heightened tension propels the season through its final few hours with gusto and showcases improved writing, plotting, and planning on the showrunners’ parts. It’s just a shame it took nearly two full seasons for it to pick up its own slack.

The extras included in the second season’s Blu-Ray release pack enough value to warrant at least some investigation, but even so, they are comparatively lackluster. However, there are fortunately a number of features of substance. One of these, titled “Alfred: Batman’s Greatest Ally”, explores Gotham’s best butler and how Sean Pertwee’s Alfred fits into the story the show is attempting to tell. Series creator Bruno Heller and his writers and producers discuss Alfred’s importance to Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman, dropping tidbits and insights from the writing process that add a new dimension to this one-dimensional show. Other extras of potential interest include a taping of the Gotham panel at San Diego Comic-Con, a thrilling bit on Mr. Freeze, and an interesting look at Michael Chiklis’s Captain Barnes.

If the final episodes of Gotham: Season 2 are any indication of the show’s quality, then we’re in for a treat. If they aren’t, prepare for more of the same.

RATING 3 / 10