The second season of Fox’s Gotham-Before-Batman franchise comes with a subtitle, much in the same way NBC’s superhero serial Heroes (which reboots later this week) branded each “volume” of story. “Rise of the Villains” is what we’re calling this swath of saga. Which is redundant. Season 1’s most compelling story line tracked Oswald Cobblepot’s upward, Penguin-ish waddle from sadistic, cracked street thug to sadistic, very cracked underworld boss. It was like watching a tiny, slimy four-limbed fish crawl out of the sea and grow into a larger, slimier four-limbed fish by murdering other fish, including a character named, regrettably, Fish. We were pepper-sprayed with other fiends from the caped crusader’s gallery of rogues, too. Edward Nygma has been slow-burning his way toward The Riddler from the start. A cackling cipher that seems to be trending toward Jokerdom dropped in to plant his freakish flag. A remarkably coiffed street urchin nicknamed Cat prowled rooftops and shadows. Rise of the villains? When hasn’t the show been about that?
So season 2 give us bad guys up the wazoo. I wish I could tell you Gotham is giving us commentary on our new century romance with the anti-heroes, evildoers, and fallen humanity all its forms. Maybe it thinks it is. The premiere begins with a wink: A shadowy fiend transforms a dimwit desperate for significance into a campy yet lethal costumed do-badder with gasbag tendencies (in more ways than one). He’s a killing joke – the phrase should mean something to fanboys – and a Trojan horse: His stealth function is to free six inmates from Arkham Asylum, including the aforementioned proto-Joker Joker. (We’re calling him Jerome for now.) Their sinister showrunner, Theo Galavan (James Frain), wishes to groom some or all of this insane clown posse into fully realized outlaws and setting them loose upon poopy ol’ Gotham. “Monsters are coming,” he says in the second episode. “They are coming to cleanse this city with blood and fire.” (His patter is reminiscent of Liam Neeson’s character in Batman Begins, the leader of the League of Shadows, an ancient order that exists to purge great societies gone to seed.)
One of the dramatic problems with “Rise of the Villain” – and another misnomer about the title – is that the villains have already risen. Nothing is beyond Cobblepot, who in episode 1 effortlessly infiltrates the home of the police commissioner and bullies him into serving his nefarious will. In episode 2, Galavan does the same damn thing: He effortlessly infiltrates the home of the mayor and bullies him into serving his nefarious will. These are some ridiculously efficient, high-functioning nutcases! The bad guys suffer only a single foiled plan in the first two episodes, and there, it’s due mostly to a conveniently busted lighter. Does Gotham intend on dealing them some legitimate setbacks in the episodes to come? If so, the writers are going to have work hard to make us believe it.
But then, Gotham has never been credible, even on its own idiosyncratic terms. Its visual aesthetic, a blend of neo noir, German expressionism, and crime flick grit, never gelled into anything authentic in season 1. Now that the show has doubled down on it most outrageous elements, Gotham seems content to wallow in artifice. The villains are all flamboyantly theatrical in their various expressions of deranged malevolence, and terribly derivative, too. As the baby-faced, pre-cosmeticized “Joker,” Cameron Monaghan seems to being trying to synthesize Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Heath Ledger’s Joker; the result is blandly effective yet fails to yield anything unique. Ditto Frain, who is echoing himself as Galavan: This fine actor has played so many villains over the years (the mad man he assayed on the short-lived series The Cape would fit in nicely on Gotham), and especially of late (True Detective, Orphan Black), that his Galavan feels like a copy of a copy of a copy of everything he’s done before. Still, Frain is good enough to make me curious about master plan. My geeky theory? Galavan is swamping Gotham with terrors to inspire a rise of heroism – an inverse of the notion that Batman precipitates the very villains he lives to fight. Regardless: I worry the super-saturation of sinister presence will diminish the performance by Robin Lord Taylor, who managed to create some separation and distinction from Penguins past. With so many top-of-the-world villains blazing White Heat bonkers, there’s nothing special about Cobblepot or Taylor’s work anymore.
The wicked women of Gotham are equally derivative and flawed, if not more so. Galavan has a sidekick assassin sister, Tabitha (Jessica Lucas), another iteration of that geek genre cliché, the Psycho Girl Friday, and a dull one at that. (The Internet tells me that Tabitha is supposed the show’s gloss on the whip-cracking super-villainess known as Tigris. I’m wondering if she’s destined to play mentor to Gotham’s proto-Catwoman, played by Camren Bicondova.) Galavan’s band of maniacs — “Maniax!” per Jerome’s giggly grammar – also includes the show’s most damaged character, Barbara Keane (Erin Richards). Season 1 put her through a weird ringer that left her, to my eyes, an incoherent mess. She existed largely to give Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), her former lover, emotions to feel or someone to save. This season, she seems to exist to manipulate Gordon to actions or locations that are convenient to the plot. My guess is that she’ll eventually betray the Maniax – I betcha 10 Joker Bucks Barbara will be the one who scars Jerome’s face – before departing for the big Bat Cave in the sky. But I’m only theorizing redemptive death scenarios because I think she’s worthless as a character. I keep waiting for Richards to do something to salvage Barbara. She can’t. Watching her play crazy is … well, fitting. But it’s unconvincing. And sad, too.
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With so much hammy and hollow hideousness running wild, Gotham needs its heroes to provide some grounding and winsome humanity. But the fixation with villainy – with anti-heroic postures – extends to them, as well. Gordon’s righteous desire to restore law and order in Gotham grows zealous and reckless, scuffing him with moral failure and leaving vulnerable to manipulation by more immoral players. The shading tempers McKenzie, whose performance last season often came off too earnest. But setting up the story line requires Gotham to sideline one of its best assets, Harvey Bullock, Gordon’s shaggy, cynical partner, played by great-in-everything Donal Logue. We’re asked to believe that Bullock has walked away from the job for good. Does Gotham think that none of us have watched TV before? So we start counting the minutes until Gotham manufactures the scenario that’ll bring him back. McKenzie also has chemistry with Morena Baccarin, now full-time and playing Gotham’s medical examiner. Mostly, though, Baccarin plays the supportive girlfriend in all its poor poses. Every time the former Homeland Emmy nominee is onscreen, I wonder if she’s thinking: I deserve better than this, I deserve better than this …
Meanwhile, Master Bruce (David Mazouz) continues his tragic slouch toward Bat-hood. So far, this rise has been as compelling as a time lapse of a swelling pimple. He’s found a secret room, located in the foundation below the mansion. How cute! A baby Batcave for Baby Batman! But almost immediately upon blowing open the door, Gotham concocts a reason to keep this mysterious basement a lingering mystery. (It’s The Hatch from Lost all over again.)
More tediousness ensues when Bruce fires his chief father figure, Alfred (the very good Sean Pertwee, who carries getting-better Mazouz in every scene). Again, start the clock for that reversal. (Don’t feel spoiled. Feel insulted that Gotham plies us with these bogus plays.) My guess is that shows do this kind of stuff to re-establish relationships and premise – orientation for new viewers, refresher for the old. But there has to be better, more creative ways to accomplish this housekeeping than with empty, cliché scenarios. The work of decoding Bruce’s crypto-closet would seem to put Bruce a more direct, intriguing path to Batman, and it dials up Lucien Fox, well played by Chris Chalk. Might it also portend a dial-down of Bruce’s Baby Batman pals, including teenage Selina “Cat” Kyle? I hope so: She and her kind are the least credible part of this buggy enterprise.
I really do wish I liked Gotham more than I do. I’m a fan of the genre and I gravitate toward more the real-world superheroes than the fantastical, super-powered ones. But the flawed drama, the tired perspective and the derivative nature of Gotham do nothing but provide proofs to those who argue that pop culture needs to curb its enthusiasm for superhero stories and anti-hero wallowing. Episode 2 ends with Jerome ranting: “Hang onto your hats, folks, because ain’t seen nothing yet!” Yes, we have. Many times. And better.