What’s bad for the city of Gotham is good for the viewers of Gotham, as bullied nerds, budding bad girls, and psycho killers who promise to develop into the supervillains of DC’s Batman franchise loom into ascendancy. The villains have always provided most of the pathos in this Batman prequel: The show’s ostensible main character, future police commissioner Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as a youngish and stubbornly honest cop, feels like a minor presence in his own story, while charismatic criminals like Penguin-in-the-making Oswald Copperpot (Robin Lord Taylor) and his former boss turned nemesis Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) dream, scheme, and commit outrageous acts.
The villains are vivid illustrations of Jean Renoir’s observation that “The real hell of life is everyone has his reasons.” Watching Oswald, a cheekily passive-aggressive geek with a suffocating and delusional mother (Carol Kane), dig his way out of trap after trap in season one to triumph over his tormentors and become the unlikely new king of underground Gotham, it was impossible not to root, at least a little, for this resourceful, sardonic outsider. But while he may have made it to the top, nobody stays there long in this urban dystopia. His main competitor this season is Theo Galavan (James Frain), a smoothly psychotic businessman who’s assembling a supervillain franchise, bringing together the worst and the brightest of the city’s young criminals to make his power grab.
The good guys, including the city’s always ineffectual authority figures, are far less interesting. The evolution of poor little rich boy Bruce Wayne (a somewhat wooden David Mazouz) into Batman has been the least engaging part of the series so far; he’s had little to do but fret about who killed his parents and why, or pine for Catwoman-to-be Selina (Camren Bicondova). Still, Bruce appears to be coming into his own this season, gaining access to his father’s secret files and taking the lead in his relationship with Alfred (Sean Pertwee).
In this gorgeously grim noir of muted greens, blues, and blacks, every lamp and overhead light appears to be stuck at the low end of a dimmer switch, creating a sense of a city weighed down by dark forces. It seems pretty clear that all the official structures that are supposed to keep chaos at bay have failed or are on life support, but this is no David Simon-style study of institutional ineptitude. This world is based on a comic book, which is to say that its problems are all either caused or solved by exceptional individuals. Not surprisingly, the compositions usually focus on individual faces, and though they’re often half-pooled in shadow, the softly lit visages of the main characters always stand out clearly against the velvety-dark backgrounds, the camera frequently pushing in for revealing close-ups. Operatic sequences give the action an inexorable sense of inevitability, like the leisurely montage at the start of the season’s second episode that lingers for a moment on Gordon and his girlfriend, Lee (Morena Baccarin), then shows a series of the ascendant villains sauntering through their morning routines as Lou Reed plaintively croons “Perfect Day,” the song’s sense of pervasive menace echoing the show’s steadily growing feeling of unease.
True, Gotham has more than its share of monologuing villains and expository or portentous lines (Lee to Gordon: “You wanna be a cop so bad you’ll break the law?”), but it undercuts those conventions often enough to make them feel like a conscious homage, not just clunky writing. The joke may be on one of the characters, like when a tormented Gordon abruptly turns to leave, ashamed of himself after cutting a deal with Oswald, and Oswald says to Selina: “He is so brusque, isn’t he?” Often, the target is hoary comic-book tropes. In one scene, Theo schools his supervillains-in-training on how to terrorize a crowd, listening critically as they take turns delivering a threatening greeting with varying degrees of success. Even Gordon sometimes finds humor in the ludicrous situations he finds himself in, like when he arrests a laughable loser who thinks he’s a supervillain and asks, as he books the poor guy: “Zar-don. That spelled how it sounds?” Those streaks of lightness are one of the most endearing qualities of this moody series, a faithful yet imaginative comic-book adaptation with the good sense not to take itself too seriously.