Ratings for “Gotham” have fallen pretty sharply this season, which reinforces an initial sense that the concept – however handsome and atmospheric in its execution – wasn’t necessarily built to last. Nevertheless, the Fox series has capped a pretty bracing run through the first half of its second year, culminating in a showdown that, in one of the program’s central themes, further tested the integrity of its straight-arrow hero, Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie).
Showrunner Bruno Heller shrewdly created one over-arching plot, “Rise of the Villains,” to provide greater cohesion to this opening salvo. At the same time, the show introduced a new threat, Theo Galavan (the excellent James Frain), to preside over the mayhem, pursuing an elaborate revenge plan (the details of which, frankly, aren’t all that interesting) targeting none other than young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz).
The kidnapping of Bruce in the previous hour paved the way for the midseason finale (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), which united Gordon and the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) – also motivated by vengeance, after Galavan killed his mother – as well as Bruce’s butler Alfred (Sean Pertwee), who has established himself as a resourceful battler when the situation calls for it.
Gordon’s willingness to bend the rules – much like a certain vigilante he’ll eventually encounter – has been gradually explored throughout this run. At the same time, he’s been forced to justify that whatever-it-takes mentality in the context of both his new relationship (Morena Baccarin) and tough but by-the-book boss (Michael Chiklis).
On the other side, the show has chronicled the slow descent into madness by Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), a.k.a. the future Riddler. (As a footnote, while there’s Batman history surrounding this storyline, why a good actor like Ron Rifkin was brought in just to walk around looking like a demented monk is anybody’s guess.)
All this has certainly been reasonably watchable, and the casting of Frain, Baccarin and Chiklis has been a boon; still, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the audience has dwindled. As noted at the outset, “Gotham” has always been hindered in part by the structural limitations imposed by being strictly Batman-adjacent real estate. Even its flirtation with a Joker-like character this season felt more like a delicious tease for hardcore fans than something that would resonate much beyond the comics-aisle crowd.
With the current arc at least partially resolved by Gordon’s decision to assist Penguin in putting Galavan down (temporarily, anyway), the show has an opportunity to shift gears – at the risk of sacrificing some narrative momentum – when it returns. Yet what feels increasingly true, with the benefit of hindsight, is that the series probably would have been better served by a limited, premium-style run – something akin to what the Marvel properties are doing on Netflix, as opposed to the broader appeal required, even in their diminished form, by network television.
Granted, Fox has given the producers plenty of license to be pulpy and at times crazily violent. But the darkness of the story might have fared better without having to try to construct a world that, in success, must bear the weight of following young Master Bruce Wayne through puberty and beyond.
Thanks to strong international sales and a lucrative Netflix deal, “Gotham” might actually be more of a boon to Warner Bros. Television – the DC Comics sibling that produces it – than Fox, especially if the ratings continue along their current path. (In a rather Marvel/ABC-like stunt, Warner Bros. sought to boost Monday’s episode by airing a tease for “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” during it.)
To be fair, “Gotham” is a better, more polished product than it had any right to be, especially since the Bruce Wayne material has felt as much like a liability as an asset. But even with comics’ greater mainstreaming as a cinematic source, it’s nevertheless a formidable challenge to build a gritty, adult-skewed series around the mythology associated with an iconic character that, a season and a half into this version, still doesn’t look old enough to shave.