“Gotham” begins its second season 15 years in the future, with Batman swooping down to beat the stuffing out of a couple of thugs. Kidding! Of course, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is still just a kid, albeit one who appears to be growing up quite rapidly, meaning the series continues to engage in a not-so-delicate dance to advance its mythological ties to the DC Comics universe while maintaining its pulpy tone. To their credit, the producers have found inventive if sometimes crazily violent ways to pluck those strings, while creating an arc to this season tellingly subtitled “Rise of the Villains.”
Once again, the criminals appear to be having all the fun, and a new one arrives to preside over the festivities: Theo Galavan, a shadowy character played by the always-reliable James Frain, whose direct connection to Batman lore remains a mystery. Without giving too much away, Galavan stages a breakout from Arkham Asylum, unleashing a group of psychopaths that includes Jerome (Cameron Monaghan), whose manic behavior certainly has Joker-like overtones. (The producers have been coy about the connection between the two.)
Meanwhile, Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) keeps fighting the good fight – and getting the bejesus kicked out of him in the process – on a police force surrounded by venality and corruption. That will force both him and Bruce Wayne to engage in overt moral choices in the this season’s first three installments, weighing whether they can serve the larger good by doing bad things or allying themselves with nasty people.
Given that “Gotham” has created an organic, broodingly atmospheric world that can only be peripherally connected to its highest-profile character, producers Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon (who wrote and directed the premiere, respectively) have overcome a formidable challenge. For starters, the collective brain trust did a terrific job casting the show, including the key roles of Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) and Edward Nygma ((Cory Michael Smith), a.k.a. the Riddler.
Moreover, they have shrewdly introduced new characters, and happily shed Jada Pinkett Smith’s over-the-top crime boss. Not only is Frain a strong new addition to the ensemble, but he follows Morena Baccarin, who came aboard as a love interest for Gordon during season one. The episodes also build in strength, with the third — showcasing, among other things, the bond between Bruce and his loyal butler Alfred (Sean Pertwee) — the best of the bunch.
That said, the arm’s-distance relationship between the series and the Dark Knight that Bruce will eventually become is occasionally frustrating, and the sometimes-cavalier nature of the violence (which includes tossing folks off a building and menacing a bus full of cheerleaders in the second hour, and a knife plunged through the eye in the third) might not be gratuitous but certainly values human life awfully cheap.
Granted, Galavan warns that “Monsters are coming,” and “Gotham” does its best to illustrate the depths of that villainy, creating the environmental conditions that eventually lead to the development of a costumed vigilante. “You can’t have both happiness and the truth,” Bruce is told in the second episode, a line that nicely foreshadows the darkness, and loneliness, of his inevitable path.
Thus far, “Gotham” has nimbly operated within the space allotted it, and found a solid audience – one that goes beyond just comic-book aficionados, which, before the show landed, was a legitimate source of concern – within those parameters. (Speaking of comics, DC aficionados had better get a DVR before late October, when CBS’ “Supergirl” lands in the same time slot.)
As noted, the timeline allows the producers plenty of room to operate before young Master Bruce can shave, much less don a cape and cowl; nevertheless, managing those elements without ever hearing the word “Batman” still looks like the sort of death-defying balancing act worthy of a future boy sidekick.