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Batman prequel series Gotham finds a new groove by ditching Batman for campy villains

Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), official villainess.
Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), official villainess.
Fox

Heading into its second season, Gotham is desperately struggling to remind people why they might have been excited about a Batman prequel series, back before the show muddled up its mission. After premiering to over 8 million viewers, Gotham's first season finale ended up just under 5 million — and that was an improvement over the rest of the season. (The second season premiere drew just 4.49 million viewers.)

For a show that features a preteen Batman and a steady rotation of cartoonish villains (including one whose murders involved balloons), Gotham somehow managed to take itself far too seriously.

Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue, actors who have proved capable of navigating both drama and comedy equally well, seemed lost. The tone was all over the place, and no one knew where to find it — except for Jada Pinkett Smith. Her arch villain Fish Mooney was over the top in everything from her flashy wardrobe to her drawled proclamations of ee-vil. She was, in other words, a hell of a lot of fun in a show that desperately needed something worth tuning in for.

While Pinkett Smith has since left the show, her influence can be seen all over the second season of Gotham. The show knows it has plenty of work to do before it can win an audience back, so it's decided to lean into the camp instead of glowering gloomily at it.

Jumping in at the beginning of Gotham's second season is encouraged — and it works.

Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) checks out the man in the mirror.

Fox

Since Gotham's second season is essentially a Hail Mary designed to re-interest anyone who was once interested in the show but eventually tuned out (like me), I checked out the first two episodes. Season two's premiere (which aired Monday, September 21) alone did more to grab me than the pilot ever did. But this is still a Franken-show, stitching together disparate elements to create something more interesting than what it started with.

In order to catch the casually curious up to speed on what happened last season, Gotham opens the second season by starting over with a new status quo. Bruce Wayne and Alfred explore Wayne Manor in search of family secrets. Jim Gordon, McKenzie's conflicted cop who anchored the series, is fired by his insecure commissioner (Peter Scolari).

With his ex-girlfriend Barbara (Erin Richards) locked up in Arkham Asylum, Gordon is especially growly this year, but he is also angry. Indeed, the premiere leads him to a deal with the devil (i.e. The Penguin). As he scrambles to get back into Gotham's police force, even doing some of the Penguin's dirty deeds for him, Gordon eventually, yet suddenly, kills a man.

Gotham isn't trying to be subtle, here. Gordon is a conflicted man who drinks contemplative whiskey and wonders whether he's any better than the people he's hunting down. But "we're not so different, you and I" is a common trope for a reason, and it gives Gotham's version of Gordon some badly needed extra dimensions. It also sets him up as a do-gooder who might not necessarily even be doing good. His desperation to be back on the force is as much affirming that he considers himself to be integral to Gotham's safety as it is a sign that he has no idea how to be a civilian.

This could turn into yet another boring hero complex, or it could make Gordon a much more interesting character to spend time with. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's bleaker spinoff Angel managed this trick by balancing cases of the week against Angel's literally eternal struggle with renewed passion and wit. It was compelling enough to invest people in his story apart from Buffy's when the character had previously shown no signs of being able to shoulder his own show. If Gotham keeps Gordon from being a self-flagellating bore (and young Bruce Wayne from retreading ground we've seen a thousand times before), it could find a new groove with this development.

But the better show awkwardly stitched into this revamped Gotham is still the one that centers on the city's outsized villains.

Arkham Asylum has always had the highest — and most deranged — villain output.

Jerome (Cameron Monaghan) kills time in Arkham Asylum

Fox

Batman's world has always boasted stellar villains. While there are always some loose attempts to give the evil faction some reason for being that way, the nefarious denizens of Gotham City are mostly just thrilled by destruction. They feed off chaos, grin at tortured screams, and relish the chance to send people into a full-body panic. Their villainy is terrifying because, ultimately, it's totally random.

After focusing more on villains of the week last season, Gotham is now veering into a more serialized story about a specific band of explosive misfits. Gordon's ex Barbara Kean has come out of her first season brainwashing and brushes with some of the city's most notorious criminals with a new focus: destroying lives. Namely, Gordon's.

She quickly bonds with other inmates like proto-Joker Jerome (ShamelessCameron Monaghan), all while lounging in a pretty fabulous black and white striped prison dress. If it sounds ridiculous, that's because it absolutely is. But it also sets Gotham apart in a weird TV world of its own. In tone, it most almost echoes the gleeful, acidic pop of Batman: The Animated Series. That cartoon's excellent attention to the villains made it sing. Gotham would be smart to follow in its footsteps with more scenes like a bunch of bored villains acting out a hangout comedy in prison.

But the first couple episodes belong, heart and soul, to Monaghan and the always welcome James Frain.

Monaghan's disturbing turn as a psychopathic teen is impressive, given how thoroughly Heath Ledger's spectacular Joker has become the barometer for success in that role. But Monaghan gamely stretches his features to cartoonish proportions, embracing Jerome's penchant for showmanship like he's part of a particularly demented circus. While he has not officially become the Joker yet, Jerome's escalating cackle suggests that he is well on his way to donning some wild face paint.

Theo "Smirksalot" Galavan (James Frain)

Fox

Adding Frain as the group's ringleader, however, is a truly inspired move. Oily villains are a speciality of the actor. As evidenced on recent shows like Grimm and Orphan Black, he has a knack for delivering otherwise corny dialogue with just enough menace to make you fear him. Whether Frain is sneering, snarling, or smirking, one thing is for sure: Everyone better stay the hell out of his way.

As the mysterious backer of Arkham Asylum's inmates, Frain's character Theo Galavan organizes mass panic less like it's his second nature than it is his first instinct. If the season follows through on hints that Theo may mentor Jerome in the art of terror, it could have something darkly special on its hands.

The most effective cure for a show that's not working is to admit it.

Gotham didn't necessarily have to adjust. It's unlikely that it will ever regain its original audience, especially when there are so many other options staring viewers in the face. But shows stand a better chance in an overcrowded television landscape when they can admit they're not working, and embark in a new direction.

Parks and Recreation only became a critical favorite once it completely changed its tone from the wildly uneven first season. When Courteney Cox's late sitcom Cougar Town realized "Courteney Cox is a cougar" wasn't a sustainable premise, it threw it away and fought against that reputation to run six seasons. AMC's Halt and Catch Fire adjusted its focus, gaining the trust of critics even it still struggled to gain viewers. Even Buffy and Angel found new life every season by refocusing on a new "Big Bad" that defined the season with their particular brands of evil.

Gotham still isn't quite where it could be, given the talent and rich mythology involved. There are still moments that hammer away at an obvious premise, still twists that can be seen from a rooftop away. But Gotham's willingness to shift focus, tell a larger story, and most importantly, get unabashedly silly, makes a solid case for tuning back in. There are enough "prestige" dramas jockeying for attention amongst themselves. Why not sidestep that melée and veer into something more ridiculous that Gotham can at least call its own?

Corrected to reflect that Cameron Monaghan plays Jerome, and not his Shameless character, Ian Gallagher.