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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Gotham: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray)
Gotham: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // August 16, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $54.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 10, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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The Season:

Comic-book aficionados will understand where this review of Gotham's second season will be headed, but for those who haven't delved into the Elseworlds brand of storytelling from Detective Comics, here's a quick primer. This section of DC's publications dedicates itself to bizarre spins on the characters that have almost zero regard for the "canon" universe, granting freedom to the writers so that they can explore "what if" scenarios. That includes what'd happen if Superman had landed and grown up in the Soviet Union, if Wonder Woman battled Jack the Ripper in an oppressive Victorian London, and if Batman had become a, uh, vampire. With Gotham's focus on the formidable years of Bruce Wayne, how the city's crime-fighters and villains started out, and how the young pre-Batman comes in contact with them, it's best to continue looking at this show -- especially its overstuffed, raucous second season -- as another unofficial "what if" extension of the mythology instead of an honest glimpse at the city's canonical foundation.

Granted, that's an impression one can easily reach by the end of the first season (reviewed at DVDTalk here, which should be viewed before progressing further in this review), which focused on the ascent of The Penguin as the unlikely, twitchy kingpin at the center of Gotham's organized crime rings. While Oswald "Penguin" Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) battled and maneuvered around the efforts of Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) throughout the rivalry between their respective bosses, new police detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) shouldered the responsibility -- along with his partner, Harvey Bullock (Dolan Logue) -- to solve the murder of Gotham billionaires Thomas and Martha Wayne, parents of Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), while also coping with the violence unleashed by the mob war. The second season extends from that level of chaos, finding Gordon and Bullock on the outs at the Gotham City Police Department as a new threat enters the city: Theo Galavan (James Frain), a wealthy mastermind with more insidious methods of attack planned for the city.

By the end of the second season premiere for Gotham, the writers make it quite clear that they're not just willing to deviate from the established characters and storytelling, but are relishing the opportunities to do so. Not only does the traditionally noble Gordon deliberately indebt himself to the mob in exchange for job security -- a questionable attempt to give him an "end justifies the means" edge -- but his future wife in the books, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), flies off the rails as a hair-twirling villain. On top of that, the seeds are planted way early on for Bruce Wayne's transformation into Batman, by way of his father urging him to do so from beyond the grave, and his relationship with Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), the future Catwoman, continues to develop into a "childhood love" kind of thing. Villains continue to evolve into the personalities they'll become once the Caped Crusader eventually reports for duty, and it produces a universe that's veering away and escalating rapidly in directions that'll have trouble resolving themselves into a recognizable Gotham City.

Since the show swings on that conceit, that we're watching the growth of this corrupt city and the trouble hero who'll eventually dedicate himself to saving it, the success of these deviations will largely depend on who's watching and what they want out of Gotham. Are they following along to see a chronicle of what led to Batman's present, or are they forgivingly watching it as a type of alternate reality emphasized in the Elseworlds comics? Maybe this question wouldn't need to be asked had the show more credibly handled its diversions: Gordon's wavering morality, Bruce Wayne's youthful inspiration, and Theo Galavan's swift, tricky ascent into a position of power in Gotham City stumble due to "superhero logic" style of storytelling. It doesn't help that the front-end of this season also liberally borrows from previous Batman stories while doing so, cobbling together ideas and visual cues from Batman Returns' political shenanigans and The Dark Knight's emphasis on a certain agent of chaos, cacklingly personified by Jerome Valeska here.

Gotham occasionally interrupts its gloomy, washed-out depiction of the crime-ridden city with skewed angles and lush, colorful bursts of vivid lights in the dens of the gangsters, an appropriate backdrop for the continuation of the show's tone, tempo, and focus upon its villains. The craftsmanship remains equally polished and bloated in execution as the first season, dishing out new references to the DC universe -- Azrael and the Order of St. Dumas, the emergence of Firefly, the prevalence of "The Court" -- while continuing to shape those that are already there into their recognizable personalities, from Edward Nygma's descent into madness whilst working at the GCPD to the toughness, solitude, and thievery of Selina Kyle. Oversaturation of recognizable elements tended to be a problem last season, and it furthers with the additions and developments throughout this one, progressing the world around Bruce Wayne in such a way that it seems like the pre-teen billionaire, now a sleuth himself, will hop in the suit any day now.

As the season goes along, Gotham evolves into a more dangerous, growingly lawless playground for the city's evil-doers, emphasizing the uncontrollable force of nature that organized -- and disorganized -- crime becomes in Bruce Wayne's stomping grounds. Spanning the streets of downtown to the haunting walls of Arkham Asylum and beyond, their tactics produce a consistent rush of gunfire, torture, and tension, stretching the boundaries of the show's rating with intense bursts of brutality: exploding bodies, skewered eyes, precise head-shots. There's plenty of action -- even a slow-motion machine gun sequence -- but the episodic nature of the show's two halves interrupts the momentum, resulting in brazen firepower that, oddly, doesn't pack a consistent punch. Again, part of that boils down to threadbare storytelling, relying on easy exploits and loopholes in Gotham's world-building to create an unpredictable and doomed warzone, but it also has to do with a little too much familiarity ... and yet another overly bonkers second half.

What of the heroes? They're there, almost futily working to clean up the town. Under the command of new police captain Nathaniel Barnes, played with militaristic gusto by Michael Chiklis, James Gordon encounters a lot of unique challenges this season that aggressively alter his standing within the police force, at times backpedaling on his rise up the ranks. Ben McKenzie continues to be a reliable dramatic fixture alongside Donal Logue as his wavering partner, Bullock, yet the earnest and more subtly involving threads spun around Gordon -- his love affair with Leslie Thompkins, his sympathy for heel-turned Barbara Keene, his investigative pursuits with Bruce Wayne -- get tangled amid the show's odd melodramatic diversions. Good guys are used mostly as plot devices who can't make this city safe for decent people, and the show's obedience to that fated hopelessness gets a little old after a while.

The theme this season revolves around the "rise" and "wrath" of the villains, and that's an area where Gotham stays the course, showcasing a wide gradient across composed, morally-gray antagonists and outright sadistic and anarchistic nutjobs ... and many things in between. While Robin Lord Taylor enjoys new levels of frantic volatility as Penguin, he frequently plays second fiddle to the cooler, calculated members of this rogues gallery, from James Frain's smarmy manipulations as Theo Galavan to BD Wong's embodiment of Doctor Hugo Strange's methodical ruminations. Thing is, there's a lot of villains in this season: a precursor to The Joker; a transitioning Riddler; a young Mr. Freeze; a sympathetic Firefly; among others. Since Gotham still adheres to the illusion that this'll become the Gotham City populated with these same villains in, say, a decade or two, there's also a lack of urgency paired with the thrills of their appearances and maneuvers, given that they're bound to come back in one version or another soon enough.

Ultimately, Gotham attempts to have it both ways throughout its second season, deviating as much as it can from the known universe while also throttling toward inevitable states for its characters. There's ambitiousness in what the show continues to try and accomplish -- a gritty fusion of Smallville and Once Upon a Time -- something that's worth giving it a little slack for an introductory season that couldn't quite figure out how to sensibly balance those two intentions. This second season doesn't reveal any refinement in that aspect, though. Gotham continues to escalate even further in the frequency and intensity of its references, entrenching itself as a grim, pulpy reimagining of the city's vague history that mistakes crowd-pleasing appearances, twisted psychosis, and edgy violence for engaging storytelling. Instead, the exaggeration of the city's doomed atmosphere continues to nudge it further into the realm of those surreal alternate-reality comics, one that still has a hell of a ways to go before Batman begins.

The Blu-ray:

Gotham: The Complete Second Season descends onto Blu-ray from WB in a presentation almost identical to the first season, where a slim, swinging-tray blue case houses the four discs -- all with blue artwork of the city's horizon -- within a cardboard slipcase that replicates the front and back designs. Inside, a Booklet has been included that contains an episode guide and extra-feature breakdown per disc, as well as a Digital Copy slip for the entire season.

Video and Audio:

Once again, WB has jammed a good amount of material into a limited disc presentation for Gotham, fitting six 45-minute episodes on each of the first three discs and four episodes on the last. And once again, they've impressed with the overall visual quality of each of the presentations, boasting richly-detailed, well-balanced 1.78:1-framed transfers. Sure, the digital photography, the gloomy and glossy palette, and the strong contrast are more forgiving to the restricted digital prowess than other presentations might be. Yet, the black levels offer delightful shadows that remain inky black without eliminating details, while the contrast balance accentuates the depth of close-ups and the sprawling skyline shots tremendously. Glimmers in shiny fabric and the textiles of Arkham Asylum jumpsuits -- and other nifty costumes -- offer unique textures that coax out nice fine details, while fine elements in close-ups are frequently razor-sharp. Occasional smoothness and a few too-dark shadows bring it down a peg, but Gotham looks great.

Gotham possesses no shortage of hard-hitting sonic effects and precise ambience, and the collection of 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks preserve the nuance and punch of these tracks to great effect. Explosions, gunfire, and rushes of fire test the limits of the track, to which WB's treatments present them with equal measures of intensity and ambience, spreading appropriately across the front channels and traveling to the rears where necessary. The harsh bustle of streets, chatter at the GCPD and the stirring inmates at Arkham Asylum make ample use of the surround channels, while finer ambient effects -- the clunk of a glass on a bar table, the clanging of prison bars, the shuffling of fabric -- are even and clear across the front channels. Dialogue stays natural and strong throughout, whether it's the harsh tenor of Roben Lord Taylor's mania, the smooth deviance of James Frain's maneuvers, the slight rasp of Ben McKenzie or the delicate alto tones of Morena Baccarin, and the hefty musical accompaniment remains ever-present yet controlled throughout.

Special Features:

Unlike the first season, a few extras for Gotham: The Complete Second Season are peppered throughout the four disc in the set ... and peppered fits quite nicely here as a description, since many of the pieces are quite small across the first three discs. Most of them are, unfortunately, very short, superficial, and populated with generous clips from the show; a few are mere previews, such as Father's Office (:24, 16x9 HD) and Maniax Jerome (:24, 16x9 HD). The others -- Aftermath (4:45, 16x9 HD), A Look Back (3:21, 16x9 HD), Strike Force (1:58, 16x9 HD), He Who Laughs Last (1:47, 16x9 HD), New Day, Dark Knights (1:36, 16x9 HD), A Look Ahead (3:09, 16x9 HD), The King (1:54, 16x9 HD) -- are all so short and shallow that they barely merit mentioning, featuring either plot repeating from the cast members, introductions to new actors, or very general musings about both last season and this season.

The true extras don't really get started until Disc Three, with the appearance of the Gotham: 2015 Comic-Con Panel (16:19, 16x9 HD), where musings from Bruno Heller and Geoff Johns break up the standard semi-vague chatter one typically finds during these chats. From there, once again Disc Four carries the bulk of the supplements, starting off with Gotham by Noir Light (25:37, 16x9 HD), which takes a quick departure from the generic presentation of the other extras into an involved, nuanced discussion about how the show incorporates the desire for a classic '50s noir in its rhythm. German expressionism, gray morality, and atmosphere overtake the discussion, which might be a tad presumptuous in its significance but nonetheless intriguing to watch. Alfred: Batman's Greatest Ally (19:51, 16x9 HD) takes on a similar angle in its discussion of Bruce Wayne's butler, delving into the lines he crosses as a guardian and his military history, and Cold Hearted: The Tale of Victor Fries (10:12, 16x9 HD) touches upon the comic and human origins of the iconic Batman villain.

Final Thoughts:

Gotham's first season was a patchy but passable run, one that found its strengths in the bombastic mob warfare, the ascent of one of the city's iconic and prominent kingpins (Penguin), and the conflicted diligence of pre-commissioner Gordon and detective Bullock as detectives getting their hands dirty while they try to straighten out the city. With a little refinment, focus, and reining in on the references, the show's attractively stark craftsmanship could've easily become something greater and more stimulating while chronicling the ascent of Bruce Wayne into the Caped Crusader. Instead, this second season amplifies the already-exaggerated elements of the first season, doubling down on the number of Bat-universe villains and progressing Bruce Wayne's prevalence in the city as a burgeoning investigator himself, all while the show drops in head-scratcher, superhero-comic logic in its conflicts and solutions surrounding Jim Gordon's crusade against crime. What was messy before remains messy now, only with a bigger population of recognizable faces and an endangered town that has a long ways to go before its hero will come in to control the mess. Fans of the show will appreciate the audiovisual quality and the depth of the extras on the last disc, but this overstuffed and unimproved second season drop Gotham's appeal down to a Rental.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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