It's more challenging than Season 1, but also less cool and exciting. I'd guess the audience figures were lower. Season 1 was also escaping from its ostensible genre, but more surreptitiously. Its superheroes were still front and centre. Antagonists were never too far away. It was awesome, especially with Taku Iwasaki's music.
This year, though, the superheroes are basically onlookers for most of the season. They bookend it. There's fighting at the beginning and the end. Both are cool. However the former is largely meaningless since the story hasn't started yet, while the ending has far more significance, but it's also getting subverted as hard as an action-adventure climax can be. Manipulating the audience reaction is part of the plot. It's not about the vicarious excitement of punching and firing energy blasts, but eventually about the horror of it (from more than one angle). Never in this series is fighting what it looks like and you'd be missing the point if you were watching it as the usual "beat up the baddies" plotting by fisticuffs.
The paradox is that Gatchaman action still has the Gatchaman music and I was always delighted to see them swing into action. They have Hajime! She's the greatest. She's less central this year, with the focus being more on two new characters (Tsubasa and Gelsadra), but she's still the smartest airhead in the room even when aliens are present and I love her to pieces. She's never stopped breaking genre's rules. However, to be honest, I'd say Season 1 is more enjoyable. It's amazing, after all. Season 2 is more cerebral and probably quite hard to get behind if you don't care about the themes and you're just looking for action scenes.
It's about the internet. It's about people in crowds, as per the title. This is mostly addressed in terms of the anarchy of online communities, but it's also more simply about the nature of human society. (Specifically, Japan's.) Season 1 introduced CROWDS, a way for anyone online to make a giant energy monster materialise and be a hero in real life. Or a villain, obviously. You could rescue kittens from trees, or else blow up a nuclear reactor. Anyone, anywhere, could turn real life into a computer game and act out all the things we normally express only as virtual words. This was a powerful metaphor for exploring what people are really like through the safety and distance of an internet connection... but that was Season 1. The show's done that now. It needed a new theme and it's addressed that challenge with a vengeance. Things being discussed this year include:
(a) is mankind fit to be given that kind of power? Are we a gaggle of monkeys with an average IQ that drops from "low" to "barely sentient" when gathered into groups? Well, yes. Obviously... or is that the argument of an intellectual snob who treats everyone else as children and wants to prohibit anyone from doing anything? Do we really want to try to build a sanitised, completely risk-free world?
This isn't a question with a simple answer. The show presents both sides of the argument and the debate runs deep and long.
(b) is democracy a good thing? Well, yes. Obviously... or so you'd think, until we meet a Prime Minister who sees online chat communities as his coalition partner. Soon afterwards he stands down for an election where you vote on your smartphone, anyone can nominate themselves as a candidate and the whole thing's a big online popularity poll to decide the country's new ruler. "It's like a game, isn't it!" Then, taking it a level further, what about policy decisions by popular vote? Public spending up on everything! Taxes down on everything! A government that's heading for bankruptcy! Something can be both popular and stupid.
This isn't a hypothetical situation. California famously has the latter problem, thanks to a referendum addiction. Consider also some terrifying votes that we're seeing internationally in 2016, i.e. the year after this anime was broadcast. (They're not jumping on a bandwagon. The world jumped on theirs.) Brexit in the UK, the U.S. Presidential election and the recent Columbian vote to reject a peace treaty with the FARC guerillas that would have ended a fifty-year conflict that's killed over 200,000 people.
(c) "You're a Gatchaman, not a media celebrity!" If you became an overnight superhero, what would you do? Go on chat shows? Get a million followers on Facebook? Would your answer to that question change in a fictional universe where the internet is both the villain and a million heroes?
(d) Who's to say what's the right thing to do? Should you stop, think and weigh up the reasons why it might be right to hurt people? Are conflict and fighting always bad? Is it possible to be purely good? Is "idealist" a dirty word? "Nothing's more important than a life!" "I don't really understand difficult stuff."
(e) And then there's another theme again, which becomes the most important thing in the story. They could have stopped at (b) and still had a clever, satisfying exploration of their ideas. They didn't. They went beyond it. Again, as in Season 1, the enemy is us. You and me, behaving as we do on the internet. This isn't a show about defeating monsters, but about defeating the monster we're becoming. The nearest we have to a baddie is technically a goodie (and a "violent pacifist"), while a truly noble goodie can be more dangerous than any baddie. Ordinary superheroes (e.g. the original 1970s Gatchaman) just hit villains, but it takes people like Hajime, Rui and Rizumu to engage with real problems like the ones in (a) and (b). It works... but that said, there are cultural reasons why this anime's message will resonate more for Japanese audiences. It still works for English-speakers. It's still powerful. However the social forces being described are, in Japan, famously constricting.
This is interesting to think about, but it can make for talky episodes. Our heroes go on talk shows and discuss morality. Hajime's the thinker, Tsubasa's the idealist and Sugane's the one who believes that we should just obey orders. Tsubasa's new and I briefly thought she was a Hajime clone, but in fact her beliefs and thought processes are nearly Hajime's opposite. Then there's Geru-chan, who's the kindest, most open-hearted alien on our planet. Pay close attention to Geru-chan.
There's slightly more use of traditional Gatchaman iconography, which is always startling and cool since this is normally Gatchaman in name only. It won't seem cool if you've never seen the 1970s Gatchaman, mind you.
My experience with the show went up and down. I enjoyed the Gatchaman action scenes in the first few episodes, but as late as ep.3 I was very aware that the story hadn't really started yet. (That's really ep.4, since there's an ep.0.) Our heroes were just being reactive, when they weren't using their smartphones or going on TV. Ep.4 is dramatically meaningful, after which the show tears up the genre textbook and goes into fantasy politics, a weird alien and ever-deeper exploration of the nature of online humanity. I enjoyed this. The politics is outrageous, but that's what the show's about. It's a fantasy fable that's talking about the internet. Bad stuff happens and eventually the Gatchaman have to act, but then that's overturned yet again for a finale that ends up saying and doing things I loved.
This year's even more gay, genderqueer and non-binary than Season 1, incidentally. Geru-chan isn't as gender-bending as some characters in this show, for instance, but both the gender confusion and the age-changing are references to his namesake villain from Gatchaman II. Meanwhile Sugane's in a transparent closet for Joe, while Hajime-Utsutsu is far easier to miss but arguably a continuation of hints from Season 1.
I admire this show. I'm sure it bewildered and disappointed a lot of fans, but I have enormous respect for what it's doing. I have no idea where they'd go next with a Season 3, but I really hope we get to find out.