Pow! Bam! Zok! An Unsolicited And Sadly Thorough Review Of “Batman ’66” Season One
They said it would never happen, not in a million years, but then late last year it did: the 1960s “Batman” tv series was freed from copyright quagmire and released for the first time ever on multiple home viewing formats. What an immense sigh of relief for crust-laden artifacts such as myself who grew up marveling at the reruns in a barren pre-Michael Keaton Bat world. Had to be 1984 when I first caught Adam West overacting in my living room. I was five. Milk cost $1.94. Orson Welles wasn’t dead yet. Anything seemed possible.
The last time I remember a channel airing “Batman” was fourteen years ago, on TV Land. I’m sure they’ve played somewhere since then, but who has time to watch television as it happens? I need Neil Hamilton and Stafford Repp on demand. For my on demand lifestyle.
Praise be to the corporate gods for packaging euphoric childhood memories and selling them to me at a reasonable price. For once, capitalism works.
Before the episode-by-episode breakdown, a few general comments:
I. The writers/producers of “Batman” really loved gassing their characters—that is to say, spraying plumes of brightly colored smoke into their faces to rob them of consciousness. It happens in practically every single episode. Was it that prevalent in the comics? Seems like it’d be easier (and cheaper) to just conk everybody on the head with a blackjack. “Batman” was aimed mostly at children, I suppose, so maybe they were trying to avoid inciting similar violence in American living rooms. Maybe it cost a lot of money to develop the colored smoke effect so they used it as much as they could. “Batman” definitely had a strict budget (they didn’t even paint the Joker’s exposed wrists to match his face).
II. Adam West and Burt Ward are so natural, so genuine, as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson you almost wish the series had dialed down the costumed hijinks and focused more on life above the Batcave. That Adam West I can see as James Bond, that Burt Ward I can see in The Graduate (which Ward reportedly turned down in favor of “Batman”). Perhaps this charm is why so many people close to them who ostensibly don’t know they’re Batman and Robin choose to ignore the insane coincidences. Wow, the guy who answers the Batphone sounds just like Bruce’s butler, that’s some funky shit. Oh, you guys gotta go do something inexplicable that you never mentioned until this moment after Alfred whispered in your ear? Hey, none of my business, man. By the way, Dick, you smell just like Robin.
III. Something I never noticed before in the opening cartoon is after Batman and Robin shake hands and Batman looks toward the camera (as he turns into the program logo) Robin continues to look at him, grinning from ear to ear. Like, Robin has such reverence for the Dark Knight, he can’t stop looking at him. It makes me uncomfortable.
IV. There’s a theory that, despite being filmed and airing in the late ’60s, “Batman” actually takes place in the early ’60s, before JFK’s assassination. There are little clues, like newspaper headlines and asides in the dialogue, none of which I can remember specifically. This theory is plausible if not a tad asinine. Were the producers afraid people would call Batman a draft dodger? This begs the question: if Batman were real, would the government make him go to Vietnam, or would it be his choice? What the hell could Batman even do in a war? He never uses guns. He doesn’t have a shield and/or super strength like Captain America. He’d just be some costumed detective standing on a rice patty.
V. “Batman” is an overwhelmingly white show, but when you do see people of color among the cast they always seem to be in authoritative positions (cops, reporters, store managers, etc). That’s progressive compared to the 1978 Superman movie, where the only person of color is the pimp who jumps up momentarily to compliment Superman on his “bad out-fit.”
VI. If we’re to believe the hand-painted signage outside the Batcave, Gotham City is fourteen miles from Wayne Manor. So Bruce Wayne does not actually live in Gotham. He lives in some tony suburb. Must be a tax thing.
VII. Two half hour episodes make up one complete story on “Batman” and originally ABC aired them over as many consecutive nights (Wed-Thurs). Not sure why they didn’t just make the program a full hour; “Batman” is usually presented in syndication as a 60 minute thing. The business is weird.
Now, let’s tear into the adventure.
1. “Hi Diddle Riddle” / 2. “Smack In The Middle”
Strong opener, could be the best entries of the season. The Riddler hatches an ingenious plan: stage a crime, sue Batman for false arrest, unmask the Caped Crusader in a court of law. He pulls off the first two-thirds and makes Batman look like a Grade A chump. The scene that follows all that is one of the few times the Dynamic Duo actually seem defeated; as Bruce and Dick, they sit crestfallen in Wayne Manor, watching a Gotham newscaster explain their dilemma. Also, although they defeat the Riddler in the end, they don’t capture him, proving that this guy is top tier trouble for Gotham. Of course, you know that just from Frank Gorshin’s performance—he plays the Riddler as an unrepentant sadist. “You’re really scared, aren’t you?” he asks Robin at one point, beaming with satisfaction. Hell, I was.
3. “Fine Feathered Finks” / 4. “The Penguin’s A Jinx”
Penguin has never been any favorite of mine. On paper, “what if Franklin Roosevelt was a dick obsessed with fish?” sounds fun, but something just doesn’t connect for me. You know, I’m not a purple top hat kinda guy. The digital remastering also does nothing for the gloriously phony nose Burgess Meredith sports as Das Peng. At any rate, Burgy growls his way through a frame-up positing Batman as the real criminal, and at least with this baddie you can always count on a few solid groans over his punny civilian aliases (K.G. Bird, P.N. Quinn).
5. “The Joker Is Wild” / 6. “Batman Is Riled”
The Joker is Batman’s number one foe, but instead of giving him a fitting dramatic introduction “Batman ’66” opens on the non-threatening scenario of our Clown Prince playing softball in prison (looks just as weird as it sounds). You’ll never believe this but the Joker escapes and soon terrorizes Gotham with confetti, sneezing powder, and other party store gimmicks. Eventually Laughing Boy invades a televised performance of Pagliacci, during which he hopes to unmask Batman before an audience of however many people were watching televised performances of Pagliacci in 1966. I sorta wish they kept the Joker in the traditional harlequin outfit he wears during these scenes. Way more frightening. Any way he’s dressed, Cesar Romero manages to lend the Joker a strange sexuality, especially when he uses adjectives like “succulent” and draws out Batman’s name as if post-orgasm.
7. “Instant Freeze” / 8. “Rats Like Cheese”
George Sanders would make a great brooding heavy even without the Mr. Freeze character. Still, it’s nice to have that extra layer wherein Batman is responsible for turning this crook into an ice cube-sucking freak of nature. People tend to bag on Adam West’s physique not being all that resplendent in the Bat costume but the scene with multiple Batmen proves West filled the spandex better than most. Toward the end Freeze offers Bats a cordial but he declines, for this Dark Knight is a teetotaler. Do you think anybody could really be Batman without taking a drink? Seems like a stressful life. On the other hand, he’s got a kid to look out for, he can’t be getting sloshed if there’s a chance Robin might be kidnapped or injured or tied to a giant whatever.
9. “Zelda The Great” / 10. “A Death Worse Than Fate”
Renowned magician Zelda goes crooked, teaming up with everyone’s favorite “strange Albanian genius” Eivol Ekdol for a robbery/counterfeiting scheme. This eventually turns into a kidnapping caper when Zelda snatches Dick Grayson’s elderly Aunt Harriet, ties her up, and dangles the old biddy over a vat of boiling oil. Nabbing Dick himself would probably yield greater ransom but Aunt Harriet’s easier to burgle. What’s interesting about these episodes is Zelda is never totally convinced a life of crime is for her—she’s just struggling so much as a magician she has no other recourse. C’mon, Harry Blackstone, help a sister out. Fuckin’ magic cabal.
11. “A Riddle A Day Keeps The Riddler Away” / 12. “When The Rat’s Away The Mice Will Play”
King Boris, a dignitary from an unnamed and ill-defined European country, comes to Gotham and is almost immediately seized by the Riddler. Another fine Gorshin performance but the real entertainment comes when Batman and Robin are tied to enormous spinning wheels and it is hilariously clear in the wide shots that dummies are substituting for the actors. I remember that looking fake as hell even when I was a child. Whomever is responsible for those dummies should be ashamed, if they’re still alive. If they’re dead, I hope they carried that shame to their grave(s). Harsh words but it’s not that hard to make a dummy not look like a sack of loose potatoes.
13. “The Thirteenth Hat” / 14. “Batman Stands Pat”
Perhaps intimidated by David Wayne’s flamboyantly fussy performance as the Mad Hatter, these entries find Adam West dialing up his hamminess to radioactive levels. West shouts and gesticulates like an angry grandpa at the Elks Lodge and subsequently flushes away all vestiges of Bat being a cool, collected character. Naturally Mad Hatter is consumed with owning Batman’s cowl and goes to great lengths in attempting to obtain it. This certifies him for the loony bin in my eyes because this cowl is so weird-looking compared to the cowl of the comics (and later film properties). Granted, it’s the cowl that most resembles the true look of a bat (stout, wide), but you get my drift. By the way, what’s the penalty for cowl theft? Like $50 and time served? I think that would even be laughed out of “Night Court.”
15. “The Joker Goes To School” / 16. “He Meets His Match, The Grisly Ghoul”
A landmark story only because it confirms that Gotham City and New York are two separate and co-existing entities. In the next pair of episodes it is revealed that Gotham is also on the BMT transit line; this prompted me to look up the exact location of Gotham in the comic universe and it turns out the bustling urban hive is situation in north east New Jersey. Anyway, the Joker’s crimes in these eps are pretty inconsequential. Rigging vending machines in some hair-brained attempt to corrupt teenagers. On the plus side, he fires off a pretty funny dead dog joke and manages to get Batman and Robin in electric chairs. This arc also presents a painful scene where Burt Ward has to pretend to be a happenin’ street though. Hey Kookie, lend me your knife so I can stab this kid.
17. “True Or False-Face” / 18. “Holy Rat Race”
False-Face is a text book example of a character who is very comic book but not cartoonish. I attribute this to the fact you can’t see Malachi Throne’s face contorting behind the mostly opaque False-Face mask (by the way, the name Malachi Throne has an amazing ring to it, they should have worked it into the script somehow). The Dutch angles feel a little out of control here but maybe that’s intentional, maybe that’s supposed to underscore how topsy-turvy this adventure is (Batman v. the Unknown). False-Face proves so tough that the Dynamic Duo have to fall back on Alfred to escape the harrowing climax; I like to believe the underground gossip in Gotham points to a third shadowy figure in the Batman equation, one alleged to be of advanced age (hence his seclusion) but who never fails as a nuclear option.
19. “The Purr-fect Crime” / 20. “Better Luck Next Time”
Consider the family dynamic that exists between Julie Newmar’s powerful feline-obsessed antagonist and the Dynamic Duo: Catwoman is the bored mother figure seeking a liberating and lawless independence; Batman, the lovelorn father too aloof to know what to do; Robin, the eager son who just wants Mommy and Daddy to love each other again. Wait ’til you catch the horror on Boy Wonder’s face when it appears Catwoman (who spends her story trying to locate the lost treasure of some made up pirate) dies at the end of the second episode. Poor Dick. Catwoman, fyi, has one of the best accompanying leitmotifs of Nelson Riddle’s scoring—eerie, hypnotic, fun.
21. “The Penguin Goes Straight” / 22. “Not Yet, He Ain’t”
In which the Caped Crusaders appear to be dead for a small chunk of time, saddening Gotham but exciting that ever fiendish Penguin…who, as it turns out, is trying to trick the world into believing he’s become a do-gooder. Tim Burton famously cribbed Penguin’s theft of the Batmobile in this adventure for 1992’s Batman Returns. Who knows why a covert crime-fighting team would insist on tooling around in a convertible. Seems like an open invitation. The Penguin carjack allows for introduction of the Batcycle, which is a far more bad-ass means of conveyance (even with the side car). Ghost Rider would be a complete joke if he was riding out of Hell in a Sedan.
23. “The Ring Of Wax” / 24. “Give ‘Em The Axe”
Usually the requisite bad girl or “moll” amongst a gang of male villains in “Batman” is just that, a wayward youth blinded by power. Here, however, the lady by Riddler’s side (as he tries to uncover some weird Incan treasure) is a cape-wearing figure called the Moth—a budding mastermind in her own right, we may assume. It’s a shame they didn’t give her more to do (or even her own episode later on). A tremendous scene pops up about midway wherein Batman asks a librarian, voice absent of irony, “Have you seen any unusual looking people around here?” The librarian says she has not and somehow avoids comment on the two guys in front of her dressed as winged forest creatures.
25. “The Joker Trumps An Ace” / 26. “Batman Sets The Pace”
A visiting Maharajah! The Batmobile cruising over a golf course! Someone writing Batman a check and misspelling his name! Definitely not the most exciting outing…they meander around a fairly eye-rolling money laundering plot, stretching out the flimsy premise/final reveal, but I’m forever grateful we get to hear Cesar Romero shout, “Egads, I’ve been deflated!” Again, so unnecessarily sexual.
27. “The Curse Of Tut” / 28. “The Pharaoh’s In A Rut”
The blustery charm of Victor Buono as King Tut makes up for lackluster action. The bulk of episode one is Gotham trying to figure out what to do about a giant statue of a cat that suddenly appears in a park and begins making strange pronouncements. Seems like a noise complaint, but the authorities call Batman anyway. Later, for the umpteenth time this season, a woman comments upon Batman’s handsome looks, which is nuts because 80% of his face is covered at all times. King Tut’s backstory is interesting because it’s the only time “Batman” references the social unrest of the ’60s: Tut was a Yale prof cracked on the head during a student riot; he woke up believing he was the famed Egyptian. Never mind the fact King Tut died at around 18 and this guy is 40. Brain injuries are no laughing matter.
29. “The Bookworm Turns” / 30. “While Gotham City Burns”
Are you ready for the darkness? This one opens with Commissioner Gordon getting shot in the back and falling off a bridge. Later, Batman goes into a Manson-esque trance while attempting to figure out his enemy’s next move, spooking Chief O’Hara and every viewer at home. Though Roddy McDowell gives the nefarious Bookworm a frightful edge anytime he saunters onscreen the character’s trump card is real corny: he traps the Caped Crusaders in a giant cook book, choking them with noxious soup fumes. It all pays off in the end when a defeated Bookworm meets Bruce Wayne; after some banter, the Bookworm dismisses Bruce, exclaiming, “This guy’s almost as annoying as Batman!”
31. “Death In Slow Motion” / 32. “The Riddler’s False Notion”
The Riddler sets up a bunch of robberies he also films so he can sell the resulting movie to Gotham’s biggest silent film buff (some people want to meet the Dynamic Duo, this guy just wants to watch them run around at twice their normal speed in black and white). Somehow the Riddler also finds time to spike the lemonade at a temperance party; tensions are stirred and while blitzed on the drank Commissioner Gordon angrily dismisses Chief O’Hara’s assertion that Maury Wills is “50 times better” than Honus Wagner. You think this will be the best part of the episode until Robin, tied up and thrown off the ledge of a high rise, staves death by catching the Batarang in his fucking teeth. Batman of course uses this as a teaching moment re: dental hygiene. Yeah, it’s okay for a minor to fight crime without a bullet proof vest, but heaven forbid you stop flossing.
33. “Fine Finny Fiends” / 34. “Batman Makes The Scenes”
This time Alfred is kidnapped, by the Penguin, a.k.a. Knott A. Fish. The Peng is trying to uncover the location of some secret millionaire’s dinner being held by Bruce Wayne. This is one of those plots that wouldn’t happen in the 21st Century. No millionaire dinner is secret from the expanse of the Internet. The most fascinating part here is the Penguin’s henchman, Shark and Octopus; Shark looks suspiciously like Clint Howard and Octopus is wearing a very obvious bald cap (or he’s actually bald and has some insane skin condition at the base of his neck). “Batman” hench work is good stuff if you could get it. Joe E. Tata did it a handful of times.
And there you have it. “Batman ’66” Season One. Still plenty weird, still plenty fun. Satiating for a fan of über-insanity such as myself but who knows how the uninitiated would feel at this point (to wit: I can’t stand a goddamn second of “Sigmund & The Sea Monsters” any time I’m trapped in front of it). Glancing at the Season Two lineup I see things kick off with Art Carney as the Archer. Somehow I am not fatigued from the previous 34 chapters of lunacy. I’m ready to dive in. Holy crippling addiction.
P.S. Did I forget to mention that in the very first episode Batman goes to a nightclub and go-go dances with Jill St. John? What, like you’re not gonna go-go dance with Jill St. John? I think we can forgive the Bat for actin’ a fool there. And he’s got better moves than Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man.