Welcome to the second installment in my Summer of the Bat series, this time focusing on my revisiting of the 1966-1968 Batman TV series, starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo.
With one of the most iconic opening credits and theme songs ever!
It all started for me with a sale on Vudu. Of course, I'd grown up watching reruns of the 60's series, and I had gone through the predictable cycle of liking it, finding it embarrassing, disavowing it, and now rediscovering the joy of the series. Because, as ridiculous as the show is, it's also a hell of a lot of fun. A few weeks ago, while scrolling through the sales on Vudu, I saw that they had each season for five to ten dollars. As I was already hip-deep in my Summer of the Bat, I thought, "Sure, why not. I'll check this out."
For those who aren't familiar with the series, here's some context. Despite starting as a pulp-inspired dark vigilante comic in the late 1930s/early 1940s, things actually lightened up pretty quickly with the introduction of Batman's sidekick - Robin, the Boy Wonder. Perhaps taking a cue from the popular Dick Tracy comic strip by Chester Gould, the comic shifted from relatively indistinct gangsters and mad scientists as the villains to colorful costumed characters like the Joker, Catwoman, the Penguin, and Two-Face. By the 1950s and 60s, the comic was fully pop art goofiness, and the pair of heroes were duly-deputized officers of the law - largely a response to the introduction of the Comics Code Authority, which regulated content in comics to make them "safe" for children.
Shout-out to Julie Newmar's Catwoman for...reasons.
The Batman TV series follows the lead of those comics, while working with a television budget (so no Bat-Mite - an extra-dimensional impish version of Batman). Instead, they lean into the colorful villains. And it's there that the TV series absolutely excels, casting fantastic "big name" actors in those roles. Many people who grew up with the show will point to Caeser Romero's Joker as among the best, but my money's on Frank Gorshin's Riddler.
His buffoonery is definitely sanctioned.
His take on the character is absolutely bonkers and unhinged (while still threatening) in the best possible way. Seriously, he leaps around like such an impish maniac that he makes Jim Carrey's take on the character in Batman Forever look positively restrained.The producers also borrow as many tropes and as much of the comic book iconography as possible, including non-digetic onomatopoeia during the fight scenes, over-the-top expository voice-over narration, and utilizing two-part episodes, with the first in each ending with one or both of our heroes in a seemingly inescapable cliffhanger (which is often resolved through a Bat-Dues Ex Machina Gadget in the first few minutes of the following episode).
Of course, none of this really works if not for the central performances of West and Ward balancing the mania with a dead-serious but completely over-the-top approach to the material. Whether it's the exchanges between "millionaire Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward, Dick Grayson" often centered around some educational or moral lesson, or - and this might be my favorite thing ever - the detection by way of close-reading/word association to solve the mystery, the two play off of each other wonderfully (and, frankly, homoerotically, but with a hilariously ineffectual attempt to deny that with the introduction of "Aunt Harriet" living with the two men and their butler, Alfred - at a certain point I just assume she just completely and approvingly sees through their numerous "fishing trips").
Holy subtext, Batman!
On a side note, the chronic and self-recognized ineptitude of the police, seen through conversations between Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara ("What could this cat-themed clue possibly mean? Perhaps we should call Batman to explain to us that it could only point to the cat-themed villain we've encountered numerous times in the past!") is absolutely hilarious every single time.
What strikes me in revisiting this series is the complete blurring in my experience between enjoying it ironically (pointing and laughing, essentially) and unironically loving the performances, the visual design, and even the overly-convoluted cleverness of the crimes. Over the years, Batman, for me, has become a character that completely lends itself to such a broad range of interpretations, whether it's the gritty realness of Nolan's trilogy, the heavily symbolic and mythic approach of Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (however flawed the actual movie itself is), and, to be honest, the neon camp excess of the late Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever and Batman and Robin (though I still maintain that the latter is a terrible, terrible film). The 1960s TV series is 100% committed to doing what it's doing, and it does that incredibly well.