Test Pilot - Batman '66

Once again, I've joined Cory Barker over at TV Surveillance to discuss the first episode of a classic series for his Test Pilot feature. This time we tackle the one, the only, the legendary: Batman! Yeah, the Adam West one. Yes, it is as awesome as you remember from those weekday afternoons when you were a kid.

Here's my entry; head over to TV Surveillance to read Cory's take as well:

 

Not too long ago, when the average American thought of comic books, they probably thought of the 1966 version of Batman.

This may be disconcerting if your cultural consciousness has only developed within the last decade or so. Now we live in a world where comic book heroes populate the marquee blockbusters of the last dozen summers. A world of Christopher Nolan’s allegorical Dark Knight, of Sir Ian McKellan’s Shakespearean Magneto. Comic book narratives have more credibility in the broader pop culture universe than ever before.

Yet for many, comic books will only ever mean three things: BIFF!, ZAP!, and KAPOW! And the 1966 Batman is the reason why.

Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin defined the superhero genre for millions of TV viewers, through two years in prime time on ABC and dozens of years in syndication. It is my totally unscientific estimate that Batman was, by a longshot, the most ubiquitous live-action representation of comic book narratives for over 20 years (perhaps matched only by Christopher Reeve’s Superman movies). It’s fair to call this silly, low-budget confection a major landmark for not one but two art forms.

Each installment of Batman followed the same pattern: Villain Of The Week, flanked by thematically-garbed flunkies, initiates Dastardly Scheme Of The Week (usually this involves stealing one of the many priceless artifacts that keep finding their way into Gotham City’s poorly-guarded institutions). Flabbergasted, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara dial the bright red phone which puts them in touch with the Caped Crusader.

Then we visit Stately Wayne Manor, where dashing playboy Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward Dick Grayson are busy engaging in your average playboy-and-youthful-ward activities. The call from Gordon sends the Dynamic Duo scurrying to the Bat-Poles, which lead to the Bat-Cave, where they hop into the Batmobile and speed off to do some bat-investigating. By the end of the half-hour, one or both of them has been captured by the villain and is facing the Preposterous Death-Trap Of The Week. At this point the announcer exhorts us to tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion—“same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel.”

The pilot episodes—it wouldn’t be fair to address Batman by only looking at the first episode, since every week was a two-part story—follow this format to a T. If you didn’t know that “Hey Diddle Riddle”/”Smack In The Middle” were 1×01 and 1×02, you’d get almost no clue of that fact from watching them. The only nods towards table-setting come in the prologue, which is oddly subdued compared to the tone of the rest of the series. First it lingers a bit while introducing Gotham. Then, when we first meet Bruce, he briefly references the murder of his parents—which is never again mentioned in the entire 120-episode run.

Both are key moments defining this series’ incarnation of Batman. In the very first shot, Gotham City is hosting the World’s Fair. This isn’t the Gotham of nighttime and shadow, the Gotham plagued by crime and corruption and every fear of urban life. This is a shining city upon a hill—Gotham as Metropolis.

Similarly, Adam West’s Batman is not a brooding soul, prowling the murkiest recesses of the city. He is not vengeance; he is not the night. He operates in broad daylight, interacts with police and average citizens with the upright grace of a town father. He isn’t even a vigilante: when he arrests The Riddler in the pilot, he explicitly identifies himself as “a duly deputized agent of the law.”

When Bruce Wayne, in the midst of forming an anti-crime initiative with some other local rich dudes, off-handedly mentions his parents’ murder, it is Batman’s lone nod towards the darkness and complexity at the core of its title character. And based on my research and recollections, the deaths of Dick Grayson’s parents are never brought up at all. It’s of a piece with the show’s somewhat infamous aesthetic: A kid’s program*, a candy-coated romp, a campfest sprinkled with occasional (maybe unintentional) doses of psychedelia.

*The clearest way the series speaks to a young audience is how Robin is the one to solve all of Riddler’s riddles—proof that he can live up to having the World’s Greatest Detective as a mentor.

These are the signifiers that come immediately to mind when you think of Batman. The “walking-up-walls” scenes. The climactic melees featuring colorful onomatopoeias splashed on the screen. “Holy ____, Batman!” Every conceivable object prefixed with “Bat-“ (including, in the pilot, a frigging HIDDEN BAT-LASERBEAM). At the center, Adam West’s stilted, impossibly earnest performance as a Dark Knight who’s neither—a role that came to define the actor more than vice versa.

Your affection for Batman relies almost entirely on how much you enjoy its most over-the-top elements. And the most over-the-top of these is the roster of guest villains: from comic book mainstays like The Joker and Catwoman to newly-invented goofballs like King Tut. Of course, they never posed any real threat. They existed primarily to give Old Hollywood journeymen like Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith a chance to cut loose and chew some scenery. The entertainment level of any episode of Batman is usually in direct proportion to the outré hamminess of its guest baddie.

On that measure, “Hey Diddle Riddle” and “Stuck In The Middle” deliver grade-A results. As The Riddler, Frank Gorshin was the cream of the crop in Batman’s rogues gallery. Lithe, lecherous, a bundle of spring-loaded megalomania on a hair trigger—Gorshin’s portrayal of “that infernal Prince of Puzzles” remains a gold standard of comic book supervillany. He slips between manic and menacing with creepy aplomb. You remember Jim Carrey in Batman Forever? Yeah, he’s doing a demented and pale imitation of Gorshin.

Those recurring signposts aren’t the only bits of wackiness in these two episodes, though. You’ve got a whole set-piece in a groovy mod nightclub wherein Batman dances the Batusi. (I’m going to say that again: Batman. DANCES. The Batusi.)

You’ve got Riddler’s sexy assistant straight-up cosplaying as Robin, shortly before falling into the nuclear-powered volcano that happens to be smack in the middle of the Batcave. You’ve got gay undertones abound, like when Alfred refers to “what you and Master Dick have been doing on these supposed ‘fishing trips’ of yours.” There’s a lot going on in this hour, is what I’m saying.

Batman’s influence permeated comic book storytelling for decades after its initial run. Future kid-targeted series like Super Friends and Batman: The Brave and the Bold would pay it homage. And attempts to move the genre into more “adult” directions—the “grim and gritty” tendencies of comics in the 90s; the more high-minded film adaptations in the 2000s, including Nolan’s franchise; the “real world” melodrama of Smallville and Heroes—consciously pushed back against the zaniness of Batman and its Silver Age contemporaries.

Maybe the most important takeaway from Batman, though, is how it embodies the durability of superheroes in the American cultural canon. Very few characters can not only retain a hold on our collective imaginations for over seven decades, but also thrive within a wide variety of representations. A world that has room for the Adam West Batman, the Frank Miller Batman, the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini/Kevin Conroy Batman, and the Christopher Nolan Batman—all of whom can remain true to something within the character’s central conceit—is a huge and fascinating world indeed.

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