5 Reasons the '60s Batman TV Show Is Better Than You Think
More so than with any other superhero, fans are very protective of their favorite version of Batman. Just going on more than one website will reveal that your personal pick for preferred interpretation of the Caped Crusader is, at best, a thought crime and, at worst, something worth posting a meme about. Stating that one of the best portrayals of the character is Adam West's is like going to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and announcing that you can float.
The '60s Batman series is constantly deemed the worst superhero show ever, usually by people who have watched a very limited amount of it. Viewing more than just two-minute videos of Batman dancing on YouTube will lead you to discover that the show is savagely awesome, with a lot of facets that are commonly ignored. So let me take you on a journey past the realm of POW and WHAM and show you the true beauty of a misunderstood classic. I'm your Bat-suit-wearing Jesus, friends.
It's All Tongue-in-Cheek
In the 1980s, comic writer and celebrated maker of frowny faces at hippies Frank Miller decided that Bruce Wayne needed to be a sociopathic, militant genius, who'd made it his mission to recruit multiple children in a suicidal run toward a lower crime rate. Since then, the idea of a dark and gritty Batman has been shoved down our throats at every opportunity. It's had its high points, like Batman: The Animated Series and The Dark Knight, but it's also had numerous downsides, like ceaseless jokes about nipples on the Batman costume.
Like this one. *Play for full effect*
Batman & Robin is a terrible movie and should be ashamed of itself. But, if we weren't so fixated on having Batman be as depressingly cynical as possible, we wouldn't have to hear the same joke about rubber tits every time someone says, "You won't put me in the cooler!" with the accent of a drunk Austrian man doing an Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. Batman & Robin could've silently died, and we all could've been spared hundreds of reminders of just how hilarious and goofy it is that someone saw Batman's chest and decided, "Hey. That should look more like a chest."
Because of our preconceived Bat-notions, people watch a clip of '60s Batman and assume that it's some television experiment gone horribly wrong. It was nominated for an Emmy for best comedy in 1966, but history has revised it as people with the best intentions of creating a serious Batman show slipping up somehow and producing the exact opposite thing. God, people in 1966 were idiots! Didn't they know that making everything colorful isn't the way to go about delivering a moody billionaire's fight against evil? How widespread was fetal alcohol syndrome among the writers of '60s superhero television?
In the first episode of Batman, Batman goes into a club in full costume, dances with The Riddler's hot henchwoman, has his orange juice drugged, and then stumbles back out to his car. Or, he experiences, as David Hasselhoff would call it, Monday morning:
Police find Batman draped over his steering wheel and take his keys away. Batman, recognizing that it isn't safe to drive your nitro car when you're this sloshed and bearing a ceaseless hard-on for upholding the law, gives his keys away without a fight:
"Your B.A.C. says you're at twice the legal limit!"
"My B.A.T. says I need some fuckin' HASH. BROWNS."
Also, the main plot of this episode deals with The Riddler suing Batman over false arrests. Everything about those last few sentences reads "Hey, guys. Let's make a funny show about Batman!" and not "We tried to make a dramatic superhero show, but we were just toooooo stupid. And could you show me that cool use-a-fork-to-eat trick again?" To look at that and decide that it's a vain attempt at creating an entirely different kind of TV show is being willfully ignorant of the principles of logic.
The Performances Are Awesome
The comedy in live-action Batman stuff has always been a mixed bag. Tim Burton's Batman features newspaper reporter Alexander Knox, whose comic timing can best be described as "For fuck's sake, Knox." Batman Returns has Danny DeVito and Christopher Walken to pick up the slack. I wouldn't wish Batman Forever on anyone, and Batman & Robin is funny because its dialogue is pure, made-for-a-drinking-game, train-wreck perfection. Christopher Nolan is a talented director, but he delivers humor in the same way that I fix household appliances. He doesn't really get HOW, but that's certainly not going to stop him from putting "Now this is REALLY not good!" into the mouths of every cop with a paunch. Also, my microwave is almost ludicrously broken. Someone, send help. Kicking it hasn't worked once.
On the other end of the quip spectrum is '60s Batman, which excels at being self-aware and is often hilarious. It's got good writing, but coming from the lips of anyone else, it would be a parade of nonsense and a declaration of war against giggling. Add to this the show's numerous guest stars -- including Vincent Price as Egghead, a role he was born for, as he seems to literally taste every line he utters -- and you have a group that usually slumps only when it's the fault of a non-actor. This is especially evident in the third season, when the budget for the show was cut, and the opening to every scene in the script reads "INT: SAME CLAUSTROPHOBIC ROOM AS EARLIER."
They had to use a bald cap because they couldn't afford razors to shave him every day.
Somehow, there managed to be a shining beacon in this sea of goddamn delight, and it was Frank Gorshin's Emmy-nominated performance as The Riddler. Gorshin is constantly moving and twitching in his loving tribute to kinetic energy, and he seems to be constantly daring the camera and the unlucky people cast as his henchman to keep up with him. The show's biggest plot twist is that -- and I hate to spoil it for you -- they can't.
Before the guys dressed in a matching color scheme have the time to utter, "Yeah, boss," Gorshin has already done three full laps around the set. Each of his appearances are hidden calisthenics lessons, and every line of Gorshin's dialogue has the cadence of a man who's just learned that the fate of his job rests on the next word that he says. What is always tired, yet always pleased? Holy ignited loins, Batman! It's Frank Gorshin's wife! His Riddler is one of the top performances in superhero history, but it's rarely mentioned anymore because, you know, haha, the screen says "CRACK!" when a guy falls down.
As Bruce Wayne, Adam West's main facial expression is "Yeah, I'm secretly Batman. How cool is that? I know. I know. But you DON'T know." As Batman, he anchors the entire show, and he's the perfect example of how to be the straight man without sacrificing the audience's interest in you.
It would've been easy to hire a Batman that was simply content with letting Cesar Romero's Joker laugh in his face while he spoke random generalizations about justice. But those generalizations become effortlessly quotable when spoken by West, with his smugly cool way of letting the mentally unstable know that they'll be spending the night in the Gotham Penitentiary, and with his whiskey-smooth voice. Unless they're pesky Aunt Harriet, the show makes a habit of letting you know that the ladies of Gotham have a Top 2 list for whom they'd like to bang, and it's: 1) Batman, and 2) Bruce Wayne, but if he's not available, then Batman. Adam West's pheromones have not yet been properly researched, but that's because no scientist can be in the same building as him without asking if he's seeing anyone.
No comedy writer either ...
Every Episode Is Purely Satisfying
Most of Batman's plots follow this structure: a villain does something that pisses everyone off. Commissioner Gordon and the poor, constantly overwhelmed Chief O'Hara decide that they are out of their depth when it comes to handling the umbrella or cat-themed crime wave that's currently plaguing Gotham. This is especially true for O'Hara, whose immediate response to all crime is instant flaccidity. Also, the actor who plays him can do an Irish accent with grating regularity, so he adds a little bit of ethnic diversity.
Then, using a red Bat-phone, Gordon calls up Batman and Robin. Dick Grayson is usually seen attempting to learn some new skill, like a foreign language or the piano. And, if you've never read a Batman comic, this may come as a surprise, but Dick Grayson fucking hates learning. He tries out new things, just so he has an excuse to complain about it two seconds later. Bruce then feeds him a line about how much good he's doing for the world by mastering that skill, and Dick realizes that he needs to stop being such an impatient moron and actually practice for once.
"Stop acting like your name, dear."
Bruce and Dick hear that crime is afoot from Alfred (played by Alan Napier, who towers, god-like, over a world that consists solely of 5-foot-10 men), so they change into their costumes and attempt to stop it. The first two or three attempts hardly ever work, as Batman rarely hits his stride until Plan D or E, which leads to the cliffhanger that always ends the first episode of the story. In the next episode, Batman and Robin are able to finally stop the villain of the week, with the moral always being "Don't be stupid and full of crime. Be perfect and attractive to everyone, like Bruce Wayne."
I- I'm sorry; where was I?
One would think that you'd easily tire of this format. This is every episode? What about the ones with melancholy endings where Batman is forced to face his own mortality or question his tactics? Where is the ending where Bruce wonders about whether or not he's living up to the legacy of his parents? The surprising thing about Batman is that it doesn't need to be changed, because the show's creators have worked out a very clear system for keeping every episode captivating. They take the story skeleton that I just described, and fill it with as many jokes, character moments, and action set-pieces as possible.
And end with all three at the same time.
There's no denying that it's a formulaic approach, but it isn't a lazy one. You never feel like the producers of the show are sitting above you, laughing at how stupid you are for falling into their trap of watching the same damn thing, week after week. You know exactly what to expect, but the fun comes from how it's all put together. And it never needs a jarring shift into "And this episode is about the uncontrollable misery that permeates all layers of existence!" territory.
The narrative structure of Batman sucks only if you're the type of person who adheres to that shitty "Everything has been done before!" frame of thinking. It's that theory that has given us hundreds of unsatisfying plots and thousands of movies that deny their viewers even the most basic feelings of excitement. Shows have emotional arcs for a reason, with highs and lows that manipulate the audience into getting invested more heavily in the plights of characters. But no, please, keep trying to do something "better" than the "overdone" stories that have been extremely successful for as long as works of fiction have had Point A's and Point B's. And when Breaking Bad is remade as a movie in 2030, Walter White can die of cancer and Jesse can stay trapped in abused servitude for the rest of eternity, all for the sake of the "If the storytelling isn't radical, vague, and pointless, it isn't worth doing" mantra.
The Fight Scenes Are Great
Despite being an "action" character known for his ninja powers, when it comes to live performances, Batman's collection of competent fight scenes is a small one. The fights are either stilted, as in the Burton/Schumacher films, or edited in a way that makes them incoherent, as with Nolan's. Batman doesn't have his first good hand-to-hand combat sequence in movies until The Dark Knight Rises, and even then it's a flurry of punches and blocks, interspersed with two men walking slowly toward each other.
The '60s Batman fight scenes ignore the space between one person's fist and a meaner person's chin, and they're all the better for it. If there is a light fixture in the room, Robin will swing through the air on it. If there is a short ledge, or even a single step, it can be trusted that Batman will use it as a diving board. In the first episode involving Mr. Freeze, there is a stuffed polar bear in the room, and even before a fight inevitably broke out, I knew that that example of shoddy taxidermy was going to be shoved into a crook's torso. And it was, because this show is a bunch of people playing charades with the word "joy."
Chekhov's nature display.
Earlier, in the same episode, a bunch of henchmen dressed like Batman and Mr. Freeze fight the real Batman and Robin, for no other reason than for us to see what it looks like. And it looks like some Bat person made a racist joke about people in subzero outfits. It's a weird, colorful mess, as a dozen actors stumble over each other to throw clumsy right crosses, and then it is promptly forgotten. Batman never stops to say, "Well, that was nuts," as any other person in the world would do, but that is the beauty of the show's engineered lunacy. It's so caught up in trying to be entertaining that it never stops to consider undertaking something realistic.
"Oh, is it Tuesday already?"
It Is One of the Most Important Milestones in Superhero History
The history of Batman is full of highs and lows. Currently, there's enough enthusiasm about him floating around to warrant pushing him into a sequel to Man of Steel, which will probably be mostly about him. Not once during Zack Snyder's initial ode to moral ambiguity and blowing shit up did I ever think, "The movie is OK, but what it really needs is Batman hastily shoehorned into this universe." All teasing aside, this is favorable to what I imagine are the plans for any Superman film that doesn't involve punching Batman: Man of Steel 2: He's Really Sad This Time, Man of Steel 3: The Redemptive One, and A Reboot Title That Won't Confuse People Trying to Watch the Original Superman Film Superman: Genesis Holy Shit Aaron That's Good You Run DC Comics Now Oh No.
Because of the advent of "serious" Batman, it's pretty easy to forget that '60s Batman was integral in proving that the character's success could cross over into other media. While the sales of the comics weren't dismal in the years just preceding the show (he was still very popular, otherwise this show would've never even existed), they doubled in 1966 after the show premiered. And while success in one medium doesn't guarantee success in another, it certainly does help to grease the wheels a little bit. If it didn't, then Sean "The Dig Dag Diddy Daddy" Combs would never have made the leap to gawkish dramatic acting in Monster's Ball, and Vanessa Hudgens wouldn't be able to do whatever it is that she's doing right now. The world would definitely be a worse place.
Much, much worse.
Also, the audience for comics is much more limited than the audience for movies and TV. Superhero movies are made so commonly today because superheroes have proven to be a hot commodity. In 1966, there was nothing that had proven that a Batman TV series would be a success when you had an actual flesh being in the costume. There had been short serials in 1943 and 1949, and while the first of these was commercially successful (with the re-released version of it helping to spawn the '60s series), they were nowhere near the phenomenon that Batman was.
The character was very well known before the '60s TV show, but it was the show that helped to turn Batman into an icon. And it's due to that iconic status that he's received so many movie treatments, which, in turn, helped assure the success for projects involving other superheroes. Without its tremendous fame, there would be no telling what the state of capes and cowls in pop culture would be today. What I'm trying to say is that you should be thankful for Batman every day. I am, and all of my harvests are fruitful ones.
Daniel doesn't have any clever jokes here. He just wants to talk to you about Adam West on his Twitter.
For more from Daniel, check out 5 Movie Series That Started Terrible and Ended Up Awesome and 5 Reasons Great Directors Eventually Make a Bad Movie.
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