Television

The Bright Knight Rises: 'Batman: The Complete Television Series'

The 1966 live-action series still mesmerizes today as a deft Pop Art confectionary satire on '50s squares that wanted its viewers to have their cake and eat it too.


Batman

Distributor: Warner Home Video
Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Alan Napier, Neil Hamilton, Stafford Repp, Madge Blake, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, Frank Gorshin, Yvonne Craig, James O’Hara, Byron Keith, Eartha Kitt, Victor Buono
Network: ABC
UK Release Date: Import
US Release Date: 2014-11-14
Website
Amazon

You may return to your business, citizen.

-- Batman

You can brush my pussy willows before you leave.

-- Catwoman

Ever since the Christopher Nolan film trilogy took over public consciousness of Batman, Adam West has honed a line of patter about what separated his caped crusader from the Christian Bale Dark Knight incarnation. West calls his version the “Bright Knight”. It’s smart business, for starters, with West still doing his best to keep some kind of career going decades later without becoming just one of those zombie-stars who haunts memorabilia shows and off-hours PBS specials. It also draws a sharp line between the clear-eyed and straight-backed paladin he played in the deftly satirical 1966 TV show and Bale’s moody, conflicted hero of a thousand faces. That line is even easier to see now that the complete series is finally available on DVD and Blu-ray, following the years it took Warner Bros. and Fox to unravel the show’s tangled rights background.

In Nolan’s grim-faced blockbuster spectaculars, the Dark Knight draws upon a vast arsenal of weaponry and psy-ops tools to wage war on the criminal elements. He gives no quarter and bends more laws than he follows. For his gangly and goofy series, the Bright Knight plays it straight. He insists on giving his villainous foes their day in court and makes sure to pay for admission to a museum where he tries to foil a crime. These two realizations of Batman are wildly divergent and yet both utterly correct interpretations of pop culture’s most multi-faceted character, one who morphs anew with the passing of each American era. Batman isn't a superhero who provides singular definitions, even when looking at one of his most seemingly obvious and straightforward incarnations.

Batman ran for three seasons on ABC from 1966 to 1968. In each of the 120 episodes, Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) don their masks and battle outre villains using “Bat”-themed gear that looks cheap even by the decade’s standards. They exchange deadpan quips that flew right over the heads of the dazzled children viewers during the show's time, who were perfectly happy not to understand that the show’s square-chested, hands-on-hips heroics were as satirical as they were celebratory. In each fight scene -- there is at least one per episode -- action words like “POW!” and “CRACK!” blare across the screen as though the show were an honest-to-God comic book come to life. At a time when many shows were still broadcasting in black-and-white (color sets only became a majority of sales a few years later), each frame was packed with bright sizzling blams of blown-out, Lichtenstein-esque Technicolor. The series’ long-overdue release takes full advantage of those colors, showing what a carefully managed restoration can do for a show that hasn't been able to be seen properly for years.

Batman broke new ground while seemingly working in a completely familiar vein. Nobody else at the time was operating on the same satirical wavelength as producer William Crozier and the show’s most influential writer, Lorenzo Semple Jr. That isn't to say things were not changing. At the time, American television, long dominated by Westerns and family sitcoms like Bonanza and The Andy Griffith Show, was already swerving towards a greater appreciation of fantasy, adventure, and just plain loopiness. A show like Get Smart, which started the year before, embraced a kind of lunatic appreciation of the Cold War’s annihilationist rhetoric and high-tech gadgetry. The year 1966 also saw the start of the original Star Trek series, another bright-colored and inventive fantasy packed with layered meanings, albeit of a more serious type. Amidst all this programming, there was nothing else quite like Batman.

The show follows the rigid setup that typified nearly all non-anthology American series for decades. Each episode starts with the villain of the week going about their dastardly deed, usually with uniformed henchmen in tow. They are easy to spot, as they normally sported identifying t-shirts; in one case, they actually read “Henchman”. The Gotham City police department is then baffled. Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp, working a dumb-Mick Irish cop routine that’s practically a human rights violation) then call Batman on their giant red phone, which is perhaps a nod to President Kennedy’s hotline to Moscow. Over at “stately Wayne Manor”, “millionaire Bruce Wayne” and “his youthful ward, Dick Grayson” (Dozier himself narrates everything as though it were a newsreel scripted by a third-rate novelist) spring into action. After popping the switch in the library’s Shakespeare bust that reveals the entrance to their secret lair (helpfully labeled “Access Batcave via Batpoles”), the “dynamic duo” emerge in their caped crime-fighting outfits and race out in their atomic-powered Batmobile to help Gotham’s useless police department.

The cases themselves are never anything engaging. Inevitably the villain du jour -- who was frequently spread over a pair of episodes, thus allowing the show to slap a cliff-hanger threat in the middle that reminded people to tune in next week at the “same Bat-time” and “same Bat-channel” -- would leave an obvious clue to lead Batman and Robin astray. Only at the last minute would the “Caped Crusader” and the “Boy Wonder” (those phrases repeated with obstinate frequency throughout the show, like something dreamed up by a mad branding consultant) figure out what was actually happening and foil the jewel heist / kidnapping / bank robbery with a few well-targeted “BIFF”s and “SOCKO”s. As one of the interviewees in this lovingly packaged set’s disc of mostly promotional extras points out, those word balloons served an additional purpose: hiding some of the more egregiously bad fight choreography. Verisimilitude is not really a virtue for Batman.

The villains give each episode its spice. Batman features one of the greatest arrays of guest stars ever seen on television. The fan favorites are plucked from the pages of the comics, greats like the waddling and cigarette holder-chomping Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and the Joker (Cesar Romero, eager to shed his Latin-lover typecasting, but not so eager that he would shave his mustache, which still shows up underneath his pancake clown makeup). Apparently graced by an abominably lax parole system, the villains never seem to serve more than a couple months in prison before hitting the streets again when the show’s writers had a hard time coming up with a new villain. Since the show was, for a time, about the hippest thing on the tube, Dozier was able to sign up rafts of stars to play villains (Frank Sinatra apparently wanted to get on) or even just to pop in as a cameo. Catwoman's slinky prowling (preferably as portrayed by Julie Newmar, not the proficiently purring but less diabolical Eartha Kitt in the third season) and fetish for whips and chains throws in an element of kink unusual for the time.

What truly helps keep such a rigidly formulaic show from choking on its own repetition, though, is the writers’ and producers’ taste for irony. Even by the standards of a series like The Adventures of Superman, which Batman directly spoofs, Batman and Robin’s dialogue is over-the-top, pun-laden corn. Semple’s first-season scripts help set the tone. A writer who would later alternate between '70s paranoia (The Parallax View) and camp (Flash Gordon), Semple uses blaring obviousness and sly asides to jab at the moral simplicities of the superhero format. Occasionally, this takes the form of hip culture seeping into a show that first broadcast a year before the Summer of Love, as in the first episode when a gangster’s moll (Jill St. John) in a mod club says “You shake a pretty mean cape, Batman,” or all those surfers and hippies grooving it up in the third season. Staking out the claim of mockery even more clearly are the pointedly cheap-o sets and obvious low-budget tricks, like having Batman and Robin climb a wall by simply turning the camera on its side.

More often, the show’s satire is embedded deep in Batman’s stout declamations of righteousness. If he isn't reminding Robin to fasten his seat belt, he's delivering mini-lectures on democracy and civics. Sometimes, these take the form of quasi-conservative bromides (as when he worries about a Robin Hood-styled villain whose cash giveaways are seducing Gotham City’s poor with “the elusive lure of easy living”). But more often, Batman is simply trying to ensure that everybody lives up to the standards of being good American citizens working towards the ultimate goal of “universal human brotherhood”. Ward’s Robin, with his fist-slapping declarations (“Holy barracuda!” and so on) is little more than straight-man for the velvet tones and Shatner-level pauses that fairly blanket West's dialogue in do-right decency. The ultimate effect is that of fully turned-on '60s hip types playing off square-jaw tropes from an earlier era that had a harder time acknowledging its cynicism.

Yes, Batman jabs at and satirizes its heroes’ obliviousness, but it also celebrates them. If not, the show would never have proved such a hit with children, who responded instinctively to the candy-colored tones and jaw-socking moral certainties. At a time when America was already slipping towards cultural, political, and social chaos, the Bright Knight Batman pointed out both how comical and yet reassuring such starkly defined positions can be.

9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.