Batman, the Series: When Batman Was Fun!

Batman’s Cell Phone Was Bat-Tastic!

In the course of The Dark Knight Rises, Batman is nearly crippled with arthritis, he’s imprisoned, his back is broken, he is betrayed in the most awful of ways, and his nemesis is a monstrous al-Qaeda-class mass murderer.

As I watched him, bloodied and battered,all I could think was: Remember when Batman was fun?

That would be 1966, when Batman came to TV. In all of television history, few shows have skyrocketed so high, then flamed out so spectacularly, as Batman.

Some 45 years later, we can still quote the show by heart:

“To the Bat Pole!”

“Holy hole in a donut, Batman!”

“POW!” “BAM!” “ZONK!”

“Same Bat Time…Same Bat Channel!”

Unholy Trinity: Cesar Romero (Joker), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), Frank Gorshen (Riddler).

The series was an immediate sensation. Every Tuesday night and every Thursday night (you’ll remember that the show was on two nights a week, with a single storyline continued between them), I was among the millions of kids and grownups who never missed a chance to watch Adam West and Burt Ward battle “special guest villains” on ABC. The show’s infectious theme song became a hit record. West and Ward starred in a Batman theatrical film. The series even fathered a spin-off, The Green Hornet.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, was hotter than Batman. Yet after just a season and a half the show was cut back to once a week, and the Batmobile, running on fumes, was put up on blocks for good after season number three.

You really ought to go and seek out those old shows. West and Ward are excellent as the stoic heroes, maintaining straight faces and determined intensity in the most outrageous of situations. Ostensibly, they let the bad guys get all the laughs-Burgess Meredith squawking as The Penguin, Frank Gorshen daring them to “Riddle me this” as the Riddler. And of course what adolescent boy didn’t draw just a little closer to the TV when Julie Newmar slinked in,all leathered up as Catwoman?

Julie Newmar as Catwoman. Meow.

But re-watching those shows, you have to admire West and Ward. The outlandish plots and over-the-top villains worked only because those two remained utterly grounded in their characters. It was a lesson Leslie Nielsen would adapt years later as the ever-grim Lieutenant Frank Drebbin in Police Squad!

Watching the newest Batman movie. this week, I found myself longing for just a smattering of the old show’s happy loopiness. Christian Bale is fine as the Caped Crusader, and the set pieces are spectacular. But no one is having any fun in Gotham City these days, not even the villains, who in the series seemed to be the happiest people on the planet.

Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s “Batman”

I think Tim Burton, in his first Batman movies with Michael Keaton, came closest to finding that essential Bat-balance between the moody and the madcap. Now, as I sat there in the dark, watching Batman brood over the City and battle his inner demons, I found myself asking the same question Heath Ledger’s Joker did in the previous installment:

“Why so serious?”

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Photo credits:

Batman and Robin: actionsecomics.net

Catwoman: ed-wood.net

Nicholson and Keton: cinemovies.fr