Sunday, November 16, 2014

Whoever he is behind that Mask...

After forty-however-many years, the 1966 Batman TV series is finally out of legal purgatory, and the long-awaited, long anticipated DVDs are here! I meant to approach them with discipline and limit myself to the two-episodes-a-week that originally ran all those years ago, but as usual my sense of self-restraint is negligible at best: like a pig, I dove right in.

Oh, my; 1966 happened a long time ago, but the premiere of Batman on ABC was one of those moments that you never forget, even if you were only seven years old. There are certain scenes from episodes 1 and 3 that I remember vividly from my first viewing; and I remember going to my bedroom after watching them to draw picture after picture of Batman and Robin, of scenes from the show.

I was one of those kids who didn’t get that it was a comedy. 

Batman ’66 took an awful beating from comics fans throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Maybe this was based on resentment: not just for making comic books, which we took so very seriously at the time, look silly and trivial, but for our own naïveté, for making us realize, once we had grown up enough to “get” the jokes, that we had been duped as children; that the show we watched breathlessly as kids was really an over-the-top pie in the face.

But I suppose the thing has come full-circle: today, Batman ’66 is being as openly (and lucratively) embraced by the comics biz as it was reviled for thirty years prior. Even DC publisher Paul Levitz, who once actively opposed the home video release of this show as “not being the image of Batman” that he wanted to perpetuate, is now on board and happily promoting away as if his job depended on it. Ain’t money wundafil? Don’t money do wundafil things?

The truth is that DC brought it on themselves: stylistically and in content, the TV series is almost slavishly faithful to the Batman comic books as they were in the mid-sixties. With villains whose plots were outright silly and trivial, and Bat-mite here and Bat-everything else there, Batman comics were simply goofy and over-the-top… which is perhaps why DC Comics was, around this time, getting its collective ass kicked all up and down the block by a certain upstart called Marvel and its Master Schemer, Stan (the Man) Lee.

So instead of dissing the Batman TV show, comics fans really should have looked at the comics that it was specifically based on and realized that here was actually a pretty damned savvy and sophisticated realization of a character and series that, by rights, should have been 100 percent unfilmable.

Dosier’s Green Hornet — another series I wish would come to DVD — wasn’t, as I recall, nearly as overtly camped out as Batman, because the comics were that much more sensible; but thank goodness his Wonder Woman series never got made! The pilot alone is enough to make your teeth curl.

But for Batman: these are things I still remember from the first viewing all those years ago: The Riddler cackling away as he prepares to crush Robin’s head in a vise… The Penguin dropping a gigantic umbrella into the middle of a crowded Gotham City street, Bruce Wayne slowwww-ly being rolled into the furnace at the end of that episode. I remember the knockout performances by Gorshin and Meredith and Romero and Newmar, and to a lesser extent by Victor Buono and David Wayne and Anne Baxter and George Sanders. I remember the gaudy polychrome color and the wonky camera angles. And let’s not forget Adam West’s courage, his comedic timing, his still-remarkable voice and the way that he used it. I remember all these things and need little more inducement to weep for a world that’s gone: because it was never just a TV show.

At our house, in those days, we had the only color TV set in the  extended family; and so, when my uncles and aunts and cousins realized that the show was no good without color, they would all come over every Wednesday and Thursday night to watch the show with us… a regular family event.

It was shortly into the second season of Batman that my Father pulled up the stakes around our little family and moved us halfway across the country from Minnesota to Maine. I know this only because we were still living in Edina, Minnesota when the Batman movie came out between seasons one and two. I never got to see that movie in the theaters, but I did get to see the trailer: it was showing in front of a stop-motion animated picture called Willy McBean and His Magic Machine. I had pestered my father and made a general nuisance of myself until he consented to let me go to Willy McBean, but as it turned out I forgot the movie almost immediately, while I vividly remember the trailer for Batman to this day!

The move to Maine was a shock to the system from which TV shows like Batman and Frankenstein Jr. were the only constant. In fact it was Batman that got my parents to finally postpone my bedtime… the show aired an hour later on the east Coast than it did in the middle of the country. 

The point is that we had a Pop Culture in those days. We had a culture that connected us. With only three TV networks, no cable, no internet, if we weren’t actually watching the same show as our friends, schoolmates and families, we at least knew what they were watching. I would argue that there’s no such thing as a Pop Culture anymore, nor can there be, because the amount of entertainment options that we have before us today are so vast that very few of us are on the same page.

The rights battles surrounding Batman ’66 were so lengthy and venal and chewed up so much money that I suppose it’s to be expected that the DVD release is, despite all the touted extras, really a kind of bare-bones affair. The episode menus are utterly generic, the package design is nice, but looks as if it took a skilled designer about an hour to slap together. Ditto the booklet that comes with the set.

But at least the show is here, at last — with the full uncut episodes as they have not been seen since its premiere. The image has been gently restored, although not sweetened. Likewise the sound: a 5.1 surround remix might have been lovely, but wouldn’t have reflected the show as it aired. What we get is the original monaural track… it gets the job done. There’s been some complaining about the price tag, but I got mine for around $150… with all three seasons included on 15 disks, that’s about ten bucks a disk and fair is fair. It seems to me that Just Making This Release Happen was an expensive proposition; if they had to cut costs to keep the price reasonable, they’ve cut in the areas that were best cut.

Given my own druthers, I might only have picked season one. I doubt that I’m alone in this, which may be why the show is only available as a complete unit. Batman burned very brightly indeed for one season, and then, as even Adam West notes, began to flame out in a hurry with Season Two. By season three, the producers were frankly desperate. I could have lived without Seasons Two and Three… but then again, Yvonne Craig wears that Batgirl costume awfully well…

Even to modern eyes, it’s easy it see why these remarkable first season episodes made such a colorful splash in the black-and-white world of the mid-sixties. But what makes Batman ’66 a classic today?

It was much, much more than a simple TV show. It was a Time, and it was a Place. It was a Milepost against which we measured our lives. It was a great, gaudy, polychrome Grand Opera. It was both the beginning and the end of an Age.

— Freder

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