It’s summer, and around here that means just one thing. Well, Big Brother. But if it means a second thing, it’s that I’m resuming my attempt to review every episode of Batman ’66. I was happy to find Season One much better than I expected it to be and occasionally great. So now we get to the sixty episode second season, and standout Frank Gorshin is nowhere to be seen. But I’m willing to bet there’s still plenty of fun, so let’s start the summer right!
So, just some general thoughts on the beginning of Season Two before I get to the specific episodes. They’re already making use of the new footage from the movie, with the exteriors of Wayne Manor, the overhead shot of the Batmobile, and even the Batboat on display here. And so far they haven’t brought back the old Batmobile start-up sequence (“Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed.”) I miss it.
In the second season, shows either level up because they figure out what worked and what didn’t in the first season (Parks and Recreation is just one example), or they stumble because they try to do more of what people liked whether or not it works. And that seems to be where Batman ’66 lands. That may be unfair because they apparently didn’t have a lot of time after shooting the movie and had to jump right into the new season. But there are still some worrying trends. In both two-parters, Commissioner Gordon looks directly into the camera to deliver a one-liner (“Only two things are sure in this world – Batman and Robin”), which is not good. The sound effects are no longer superimposed on the action – there’s a cutaway to the effect on a colored background. It’s a budget cut that may portend some future half-assery. There’s a little more moralizing, laid on a lot more heavily. There is a very long scene where a policeman explains to a woman that Batman drives fast but he’s risking his life to protect hers and everybody else needs to obey the traffic laws. There are some genuinely funny bits like Batman correcting Robin’s grammar, but that only works because Adam West and Burt Ward nail it.
And you know what? So far Burt Ward is a lot better this season. I found his Robin annoying in Season One, but there’s definite improvement here.
Finally, and this might be because I haven’t watched an episode in nine months, but the catch-up in every part two is getting a little overbearing. You don’t need to show us every plot beat. You definitely don’t need to include Gordon calling Batman and Robin because it happens every time.
That’s the general stuff – let’s get to the episodes!
“Shoot a Crooked Arrow” / “Walk the Straight and Narrow”
So, there are two kinds of original villains created for this show. There are the ones who, if you didn’t know, seem like they probably came from the comics. (Bookworm and King Tut) And then there are the ones who feel like they were thrown together. Hey, what if Batman fights an archer? Great. Obviously you’ll take a minute and develop that idea. Nope. He’s a guy named The Archer.
TV legend Art Carney plays the Robin Hood knockoff and, well, this is not Art Carney’s best work. He’s in his early fifties here – that’s not that old, but he seems positively elderly here. Fifty in the Sixties is way different than fifty now. Consider that William Hartnell and Peter Capaldi were the same age when they starred in Doctor Who, and Hartnell looked like Capaldi’s dad. There’s a bit about the Archer stealing from the rich and giving to the poor and he has a couple of themed henchmen (one of whom is just unpleasant to watch as a performer). There’s even a Maid Marilyn, who is inexplicably almost always eating chicken. Also, the Archer has an applause box so he can play the sounds of laughter or crowd approval. They spend a lot of time talking about this in Part One. Then it Part Two it’s destroyed and it doesn’t come up again. It’s mystifying.
The basic plot has the Archer and his crew, like I said, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor using a variety of trick arrows. Batman figures out that he’s operating from an archery school that has no fewer than three Robin Hood references in the mailing address. Alfred creates a diversion (the best part of the two-parter) but Batman and Robin are easily captured. By Art Carney.
In Part Two, they seemingly rob an armored truck but the bank realizes the money is all there. Until the Wayne Foundation starts awarding grants to those down on their luck (“in reverse alphabetical order”, which made me laugh) and it turns out to be counterfeit. They chase down the Archer in a sequence that says “hey, we have boat footage”, and that’s that. It’s not very inspiring.
Honestly, the villain is seriously underwhelming. There’s a whole bunch of randomly applied ideas that don’t develop and don’t have anything to do with one another. I don’t even like that he only has two henchmen and they’re wearing different costumes. It makes for weird fight scenes because they’re just punching the same two guys over and over. Four guys in the same outfit are a more imposing group and it doesn’t seem like they’re shrugging off hit after hit.
The plot is too weak to sustain two episodes, the cliffhanger is weak and resolved through a heretofore unmentioned device that would have come in handy a million other times. It’s all the stuff that can hurt an episode of Batman ’66, all at once. There are some good jokes and I really like the performance by Robert Cornthwaite as Alan A. Dale. It came off as a character actor hired to do his exact schtick, and since it’s schtick I find funny, it works for me. But that was the high point in a fairly dismal story. Oh, and we get our first celebrity window pop-in – a gimmick where a famous person opens a window while Batman and Robin are climbing up (or down) a building. This time it’s Dick Clark who makes some conversation and, boy, those bits have not aged well. Luckily, it gets better almost right away.
“Hot off the Griddle” / “The Cat and the Fiddle”
Catwoman’s back! And Julie Newmar is back in the role. She only appeared once last season, and again in the movie, where she was played by Lee Meriwether. Interestingly, Gordon is surprised to find out she’s still alive – her Season One appearance ended with apparent death but the movie didn’t. Apparently the movie hasn’t happened yet or it happened before Season One.
Anyway, Catwoman is running a school for villains, which is really just a background detail that makes for some decent jokes. Functionally, her students are just henchmen and the school is rarely referenced, but when it comes up, it’s funny. She’s using balloons to steal vaguely cat-related items. Batman and Robin track her activities to a club that’s basically the evil version of the club from the very first episode. Right down to dancing the “catusi”. Sure enough, it’s a trap. They end up in a room with a heated floor where they have to keep jumping and Adam West commits to this way harder than Burt Ward does. Robin downgrades to shuffling his feet almost immediately. Catwoman gasses them and they wake up tied to giant griddles with magnifying glasses attached.
They survive because of a solar eclipse which, in all fairness, they did set up in Part One. It turns out that her ultimate goal is to steal half a million dollars to buy a couple of rare violins, and the cases can only be opened on the top floor of the highest building in Gotham City. Catwoman disguises herself as an old woman to rob the armored truck (a makeup job that was never meant for Blu-Ray) and meets the violin collector who’s actually Robin in disguise. There’s a whole thing where the villains try to escape with a getaway rocket and there’s a gossip columnist working with Catwoman, and that’s a pretty funny performance.
I’m realizing now that I’ve forgotten a whole mess of plot details, which is generally the case with mid-level Batman episodes. The inspired ones tend to stick, as do the misbegotten ones. But this is just a solid, average-to-good two-parter. Julie Newman is fantastic and I’m not sure that all of her writhing was TV-appropriate. Like, when Batman and Robin are prisoners of the hot floor, she’s watching them from above, but it’s through a round window in the floor and she spends so much time just rolling around and posing on that window. I’m sure that was a very big deal for me watching as a child.
Also, there is a newspaper story about Batman letting the crooks get away at one point, and said story uses the phrase “blew the duke” to refer to their mistake. That is a baffling bit of slang. Larry Young, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., pitched the idea that it was a jazz term referring to trying (and failing) to emulate Duke Ellington. It was a joke, but that sounded reasonable. I hear “blew the duke” and I think diarrhea. But it was Spunkybuddy Isa-Lee Wolf who did some digging and found an answer. I would like to note, by way of emphasizing how obscure this phrase is, the first Google result is a discussion of this episode. (There were no good answers in that discussion.) It turns out, it’s an old gambling term referring to cards. The “duke” is your hand and “blow the duke” would mean losing with a good hand. Clearly this was never a popular phrase and the explanation indicates it fell out of use in the late 1950s, so this was Batman busting out a gambling phrase from ten years earlier and just assuming everybody was cool with it. I feel like the writing staff was split between young people trying to do something subversive and bitter old men playing it straight. Anyway, thanks to the delightful Isa-Lee. Check the link and buy some books!
So this was much better than the season opener but still not top-shelf. It was enough to get me stoked for this season, though. Let’s just never speak of the Archer again. Next time, we get two villains created for the show. Luckily, one of them is Season One high point, King Tut. Oh man, I am looking forward to seeing him again.