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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Batman '66: Avatar of Future Games

So much ado about the new Batman flick. I’ve only seen snippets of the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s Batman movies on TV, and it’s there that my preferred caped crusader resides, in the Fox series that pow’ed and wowed its way from ’66 to ’68—and has been roundly scorned by most everyone ever since.

Count me among the minority that finds the cartoonish crime-fighting of Adam West’s light knight way more fun than the ominous doings of his big-screen successors. (It comes down to degrees of cultural saturation; the Bee Gees have always made good music, but when the Sat Night Fever OST shoved it down my throat, I gagged. Same with “dark,” “edgy” characters. Right now, enough is too much.) How could anyone not dig the show? The theme music. Producer William Dozier’s earnest-citizen narration. And the villains! Most of them were (great) actors who’d been in the game since vaudeville and could really juice their roles—Burgess Meredith’s quacking Penguin (“Peng-gy” to his gal pals), Vincent Price’s chrome-domed Egghead, Gorshin’s super-sillyess Riddler, Newmar’s Catwoman, Victor Buono’s King Tut. Only Milton Berle’s Louie the Lilac disappointed, Miltie giving the role a humorless, menacing tone more like contemporary baddies. Still, the Louie the Lilac arc amazes: he planned to steal all the flowers from Gotham’s Central Park to ruin the hippies’ summer lovefest (

But here’s the thing. It’s not just the discreet charm of camp, cheesy costumes and a welcome lack of buffness that makes the show cool. The TV Batman was the avatar of much of the culture that’s followed it. One of its cornerstones was the abiding impotence of Police Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) and Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton), whose first impulse—whether the crime was Ethel Merman’s Lola Lasagna cornering the elbow-macaroni market or pigeon droppings from a skyscraper gargoyle striking an old lady in the street—was to reach for the Bat-phone. This same riff of ineffectual bureaucrats preceded by five years Dirty Harry’s taking the law into his own hands, and has shaped the popular image of rogue cops from Fred Dryer’s bludgeon-first-read-Mirandas-later Sgt. Rick Hunter to cue-ball Chiklis’ Detective Vic Mackey and beyond.

From incompetent civic managers to a general distrust of all things gub’ment is a short hop. Hence, TV Batman led straight to Rick Perry, the Tea Party and some folks’ unshakeable faith in the Great Man theory of job creation and budget balancing. Reagan never appeared on the show. He didn’t need to. Ka-pow!!!