Ask Chris #273: The Very Best Of Batman ’66
Q: It's the 50th Anniversary of Batman '66! Can you rank the best episodes? -- @TheKize
A: I wrote a fair bit about Batman on Tuesday to mark the actual day that it made its debut back in 1966 --- and, you know, I've written a whole bunch about it in general --- but you know what? You're right. The 50th anniversary of what is arguably the single greatest superhero show ever produced is something that's worth celebrating for a while yet. But ranking the best episodes? That's a tough one.
It's not that I don't have my favorites, you understand, but with 120 episodes produced over three seasons, mostly divided into the two-part adventures punctuated by a deathtrap that would serve as the show's trademark, there's just too much to choose from. Even at its worst, the show was still fun, and with that many great performances and ludicrous plots, narrowing it all down to a top five is a pretty difficult task. Difficult... but far from impossible.
Before we get to that, though, it's worth going through a few Honorable Mentions. For starters, while it doesn't quite make the top five, Season 3's "How To Hatch A Dinosaur" is quite possibly one of the most bizarre Batman adventures ever --- and I'm not limiting that to television.
Vincent Price turns in his usually fantastic performance as Egghead; the relationship between Egghead and Olga is entertaining enough that you almost want to see an entire show about them; and, perhaps most compelling, it's a story that climaxes with Batman somehow sneaking into a dinosaur egg and then bursting out of it to terrify criminals. That's simultaneously the weirdest thing that Batman could do and the most approprate thing for Batman to do.
"The Clock King's Crazy Crimes" is always worth a watch as the only episode written by Bill Finger, and pretty much any episode with Victor Buono as King Tut is going to be a pretty fantastic hour of television.
And then there's the movie.
It doesn't make the list on account of a technicality --- it's a movie, not an episode --- but when you're talking about the high points of the series as a whole, it certainly belongs near the top of the list. It's beautifully tongue-in-cheek right from the start with its dedication to lovers and crime-fighters, and it introduced the world to the magic of Shark-Repellant Bat-Spray right there in the opening sequence.
But at the same time, it's a fun, rip-roaring adventure story full of fantastic set pieces, including an all-out brawl on top of a surplus submarine at the end. It's got the big villain team-up that every other super-hero movie has been trying to top in the fifty years since, and it features some genuinely heartbreaking moments in the form of Miss Kitka's ill-fated romance with Bruce Wayne.
Plus, you cannot tell me that the "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!" sequence is not one of the greatest pieces of comedy ever committed to film.
But like I said, it's not actually an episode. So if I have to limit myself to a top five --- and if we're counting full two-part adventures as "episodes" --- then here's my pick for the all-time best.
At #5, "The Bookworm Turns / While Gotham City Burns."
I've said this before, but it's one of the biggest missed opportunities of the entire show that there was only one story with Roddy McDowall as Bookworm. In the span of a single episode, he's given more motivation and character than almost anyone else on the show: A frustrated novelist whose inability to write his own stories drove him to crime, who builds his capers around plots lifted from books.
It's a great hook, and McDowall sells it with an intensity that rivals Frank Gorshin at his best, going from screaming in rage to library quiet in seconds. Plus, he has what might be the best design of any villain on the show, Surf Jams Joker excepted.
It's not just the character, though. The adventure itself has pretty much everything you want from a Batman '66 story. There's a deathtrap solved through ridiculously improbable means, a red herring delivered by a winsome henchwoman, and a gigantic prop dropped into the streets of Gotham CIty --- in this case, a two-story cookbook that contains a fully functional kitchen. So while I do wish that we'd gotten more Bookworm stories over the course of the show, maybe it's a good thing that we didn't. This one would've been hard to top.
At #4, the daring three-part saga of "The Londinium Larcenies / The Foggiest Notion / The Bloody Tower."
I get the feeling that the third season of Batman is the least loved, and there's one level where that makes a lot of sense. The ratings were slipping and the budget went with them, and while I'm the kind of person who loves that they started just hanging empty picture frames over black curtains instead of building actual sets, I can see how that changes the tone of the show --- especially when they're also producing some truly strange adventures about pirate treasure and surf battles. Even for Batman, those episodes got pretty weird there towards the end.
But they also got bigger, and there's no story on the show that feels bigger than Batman, Robin and Batgirl's trip to Londinium to match wits with Lord Ffogg and Lady Penelope Peasoup. Part of that's just in a literal sense --- it's one of only three three-part adventures in the series, and the only one that doesn't involve two previously established arch-villains teaming up --- but it also has to do with how it's built.
Unless I'm misremembering --- and it's possible that I am --- this is the only time that the heroes are ever taken out of Gotham City. There's a recurring gag that everything in Londinium is the same as it is in Gotham (the constables' office is literally the same set as Commissioner Gordon's office, just with a different picture hanging on the wall), but it still had the feeling of taking Batman worldwide, something that makes it seem special. It's loaded with great visual gags, some extremely funny jokes, and Glynis Johns is a delight.
At #3, "Catwoman Goes To College / Batman Displays His Knowledge."
Julie Newmar's episodes as Catwoman are universally great, but it's her final appearance that stands out as the best. For one thing, it highlights how amazingly, unrepentantly criminal she is --- the episode opens with Bruce Wayne lobbying to have her released from jail, and Catwoman immediately puts a scheme into play. Seriously, she's not even out of the Warden's office before she's plotting to go to Gotham City University and use those hallowed halls of information for crime.
That plot is only part of what makes the episode great, though. What really sells it is that it amps up the romance between Batman and Catwoman in a way that's hilariously over-the-top and engaging on its own terms at the same time.
There's a metaphorical aspect to this, of course, in that her master plan involves Catwoman creating a knockoff Batman that she can control while quietly disposing of the real one, but all that gets stripped away by the end.
The scene where Catwoman and Batman actually have a conversation about their future, where she asks him to give up on crimefighting and run away with her, is one of my favorite bits of the series, especially for the way that it builds up to Batman asking "What about Robin?" and Catwoman replying with a blunt (but not entirely unsympathetic) "I'll have him killed --- painlessly, of course! Well, he is a bit of a bore."
At #2, in an almost unbelivable upset, "Surf's Up, Joker's Under."
With as much as I talk about this episode --- with as much as I've talked about it in this column --- it has to be a surprise that I'm not putting it at #1. In a lot of ways, it's the best example of the show's excess, to the point where there's an actual, honest-to-Alfred musical number in the middle of this thing. Outside of a few pieces of stock footage, they'd never really bothered to pretend that they weren't filming in California, but here, they're not even bothering with the pretense.
Even better is the attempt to get in with the kids (done, as always, with more than a little satire intended), by throwing in some truly bonkers surfer slang...
"Joker's great! What a kick turn!"
"But watch Batman trimming!"
"Joker's shuffling, but now he's cutting back to meet the curl!"
... all of which is spoken by characters watching Adam West and Cesar Romero pretending to surf in front of a green screen.
The thing is, aside from the (extremely enjoyable) goofiness inherent in a story about the Joker stealing a surfer's ability and somehow using that to conquer Gotham City, there's a level where it works. By this point in the series, Batman has been well established as the greatest man who ever lived, and there's a shift towards crimes built around just proving he can lose. If you can just beat Batman at something, then you can prove his fallibility and the whole thing will come crashing down --- and that's the most modern kind of Joker story there is.
But it's not the best episode. That belongs to #1: "Hizzoner the Penguin / Dizzoner The Penguin."
If "Surf's Up, Joker's Under" is the purest expression of the crooks' desire to just beat Batman at something, then "Hizzoner The Penguin" is where it's done best. It's a brilliant episode, adding an unexpected element of sharp political satire to the blend of tongue-in-cheek comedy and silly adventure that made the show work so well. It's the kind of thing that still resonates today --- at one point, the Penguin gets a standing ovation at his campaign headquarters just by mentioning "the flag," and when a fight against the Penguin's goons breaks out at the debates, the news media calmly reports on who's doing better to see who will take the lead in the polls.
Also, there's another musical number in this one. Two, in fact, if you count the performance by Paul Revere and the Raiders, and Penguin's weird talk-singing poetry set to "Yankee Doodle," as two separate songs instead of one long, strange track.
But while the Penguin's all flash, Batman himself is at his most relentlessly square, refusing to kiss babies (it's unsanitary!) and delivering speeches on the issues in Adam West's studied, practiced monotone, and the gag never gets old. It's the absolute best, and in a testament to how well it's done here, "The Penguin runs for mayor" is actually a plot that's come back more than once in the five decades since.
So those are my picks for the top. As for where the other 110 episodes rank, well, there'll be another anniversary next year, right?