The final season of “Batman” is notoriously bonkers. Sagging ratings inspired the arrival of Batgirl, a third costumed crime-fighter who cooperates with the Dynamic Duo but remains her own independent entity. Sadly for Batgirl and her alter ego Barbara Gordon (played by the unflappable Yvonne Craig), the average adventure length is sliced in half from the previous seasons, leaving thirty minutes to pivot between Batman, Bruce Wayne, Batgirl, Barbara, the villain, and those beleaguered dopes at police headquarters. Suddenly a lot of vital stuff is happening offscreen.
And yet, as the blocking grows jerkier and each caper more outlandish, this concluding batch does a good job stressing the severe difficulties Batman, Robin, and Batgirl have in trying to protect their secret identities. Turns out it’s not so easy explaining away every little inconsistency, especially if you’re a millionaire playboy, the ward of said playboy, or the police chief’s kid.
Other pre-episodic breakdown observations:
I. There are two interesting musical developments in the third season, the first being a distinct and furious surf rock sting that is employed whenever Batman and Robin start tusslin’ with hoods. Very Dick Dale, it gets the blood pumping. Meanwhile, Batgirl has her own theme, a brassy sway with some vocal accompaniment (“Batgirrrrrrl!” the female chorus lilts, “who’s baby are you?”). Neither piece is commercially available on any of the soundtrack releases I know of from this bat era.
II. Cesar Romero’s Joker hair seems to go a brighter shade of green with each passing episode. Obviously they were having some budgetary and/or quality control problems by this point but I like to believe that perhaps the Joker—who looks the way he does because he fell into a vat of chemicals—has to deal with flare ups and weird allergies just like the rest of us. Imagine how toxic waste might exacerbate a rash or a thyroid problem. Then again, this idiot is pretty slap happy most of the time. Maybe prolonged exposure to toxic waste can result in a never ending orgasm.
III. If you think that lizard person in the program’s animated introduction is Killer Croc, you are wrong. Killer Croc was not introduced into the Batman universe until 1983. This strange figure is just a generic lizard person, a nondescript reptile freak who may / may not be associated with the Gorn.
IV. The Batman series will always hold a place in my heart but the biggest bang this franchise can give for your buck, peso, or ruble is the theatrical film the crew produced between the first two seasons. Simply known as Batman (sometimes stylized as Batman: The Movie), it’s 104 minutes of breathless bat movement, four times as madcap thanks to four arch criminals (Joker, Riddler, Catwoman, Penguin, teamed up to conquer the world), capturing everything that’s boffo about this property. Also, as much as I cherish the beloved tv intro, the opening credits of Batman: The Movie are a pop noir jewel, Nelson Riddle’s orchestration included.
Alright, atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed. Ready to move out.
1. “Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin”
The lightning strike of season three. Feels like we’re peering into pulpy pages as that dastardly Penguin tries to weasel his way into Gotham’s police force by attempting to kidnap and wed Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara. What better time for Babs to make her debut as the Batgirl? This is the first time in the history of the series that the ending rhubarb looks real. The Caped Crusaders are really clobberin’ the baddies (and vice versa).
2. “Ring Around The Riddler”
The Riddler may be an intellectual but he’s not above climbing into a boxing ring to whoop up on Batman, which he does in this episode. Of course, there is some subterfuge—Riddler is posing as a boxer from the Middle East called Mushi Nebuchadnezzar. Thankfully, Gorshin forgoes brown face. The final bout lacks the drama of Rocky but there is something breathtaking about seeing Adam West in the Batsuit and enormous boxing gloves.
3. “The Wail Of The Siren”
Joan Collins arrives as ear-piercing foe the Siren. Her sonic hypnotism sounds so much like a modern fire alarm it is disconcerting. It’s music to the men she seduces and/or subdues; Commissioner Gordon is so transfixed he agrees to stow away in the trunk of the Batmobile for treasonous purposes. The panic grips Batman enough that he turns down a soda at one point because he might “find it too relaxing.” Dark Knight ain’t about that lean.
4. “The Sport Of Penguins” / 5. “A Horse Of Another Color”
The Penguin causes chaos at a horse race, but half the time this entry is just guest moll Ethel Merman stiffly pissing out exposition. For a brief moment we get to see Burt Ward dressed as a jockey and it’s everything you could ever hope or desire. Equally satisfying is Herbert Anderson as a flustered race track official who lays into Bruce Wayne about the chicanery he believes the millionaire himself is pulling.
6. “The Unkindest Tut Of All”
A landmark episode; King Tut stumbles upon the secret that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Of course, he can’t prove it after our Caped Crusader and Bruce are seen standing near each other (a weird bit of engineering involving a dummy in a Bat costume Bruce has at his ready). In a subplot, Barbara and Bruce attend an accordion recital where they hear “Lady Of Spain” eight times in a row. It’s unclear if this is irony or if people actually did this for kicks during the Johnson Administration.
7. “Louie, The Lilac”
“Batman” addresses the hippie phenomenon the only way it knows how: clumsily. Dandy gangster Louie The Lilac (a so-so Milton Berle) infiltrates Gotham’s radical youths through some noxious plant-based chemical. The police are wary of putting the Dynamic Duo on the job until Robin reassures them: “The flower children think we’re cool, man—like, we turn them on, you know?” If you think that’s ridiculous, hang in there for the climax where man-eating lilacs attempt to slowly devour our heroes.
8. “The Ogg And I” / 9. “How To Hatch A Dinosaur”
The money’s evaporated to the extent the series can’t even afford to hire a band of roving Cossacks; all we get are agog passersby on street corners as these alleged marauders ransack Gotham (with a brief glance at Egghead as he struggles to ride a mule). Returning guest star Anne Baxter is a delight as Cossack Queen Olga, a ginger firebrand investing in Egghead’s scheme to birth a dinosaur. For a minute, it appears this program might introduce some Jurassic Park style science. Don’t worry—DNA has yet to be discovered in 1960s Gotham, so we are spared anything plausible or thought-provoking.
10. “Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under!”
The dizzying apex of this season’s lunacy. The Joker has a device that can transfer skills from one person to another; naturally he uses it on some local hodad so that he may become the clown prince of the surf circuit. Batman steps in, yellow trunks at the ready, to challenge the harlequin’s nefarious hang ten. Doing leg work for the Joker is a striking beach bunny spy named Undine (played by future “Gong Show” fixture Sivi Aberg). Undine strides in like a lethal Bond temptresses but immediately undercuts her power by talking into a radio shaped like a hot dog.
11. “The Londinium Larcenies” / 12. “The Foggiest Notion” / 13. “The Bloody Tower”
Rudy Vallée’s Lord Marmaduke Ffogg is an inventive and charming villain, a British nobleman who absconds with treasured loot amidst billowing clouds of smoke from his pipe. There was no need, however, to stretch Ffogg and his accomplice Lady Peasoup (Glynis Johns) across a three parter, nor was their reason to move the action to a London facsimile when the show clearly never left Los Angeles. Tedious, asinine, kinda boring. Lyn Peters shines, though, as a Ffogg protégé who radiates flavorful intensity—especially when she’s quietly rhapsodizing about Robin’s sex appeal.
14. “Catwoman’s Dressed To Kill”
Eartha Kitt’s wonderfully feral take on Catwoman arrives in a pretty bumpy exercise around the fashion industry. Still, you’ll probably thrill to Eartha menacing a bound Batgirl and you’ll probably guffaw when Burt Ward is forced to sell the line “Holy priceless collection of Etruscan snoods!”
15. “The Ogg Couple”
In which Batgirl almost freezes to death in a giant vat of caviar. Egghead is of course the culprit, trying to set up a comfy life for himself and Olga, Queen of the Cossacks. They’re not really a good match; when it comes down to brass tacks, Egghead is a simpering idiot, while Olga seems to live for conflict. It sexually excites her. My kind of woman.
16. “The Funny Feline Felonies” / 17. “The Joke’s On Catwoman”
The Joker. Catwoman. A hidden trove of explosives. Joe E. Ross. Pierre Salinger. All the elements for a whip cracker and yet it remains a painful slog. The sets have become so minimalist it’s almost insulting. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Little Louie Groovy, the Phil Spector parody who gets caught in the villains’ crosshairs. Spector used to be a happenin’ guy in our culture. Then he became a crazed hermit who shot a woman point blank in the face.
18. “Louie’s Lethal Lilac Time”
Our favorite flower-obsessed gangster kidnaps Bruce and Dick, opening up the playing field for some major Batgirl heroics. How aggravating it is that the writers eat up her time with a pointless scene wherein Babs has to deceive a handyman into believing her secret Batgirl room is just a regular-ass secret room. By the way, the reason Louie swipes Bruce is because he needs the millionaire to extract some kind of scent from a muskrat. We never see the muskrat and I don’t think we hear it, either. It is just referred to as some mythical offscreen creature.
19. “Nora Clavicle and the Ladies’ Crime Club”
Women’s rights activist Nora Clavicle tries to replace Gotham’s beat cops with her own squad of lady officers, but things don’t go according to plan. Hard to tell what’s worse here—the assertion that women could never hold positions of authority because they’re easily frightened and preoccupied with clothing or the grand finale where Batman and Robin thwart Nora (Barbara Rush) by skipping through the streets of Gotham City while tooting on flutes. Either way, this is “Batman’s” nadir. They didn’t even film the finale outdoors, and it’s supposed to take place near a large body of water.
20. “Penguin’s Clean Sweep”
That foulest of crooked fowls infects batches of Gotham currency with a foreign sleeping sickness but we’re the ones who feel drowsy. The Penguin’s moll in this one is played by Monique van Vooren, an actress who is in the Troy McClure league of incredibly-titled films. You may remember Monique from such classics as Tarzan & The She-Devil, Ten Thousand Bedrooms, Flesh For Frankenstein, and Tomorrow Is Too Late. She also attended NYU to study law on a Fulbright Scholarship. Holy accomplishment!
21. “The Great Escape” / 22. “The Great Train Robbery”
Shame returns, and amongst his posse is another cringe-inducing Native American stereotype named Chief Standing Pat. Balancing that out is Barry Dennen as the crony Fred, a erudite European gunslinger whose withering bon mots are all but lost on the titular baddie. An unexpected Jerry Mathers cameo ends with the kid getting bonked on the head, which is satisfying for all who feels his portrayal of Beaver Cleaver is less than endearing.
23. “I’ll Be A Mummy’s Uncle”
“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” Batman utters at one point, evoking the higher quality Bat outings that came decades later. This King Tut ep at least has a serious premise in Tut tunneling under Wayne Manor looking for some mineral and inadvertently drilling into the Batcave. Tut comes close to spilling the beans, but rather than give this show a new dynamic, rather than take a chance, they drop a boulder on the guy’s head and he’s back to his harmless professor alter ego, remembering nothing.
24. “The Joker’s Flying Saucer”
Giving the Joker a UFO to zoom around in is a neat idea but so much action is described instead of acted out that you lose investment and begin praying for the inevitable donnybrook you know will close these proceedings. Cesar Romero is game til the end, though, bragging as he’s about to rocket Batgirl into space that he’s “thrilled many a woman…but never sent one completely in orbit before.” Have fun imagining the Joker performing sex acts!
25. “The Entrancing Dr. Cassandra”
Id Lupino of High Sierra fame begins a crime spree with her awkward hipster husband, an easy feat thanks to their magical ability to become invisible. This one’s ambitious in that Cassandra sneaks into Gotham’s max security prison to release Catwoman, the Riddler, and the other MVPs of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. Alas, it fails miserably when Kitt, Gorhsin et al do not reprise their roles. Instead we get scabs who are only seen from behind, uttering no honest dialogue. What a slap in the face.
26. “Minerva, Mayhem and Millionaires”
At long last we get to see Adam West completely shirtless when he visits the spa of the enchanting Minerva (Zsa Zsa Gabor). Little does he know Minerva uses some kind of mind control device to extract the secrets of the rich and richer. Somehow this does not result in Minerva learning Bruce’s clandestine hobby. Instead, there’s rigamarole over one of his bank vaults. In the end Minerva goes quietly, but only after she’s grappled with Batgirl a la Greco-Roman. Your heart will jump in some direction.
There you have it, bat fans. What a ride. The show runners had the sets destroyed once it was clear ABC would not be picking “Batman” up for a fourth season. A shame only because NBC later expressed interest in hosting another round of bat-sanity. Oh, what might have been.
Guess there’s nothing left to do but visit the grave of every “Batman” actor who has now passed. Finally, as excuse to traverse Bavaria (the final resting place of Clock King Walter Slezak).
Until then, stay golden, my little bat freaks.
Apologies if the following informational nugget is considered general pop culture knowledge—it is, as they say, news to me. I learned mere hours ago that rotund funny man Louie Anderson was originally cast as Balki Bartokomous’s hapless American cousin in late eighties ABC television staple “Perfect Strangers.” I am astonished, not only by the shocking truth itself but also by the fact it eluded me for so many years. Clearly I am not the expert on TGIF programming I thought I was!
Anderson portrayed Lou Appleton in the unaired pilot episode of “Perfect Strangers”; producers found the chemistry between the future “Family Feud” host and Bronson Pinchot lacking, though, so they swapped Anderson out for Mark Linn-Baker and changed the character’s name to Larry (because, let’s face it, Mark Linn-Baker has the name “Larry” written all over his pathetic hangdog face). The rest is slapstick history, but I feel we must pause now to reflect on how different our world would be had Anderson stayed on as Lou to Pinchot’s madcap Balki:
– the Dance of Joy would be altered to accomodate Anderson’s girth
– the role of Maurice in Coming to America may have gone to someone else
– Mark Linn-Baker would be remembered for My Favorite Year
– after eight seasons of chasing Balki around Chicago, Anderson probably would have been too burned out to make “Life With Louie”
Quite frankly, that’s not a reality I want to live in. The Dance of Joy must end with Larry in his cousin’s arms, just as Steve Urkel must never know the tender touch of Laura Winslow and Dave Coulier must never know the dignity of an entire “Full House” episode where he isn’t forced to use the Bullwinkle voice. Still, the idea of Louie Anderson whining, “BAHL-KEE!” in his trademark Midwestern drawl excites me to some degree. Thus, I shall write my Congressperson at once to see what they can do about getting the “Perfect Strangers” pilot released on Blu-Ray and in IMAX theaters for Christmas.
In conversation this weekend about beloved TV themes, I neglected to mention or even think about “Illegal Smile,” which was of course the theme to ABC’s 1974-75 dramedy “The Texas Wheelers.” Offering the one-two punch of Gary Busey and Mark Hamill, “The Texas Wheelers” told the story of a rural Texan family being raised by their less-than-reputable father. ABC axed the show just four episodes in—despite a solid premise, “Wheelers” had no game against NBC’s wildly popular time slot rival “The Rockford Files.”
The most outstanding aspect of “The Texas Wheelers” to me remains the wry but hopeful loser anthem “Illegal Smile,” a tune that woke me up to the genius of John Prine’s eponymous ’71 debut album. Look no further for concrete evidence that sarcasm often cuts deeper when accompanied by heartfelt acoustic guitar (it doesn’t hurt that Prine’s vocalization of his various laments is nearly flawless in its cadence / emotion). What a shame it took my unhealthy man-crush on Luke Skywalker to unearth such beauty.