I didn’t intend to acknowledge, much less address, the “classic” 1960s TV show starring Adam West as part of this series. To be honest, I’m much more a fan of Mr. West’s later work.
However, a commenter called me on it correctly when I examined Batman’s evolution. If I’m going to talk about Batman as a reflection of the times in which he’s reinvented, to overlook the 1960s show is unfair.
1960s Sensibilities for Superheroes
The 1960s Batman TV show was my first exposure to the iconic crime fighter. I suspect it was the first for a lot of kids.
My special memory of the TV show is that it’s inextricably linked with childhood summers when it got too hot to go outside. I was trapped in the house — our old Rambler–model home with spiritually possessed basement — and while I could have gone outside, it was unbearably hot and no one was there to force me to go outside. My brother was out working or feathering his hair, and both my parents were out working. I was trapped in the house and getting bored with action figures.
So I turned to television. In the days before cable I distinctly remember the choices as soap operas, talk shows and syndicated repeats on WDCA-TV, Channel 20. Every so often you’d get a rare gem twinkling in the wasteland like Robotech, but for the most part television was a way to bear the long periods of isolation before anyone got home. Sure, I loved to read, but even the library was three miles from the house. That’s a long trek in a hellish southern summer. (DC is a swamp. We’re in the South. Deal with it, hipsters.)
So I discovered Batman. Even at the age of 10 (or somewhere about, give or take a year), I thought it was crap. The sets looked so fake! The escapes seemed so easy! “BOFF” isn’t a word!
So I started to watch it to mock it. My brother joined in from time to time. The show was part of a syndicated block that would also show The Monkees, and I’m not sure which bore more verbal abuse from the two of us. Ironically, I’ve come to love many of the songs of The Monkees. Go figure.
And so I dismissed it originally as part of my examination of the Batman mythos for the last few blogs. But as the aforementioned commenter astutely observed,
In all seriousness, there is something to be said about Adam West’s portrayal in the context of the society that created it, even if we don’t like what we find.
And Holy Freud, he was right.
The 1960s TV show was never intended to be taken as high art or reality so far as I can tell. It was just supposed to be crazy fun for kids to watch. Keep in mind that the show was released in the midst of the Cold War, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s assassination and loads of fun things like the “kinetic military actions” (I love that bulls*** term, and thank our current executive branch leaders for inventing the Orwellian term) in Korea and Vietnam. I have to imagine that the last thing parents wanted to do was turn on the television and worry about what the kids were watching.
And let’s stay focused on that above all other things. Comic books were children’s things at the time. They were not the serious business they are now, filled with byzantine mythologies and brutal characters like Wolverine or Lobo. If you go back to the classic versions of X-Men or Fantastic Four, they were four-color adventure targeted at kids. Not adults. Comics were things you stopped collecting when you got to a certain age.
And unless I’m way off, I’m pretty sure parents back then wanted their kids to be kids, unlike the modern day. There were no “very special episodes” to teach kids about adult issues, where the cool uncle played by Tom Hanks faced alcoholism or Hawkeye had to deliver another maudlin soliloquy on M*A*S*H as the price of admission for a soundtrack giggle. They also wanted kids to respect their parents, who are the ones responsible for teaching those lessons in the first place.
And so Adam West delivered a Batman who was part “Father Knows Best,” part “Super hero” and part comic relief. He played it straight, but with a little twinkle that told the viewers, both young and old, that it was all going to be OK. You could beat the boogeyman because he was never going to be smarter or more dedicated than you.
Batman tells us therefore plenty about what the 1960s really were by what the show was not. It was not heavy, it was not serious. The world itself was so serious that people were looking for any way to lessen the pressure without blowing out their brains. Just three years before the show had aired, they had seen their president shot and killed, for goodness’ sake.
And while the 1960s TV show does tell us a lot about the context of the society in which it was born, what we think about it says just as much about us.
After the horrors we’ve seen happen — the World Trade Center tragedy, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, public beheadings and underwear bombers — did we seek to relieve the pressure? No, we’ve sought to incorporate it into the fabric of our escapism. Holy Blood Pressure, during the Blitzkrieg the Brits still managed to go to the theatre and enjoy a good laugh or two.
In the blog about Gotham’s portrayal I said, “We demand a higher sense of reality in our fantasy now.” And that’s uncomfortably true. It’s as if we can’t allow ourselves just to relax and have fun. Everything has to make “sense.”
But why? Why can’t someone just unplug and have some fun with it? Why does everything have to be so serious? Thank goodness for Aqua Unit Patrol Squad and the rest of Adult Swim to act as an outlet!
And so upon reflection I guess I have to lighten up just a little bit on the television show.
I’ll never like it; I’m too much of a Batman “purist” for that to happen. But it was a product of its time, and for what it was trying to accomplish, Adam West delivered precisely what he was supposed to give the audience. So tip of the hat to Adam West, and when it’s all said and done, the original Batmobile was still pretty awesome.