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Batman: The Complete Third Season
The best thing about the series, Adam West's marvelously funny interpretation of Bob Kane's and Bill Finger's DC Comics title character, is still fully intact, still occasionally hilarious. It was possibly the first American TV series to embrace camp as a primary source of comedy, and one of the first notable for its use of bright, primary colors, reflecting the pop art style of the original comics, but the freshness of the show is conspicuously absent.
Ratings were plummeting and obvious desperation set in. The third season of Batman famously introduced a new co-star, the late Yvonne Craig as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. While she's undeniably sexy in the role, the writers clearly have no idea what to do with her, the character combining elements of Batman, Robin, and Catwoman, all rolled into one, without adding anything new.
What's most depressing about Batman's third season is watching how utterly mechanical the show had become. About the only difference from one show to a next is the "special guest villain" and, beyond their distinctive appearances, aren't as varied in terms of the writing very much, either. Finally, while the early Batmans, particularly when they first aired, were often visually startlingly imaginative, third season episodes merely repeat what had worked in the past, and the show even looks downright cheap at times. (The villains' lairs repeatedly use barren soundstages with blacked-out backgrounds, with a few pieces of furniture and a set/prop representing the villain's latest secret weapon against Gotham City's crime fighters.)
On DVD the series looks good but lacks the revelatory "pop" of the concurrent Fox series Lost in Space, which really shines now (albeit on Blu-ray). The set has no extras, those apparently saved for purchasers of the complete series set.
As before, episodes of Batman typically begin with that week's villain committing some incredible new robbery or other bit of larceny. Gotham City's Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton), aided by police Chief O'Hara (Stafford Repp) contact Batman (Adam West) and his young ward, Robin (Burt Ward), actually millionaire Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, to aid in the investigation. Using preposterous clues left by the taunting villains, the Dynamic Duo typically engage in a big fight scene with the villain and his/her henchmen in their lair around the midpoint, returning for the big climax.
The show, of course, was famous for its serial-style action, its over-the-top narration (by producer William Dozier), and fight scenes punctuated with onomatopoeia derived from comic books.
Yvonne Craig's introduction as Batgirl, actually Commissioner Gordon's adult daughter, operating independently and almost in competition with Batman and Robin, adds some sexy color but narratively plays like a third wheel. Lots of great eye candy, to be sure, but as a character she simply adds nothing to the show, redundantly composed of Batman's sincerity, Robin's youthful vigor, and Catwoman's skin-tight costume (more or less)
The writers aren't quite sure if they want to make her Batman's equal or a heroine whom occasionally needs rescuing herself. As with Bruce Wayne's Aunt Harriet (Madge Blake, who makes only two brief cameo appearances during season three due to failing health), Commissioner Gordon is utterly clueless about Batgirl's real identity, despite obvious clues, as are Batman and Robin and everyone else save Bruce's loyal manservant Alfred (Alan Napier). The show would have been less redundant and more interesting if Commissioner Gordon had been more repressive and protective with Barbara, more trusting and respectful toward Batgirl.
Batgirl's footage, right down to the show's new animated opening, combined with all the indulgence given stars guesting as villains, threatens to push West especially off into the sidelines, much as the later Batman movies have done with their Caped Crusaders. West is very funny when he gets the chance to be so; his Batman remains one of television's most inspired, irreplaceable creations. The rest of the cast is game, too, especially the underrated Neil Hamilton, a big star of the early talkie era, and clearly in on the joke.
For Batman's first two seasons the show had the unusual format of running twice per week, Wednesday and Thursday nights, in two-part stories separated by cliffhanger endings, a la earlier movie serials, at the climax of the Wednesday night program. ("Tune in tomorrow! Same Bat-time! Same Bat-channel!") This was dropped for the third season, which ran Batman only once per week, in mostly self-contained stories, despite a few multi-part episodes, and with shows typically concluding with what essentially was the first few minutes of the next episode (and which thus found screentime for next week's guest star villain).
The villains of season three, as a whole, are a disappointing lot. Absent from season two and replaced briefly by John Astin, Frank Gorshin makes a single episode return here as The Riddler, while Julie Newmar, the best of the three actresses to play Catwoman during this period, was busy making Mackenna's Gold and was herself replaced by Eartha Kitt, an inspired choice but still a long way from Newmar's lust-factor. They, along with The Joker (Cesar Romero) and The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), were overworked villains by this point (these four characters having already joined forces for the Batman theatrical film, made between the first and second seasons.) Romero and Meredith appear thrice. Except for Victor Buono's King Tut, always played a bit differently from the other heavies (so to speak), the season's other guest stars are rather dull (Rudy Vallee and Glynis Johns as Lord Marmaduke Ffogg and Lady Penelope Peasoup, Ida Lupino and Howard Duff as Dr. Cassandra Spellcraft and Cabala, etc.)
There seems to be much less time spent on more expensive backlot and location shooting and, strangely, the audience gets to see much less of the Batcave and "stately Wayne Manor" than before.
Video & Audio
Batman: The Complete Third Season looks good, if unspectacular, appearing slighting darker and more muted color-wise than this reviewer remembers even 16mm syndication prints looking. The Dolby Digital mono tracks sound great, however, and are supported by English, French, and Spanish subtitle options. No Extra Features
Much more disappointing than I was expecting, Batman's third season has its share of laughs but the show was really getting stale by this point and I can only suggest that you Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available while his commentary track for Arrow Video's Battles without Honor and Humanity will be released this month.