Riddle me this …
UPDATED 4/4/17: Frank Gorshin would have been 84 today. Good time to re-present this look at his debut as the Riddler!
Every day until 1/12 — the 50th anniversary of Batman’s TV debut — we’re counting down our Top 13 episodes. For more info on our latest Batman ’66 celebration, click here.
And bring on those comments — either here or in whichever social-media thread you found this. We want to hear your thoughts!
In case you missed them:
13. True or False Face/Holy Rat Race (click here!)
12. Green Ice/Deep Freeze (click here!)
11. The Wail of the Siren (click here!)
10. That Darn Catwoman/Scat! Darn Catwoman (click here!)
9. A Piece of the Action/Batman’s Satisfaction (click here!)
8. Surf’s Up, Joker’s Under (click here!)
7. The Contaminated Cowl/The Mad Hatter Runs Afoul (click here!)
6. Instant Freeze/Rats Like Cheese (click here!)
5. Pop Goes the Joker/Flop Goes the Joker (click here!)
4. Fine Feathered Finks/The Penguin’s a Jinx (click here!)
3. The Joker Goes to School/He Meets His Match, the Grisly Ghoul (click here!)
And now, No. 2…
Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack in the Middle. Riddle me this: Why is this the first and only Riddler episode in this countdown? Answer: Because Frank Gorshin is greater than the sum of his parts.
This isn’t an insult. Frank Gorshin was brilliant as the Riddler by any measure. His kinetic performances in the first season and the 1966 movie were charged with manic menace and gleeful danger. He was utterly, absolutely, categorically superb.
So why not more episodes on this list? Why more Joker episodes than anyone else, when the Joker isn’t even my favorite villain on the show? Well, it’s a matter of judging an episode in its totality, not what a performer did at other times. By that criteria alone, there were many other episodes that in my mind surpassed, say, The Ring of Wax or Death in Slow Motion.
Plus, there’s something to be said for variety. It would be very easy to say the Top 13 episodes were all (or mostly) in the first season, which is widely recognized as the show’s most consistent period. But this show is so much more than just its initial go-around.
So then why isn’t this episode #1 overall, which it usually is on lists like this? I call it the Sgt. Pepper’s Effect. In the same way that Beatles fans reflexively pick Sgt. Pepper’s as the Fab Four’s best album, so often do Batman ’66 fans select this one. But only in recent years have musicologists begun thinking that Revolver was the superior album. (I still stick with Abbey Road, by the way, or at least the second side.)
So there is an episode, which I’ll get to tomorrow, that surpasses this one.
Now that I’ve written six paragraphs of pre-emptive defense, I’ll get to the matter at hand, which is that Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack in the Middle is an exercise in camp magnificence.
Frank Gorshin is at the height of his Riddler powers right out of the gate. He’s still the only Batman ’66 villain who was so unhinged and no version of this venal villain before or since has been better. I’m actually disappointed in how the Riddler’s been portrayed over the last, oh, I don’t know, 30 years or so. It’s just not close.
It’s interesting that with only minor adjustment, the basic formula for the show was immediately set — and featured a scene that would come to define Adam West’s Batman for decades to come: the Batusi.
George Barris’ Batmobile drove its way into consciousness with an exciting flourish of bells and fireworks, and even the underrated Burt Ward gives one of his best performances, when he takes over the role of “Molly” in the second half. Sure, that’s Burt Ward mincing, but you do forget it’s not Jill St. John in disguise.
For her part, Jill St. John makes a great moll/henchwoman (pick your term). Her demise is still noteworthy because it’s a reminder of the direction in which the show could have gone: Slightly more adventurous, slightly less campy.
Then again, even her death was played for twisted laughs: “What a way to go-go.”
This is an episode with just about everything — Bat-climb included — even if it has one of the series’ most low-fi deathtraps (which turned out to be a feint).
Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack in the Middle — written by Bat-king of Bat-camp Lorenzo Semple Jr. — is inventive and exciting and set every one of us down the Day-Glo highway we’ve been driving on in our imaginary Batmobiles for the last five decades.
NEXT: The Purr-fect finish …