“Hizzonner The Penguin/Dizzonner The Penguin” (S2/E17 & 18) Author: Mark Hughes (Follow @MARKHUGHESFILMS)
Date: May 5, 2015
SYNOPSIS PART 1: The Penguin turns over a new leaf and runs for Mayor of Gotham City. In the face of his overwhelming popularity, Mayor Linseed asks Batman to take his place and run for Mayor instead. The Penguin stays ahead thanks to his manipulation of the public, but to stay on the safe side, he has his men lure Batman and Robin into a deathtrap.
PART 2: Using his wit and will, Batman saves himself and Robin from the acid deathtrap. Penguin continues his march toward winning the Gotham election.
“Hizzonner The Penguin/Dizzonner The Penguin” was written by Stanford Sherman and directed by Oscar Randolph. They were first broadcast, respectively, on November 2 & 3, 1966 on the ABC television network.
The first season episodes of BATMAN were a wonderful mixture of entertaining, adventurous storytelling and smart humor. The camp is clearly there, but it’s restrained from overwhelming the entire enterprise or derailing the attempt at faithful adaptations of characters and stories in ways that appeal to younger and older audiences.
Writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. brought most of the action-oriented and more straightforward, higher-quality storytelling to the first season’s episodes. His departure as a primary writer in the second season allowed writers Stanford Sherman and William Dozier to take Batman in a campier, comedic direction with less attention to complicated plots and action to balance out the camp.
The impact of this writing change is on full display in the two-part story arc “Hizzonner the Penguin/Dizzoner the Penguin.” From a writing perspective, there is very little plotting and no real sense to anything that goes on, while the humor and silliness are ramped up significantly. It’s written to highlight gags, self-satire, and outrageous camp. In those regards, the episodes definitely work, and there is an underlying social satire that proves to be surprisingly relevant and more than a little eerily politically prescient.
In brief, the story is about Batman’s enemy The Penguin running for mayor of Gotham City. Penguin calls himself “Citizen Penguin” and intervenes in crimes to protect the public. He runs a fun campaign offering free booze, popular music, and meaningless political promises, which becomes instantly popular with voters. Mayor Linseed realizes he cannot win reelection, and so asks Batman to run instead. Batman accepts, but his attempt to run an issues-focused campaign without photo ops or popular appeal turns the public against him. The Penguin has no other ploy in the works, he just plans to win the election and enrich himself through corruption.
The episodes’ director Oscar Rudolph had a career firmly rooted in comedy programs like The Brady Bunch and My Favorite Martian. While this diminishes the excitement and quality of the action scenes, it’s undeniably great for the comedic timing. Rudolph is particularly great at getting hilarious reaction shots from Adam West and heightening the contrast between the lunacy of the story’s events and West’s consistent deadpanning. But the loss of enjoyable adventure in the story weakens it, even if it doesn’t ruin it.
While Rudolph surely gets great comedic performances from his actors, he doesn’t display any particular artistry in his choice of shots or camera work. There isn’t even much use of the Dutch angles or irreverent color schemes in the show’s look and design, which combined with the lack of action or adventure renders it a far less visually interesting experience.
Indeed, there is almost no action in the first episode at all, and what action does take place is perfunctory, leading to one of the most uninteresting cliffhangers of the series up to this point. Likewise, the escape from the mandatory cliffhanger that ended part 1 is so lackluster and easy, it’s a huge letdown. Not only is it devoid of excitement and cleverness, it isn’t even funny. It merely relies on a lazy excuse with terrible visual execution. It’s obvious this cliffhanger – and the scenario that gets Batman and Robin into the situation in the first place, was shoehorned into the story merely out of necessity to fill the empty hole in the story where a cliffhanger typically sits.
The second episode at least features an extended action sequence at the midpoint that makes up in satire and thematic purpose what it lacks in excitement and technical execution. However, the eventual climactic fight to bring it all to a close is once again a paint-by-numbers affair lacking energy. We get a few clumsy punches setting up a goofy gag involving a giant machine that looks hastily constructed from cardboard boxes and construction paper for school play. The problem of lack of imagination is also evident right at the start of part 2, in a recap that’s too on-the-nose in explaining the setup, and lacking the puns or fun of the first season openings.
If all of this sounds harsh, let me now speak more about those things that did work in the episodes, because whatever flaws admittedly exist and whatever is missing in action and excitement, it still ends up being quite entertaining.
Burgess Meredith played The Penguin in six previous episodes, and would go on to portray the villain a total of 21 times during the series’ three-year run. But these two episodes are among my all-time favorites of Meredith’s villainous turn on BATMAN. He’s having a great time and amusing himself, with a fantastic energy intentionally contrasted against West’s restrained Batman-as-straight-man routine that grows increasingly implausibly wooden the more animated Meredith’s Penguin becomes. The effect plays like a solid Saturday Night Live skit featuring caricatures of Al Gore and George Bush on the campaign trail.
The political satire of these episodes is really important to the overall themes and structure of the story. On two separate occasions, Batman looks directly into the camera while giving brief speeches about his belief that candidates should focus on issues instead of cheap distracting tactics, and his confidence that voters can be trusted to ultimately make the right choice based on serious consideration of the facts. His tongue is planted firmly in his cheek; making his remarks at once a winking nod to the fact the electorate often behaves the opposite of his assertions, and a fairly damning indictment of that fact during a decade of major social change and political upheavals. After all, the nation had just experienced the first few national elections in which television and so-called “style over substance” dominated campaigning and had a huge impact on election outcomes.
The review continues after the jump!
The Penguin involves “God and country” rhetoric, waving flags and insisting on his commitment to jingoistic patriotic iconography like “ma and apple pie.” Some of this is typical old school back-slapping and baby-kissing (one of the story’s best gags is when Batman refuses to kiss a baby because, as he carefully and stiffly explains to the mother, children are “unsanitary” and covered in germs) is standard political campaigning, but there’s a strong point being made in his repeated insistence on avoiding real issues and focusing on emotional appeal to patriotism while slinging mud and nasty accusations at Batman.
The story has a repeated gag involving a candidate named “Harry Goldwinner” getting 2-3% support in the pre-election polls, a direct shot at 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who suffered the then-worst popular vote defeat in U.S. history (and the second-worst of all time to date). Goldwater was of course also responsible for turning the Republican Party sharply to the right, and was widely portrayed to be an extremist too crazy to be trusted with power yet intensely popular precisely due to his outrageous rhetoric and certain key flag-waving, jingoistic pronouncements. Not that Batman is fully lampooning Goldwater or the GOP with all of the satire in these episodes, but viewers at the time would be fully mindful of the recent course of political events, and it’s obvious some of those events were the target of the show’s jokes.
There are also sharp jabs at too much reliance on political pollsters and how election results can defy predictions, with West again addressing the camera in a still-satirical yet more knowing manner than his earlier fourth-wall violation.
Some of the best and most fascinating aspects of these two episodes are how coincidentally predictive some of the jokes are.
In the aforementioned midpoint battle on the convention floor from part 2, we get a wonderful bit of zaniness as a TV news journalist reports live during the fight, walking the crowded, chaotic room and getting Batman to stop mid-fight for a quick soundbite before he jumps back into the fracas. The dueling political candidates and TV coverage of convention unrest comes off as satirizing the political and literal battles at the national party conventions two years later, but of course the show wasn’t aware of what the future holds, so the impression is only clear in hindsight.
Batman taking the top spot on the ticket, with plans to secretly resign and let his vice-mayor take over, is a political maneuver that vaguely resembles President Nixon’s choice of Gerald Ford as vice president in 1973 (replacing the sitting VP, Spiro Agnew, who resigned) with the obvious agreement that Ford would pardon Nixon if and when it became necessary due to the Watergate scandal and investigations.
Finally, and most bizarrely, the story ends with Batman receiving first a call from one unnamed major political party requesting he join them as their presidential candidate for the 1968 election, and then getting a second call from the other major party with the same request. Batman responds to the second call with a shocked remark that, “I thought your party already had a candidate??” This is clearly a reference to the Democrats having a sitting president who would presumably run for reelection in 1968 — except that president, Lyndon B. Johnson, chose not to run after all, forcing the Democrats to seek another new candidate. So Holy Crystal Balls, Batman apparently knew what was coming before anybody else did!
The Penguin’s campaign for mayor would be reused a few decades later in Tim Burton’s feature film BATMAN RETURNS (1992), including some of the silly campaign behavior and lack of real substance in favor of glitz, emotional appeal, and riling up the public against Batman. There’s even a certain nod to a scene in the TV show where a young female campaign volunteer expresses her admiration for The Penguin and he encourages her enthusiasm, although the movie unfortunately merely used the scene for cheap sexual innuendo.
These episodes are a mixed bag, with writing and directing that aren’t on par with the first season’s offerings, yet some great performances and biting social/political satire that makes the most of the second season’s embrace of more humor and camp in the series. I grew up on the BATMAN TV show, and I love it even when it’s not at its best. This story certainly isn’t the best the program had to offer, but it’s far from the worst, and is entertaining enough to deserve a watch. - Mark Hughes