Last year, I did an insane thing and reviewed about 50 of the 85 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, hands-down the best comic book superhero television show of all time, in celebration of Batman’s 75th anniversary. I called it Batman: REanimated and it was a fun excursion, though certainly tiring by the end. Because I didn’t review every single episode, I had to choose what would get featured and what wouldn’t, meaning I generally only talked about the episodes I remembered fondly, and even then I had to skip some good ones. One that was never going to be featured in that column was my number-one choice for being featured here, amid the crappiest episodes of great TV. That episode is “The Underdwellers” and I hate it so much.
Now, usually for this series I like to see what the consensus for worst episode is for whatever show I’m doing and then go with that and evaluate whether conventional wisdom is correct. BUT, I don’t even care what other people say about this episode or this show; this is the one that I dislike watching the most. I don’t like episodes like “Night of the Ninja” or its sequel “Day of the Samurai” at all; I think they’re boring and completely pointless. But, I’d gladly watch both of them than “The Underdwellers,” an episode so hokey and so pedestrian and so, weirdly, pandering, that it kind of devalues the work the series was so good at doing, which was to present grown-up stories to a kid-friendly audience. This one is just so, so… stupid. It’s like it came right out of the 1960s camp-tastic live action series but was just transposed on the darker-tinged Animated Series. I mean, the villain’s name is “Sewer King” for crying out soft.
The episode is about a group of children who are taken from an orphanage, or wherever, by this self-crowned king of the sewers and made to do his bidding, which usually entailed stealing from people on the surface. He doesn’t want any of them to talk, not even utter a single word, lest the poor child be put into a room with a huge light fixture for a few hours. He blinds them if they speak. Criminy. The Sewer King also has pet alligators that are about the size of ones you’d see in any horror movie. I guess you’re not supposed to flush baby gators down the terlet after all. One of the kids, a smart one the King calls “Frog,” heads up to the surface and is chased by Batman after stealing a lady’s purse. Batman eventually catches him and takes him back to the Batcave/Wayne Manor to get some food and rest before they both head into the sewers to find the King and free the other kids.
The premise, I guess, isn’t too stupid, but the problem here isn’t the story, it’s the script and execution. I know this episode was only the sixth one produced, but it really seems like the writers didn’t know who the hell either Batman or Alfred were when writing it. Let’s start with Alfred; when Batman brings Frog to Wayne Manor, he asks Alfred to look after him while he goes out and continues patrolling. Alfred protests that he doesn’t know anything about kids, completely forgetting the fact that HE FRIGGING RAISED BRUCE FROM A VERY YOUNG AGE. That’s, like, the FIRST thing you have to know about Alfred: He is Bruce’s butler who raised him after his parents got murdered. It’s the whole reason Alfred is important. Oh, and remember Dick Grayson? Yeah, same thing. They get it so right for the rest of the series that it’s laughable how out of place it feels here. Alfred can’t even figure out how to put the kid to bed or feed him without looking the fool. Come on, Alfred!
Now let’s go to Batman. The beauty of the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini version of Batman is that he’s brooding and stoic and altogether a very imposing presence; here he’s back to being just a glorified boy scout with a bit more fighting skill. He’s so irritating. At the beginning of the episode, he saves two idiot teenagers from the top of a speeding train where they decided to be dumb. He basically tells them not to throw their life away. That’s how the episode starts. Doesn’t Batman have more important things to do than catch kids who somehow got on top of speeding trains? Later, he almost cheerfully tells Alfred that he’s going to go back out and patrol as Batman instead of going to some soiree as Bruce Wayne, as if he or we don’t know it’s as Batman. Then, when he’s fighting Sewer King, he goes so far as to call him a sleaze because of how he treats children (which is true), then when the guy is falling to his “death” with the gators, Batman shouts for him to give him his hand, and when Sewer King refuses (screaming “Neveeeeeeeeeer!”) Batman then says, VERY gravely, “A gruesome end for a gruesome man.” But, of course Sewer King isn’t dead, but when Batman DOES defeat him, saving him from a speeding subway, he says “I don’t pass sentence. That’s for the courts. But this time – THIS TIME – I am sorely tempted to do the job myself.”
Without even mentioning how stupid the Sewer King really is (why on Earth can’t Batman just beat the ever-loving crap out of this weasel?), nothing else about this episode is appealing, and it completely misrepresents its main characters. Batman doesn’t lecture and Alfred isn’t incompetent. These are very easy things to figure out, but this episode just fails at both. And when the children are finally released, one of them looks up to the heavens and says “Light!” like he hasn’t just had light used as torture for the past however long. I just do not like this episode. Surely you have ones you think are worse. I’d like to hear them! List your least favorite Batman: The Animated Series episodes below.