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Batman: The Animated Series – “The Underdwellers”

The_Underdwellers-Title_CardEpisode Number:  6

Original Air Date:  October 21, 1992

Directed by:  Frank Paur

Written by:  Tom Ruegger

First Appearance(s):  The Sewer King

For a long time, children’s shows were required to have some education content. That’s why we have such memorable segments from G.I. Joe with one of the Joe’s letting us know that “Knowing is half the battle.” These standards were either omitted or relaxed by the time the 90s rolled around, but this episode of Batman feels like it could have been made in the 80s.

The episode opens with a couple of kids playing chicken by riding on the roof of a train. Whoever bails first loses. Batman takes note and swoops in to put an end to such foolishness, and it’s a good thing too because one of the kids gets his foot caught on some cables and might have perished had he not. The boys are admonished by Batman with the line, “Play chicken long enough and you get fried.” See, Batman doesn’t just fight crime!

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Batman says, “Thumbs up, dude!”

Shortly after, a woman is robbed by a little person wearing a green cloak, prompting her to declare she was victimized by a leprechaun. Batman oversees this but is unable to catch the culprit, but seems to be buying her description for some reason. This even leads to a scene at the Batcave with Bruce asking Alfred if he thinks he’s crazy for claiming to see a leprechaun. Alfred smartly responds with sarcasm, before Batman heads out for further investigation. He ends up finding a secret entrance to Gotham’s sewer system, where he finds his leprechaun:  a young boy who’s apparently been living down there. For some reason, Batman deems it necessary to take the kid home with him and have Alfred look after him. I have no idea why he doesn’t bring him to the police and continue nosing around in the sewers, and sadly Alfred doesn’t question Master Bruce.

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This is The Sewer King. He sucks, though Michael Pataki gives a pretty good performance, all things considered.

The real reason for bringing the kid back is likely to pad out the episode as we get to watch Alfred struggle through a day trying to wash the kid, feed him, and even get him to do some chores. He’s a mute with a dislike of sunlight. In a separate scene we learn his name is Frog via his surrogate father:  The Sewer King. The Sewer King (Michael Pataki) is never named in the episode, and his name only appears as graffiti throughout the sewers. He’s some kind of madman dressed kind of like a pirate (complete with the eye patch) who has some obedient pet alligators to make him seem menacing. He also lords over a bunch of orphaned children who do his bidding. They’re forbidden to speak, and are only allowed above ground to steal for him. He’s cruel, but only emotionally. Apparently Standards & Practices wouldn’t let him be physically cruel to the children, which probably would have added more menace to the character. He’s enraged when a child other than Frog brings him his rolls for his dinner, and as the tired and malnourished children look on, he throws the food on the ground and sends them all away to find Frog.

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The Misadventures of Frog and The Butler

Meanwhile, Frog finds Bruce’s room full of antique weapons and plucks an old rifle off of a display. Batman shows up and is quick to remind the audience that children and guns don’t mix. Hey Bruce, I don’t disagree with that sentiment, but if you want to keep guns out of the hands of children maybe don’t just casually hang them on your wall within reach?

Batman and Frog head back to the sewers, where Batman is finally able to confront The Sewer King. He gets to do battle with the gators, and even dislocates the jaw of one of them in unrealistic fashion, but you don’t need me to tell you that Batman isn’t losing to some guy named The Sewer King. When he does finally catch The Sewer King, Batman implies he’s really tempted in this instance to take his life which apparently director Paur felt was necessary in establishing that Batman is a friend to all children.

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Shots like this are probably what caused Bruce Timm to declare it too anime-like in appearance, but I do think it works in places and love the blacks and blues seen here.

This is probably not a well-remembered episode of Batman. It deals with a D-level villain who will never resurface and is clearly aimed at just connecting Batman with a young audience. That said, I don’t feel it’s necessarily written poorly, I just wish it wasn’t so hammy with the lessons. The opening scene exists only for the show to make the statement that riding on top of trains is a bad idea, which feels like something that doesn’t need stating. If those kids were somehow followed-up on at the episode’s conclusion maybe it would have been worthwhile. Instead it feels like an episode that had a 15 minute story, and that scene, as well as Frog and Alfred, needed to be added to add more time. Though I should say, the scenes with Alfred and Frog might be the best of the episode as they are kind of funny, and the villain is so hard to be invested in that those lighter scenes end up working better.

Visually, Bruce Timm expressed dissatisfaction with the episode, saying it too resembled anime. I can kind of see that in the design of the children, but the episode is actually animated rather well. Better than the previous episode, “Pretty Poison.” The lighting in the sewer, something which could have proved challenging, looks great and I felt Batman’s movements were noticeably smoother than they’ve been in some of the other episodes.

There’s no covering up for a mediocre antagonist, and while The Sewer King is easy to root against, he’s also hard to take seriously. With the way these episodes are structured, when the villain stinks the episode tends to follow which is why “The Underdwellers” is probably nobody’s favorite episode. I should add though, I was not looking forward to re-watching this episode for this feature, but I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would, some of that was ironically. Still, probably not my least favorite episode of season one.

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