Let's be clear: Batman: The Animated Series is one of the greatest shows of all time. Usually, people assume that even the best cartoons couldn't match great live-action TV series, but BTAS deserves to be up there with stuff like Deadwood and Breaking Bad and The Leftovers. Its moody art style is unparalleled, its orchestral scores were epic and memorable, and the top-notch cast ensured that I'd be hearing their voices in my head whenever I read Batman comics for the rest of my life.
Many of the episodes are great, with some being nearly perfect. So I don't take any of these 15 picks lightly. Imagine if you had 85 children, and you had to pick the best 15 to take out for ice cream, while the others just, I don't know, sat in the yard and ate cardboard. Look, this metaphor isn't perfect, but just know that this list is one of the hardest things that I've ever had to do.
Note: I'm not including any of the episodes from The New Batman Adventures, which aired two years after BTAS and had a different art style. I'm also not including Mask of the Phantasm and SubZero, the two BTAS movies, because 1) They're movies, and 2) This whole list would just be Mask of the Phantasm over and over again. It is our nation's greatest treasure.
Batman's Rogues' Gallery includes a few failed entertainers: The Joker is upset that the world doesn't have a taste for homicide on their TVs; Clayface was originally a disgruntled actor; and Baby Doll was an actress with a growth disorder who found herself shunned by the movie industry after her sitcom ended. "Baby Doll" isn't an episode with a ton of action, but it's one of the most tragic episodes in the entire series. Trapped in the body of a small child, Baby Doll can't be helped by Batman. All he can do is stop her and send her back to Arkham, where she will probably escape, continuing a cycle that will go on forever.
"Fear of Victory"
Despite the fact that Scarecrow literally makes you see your worst fears with his toxins, he's never been very scary. He's just a skinny guy with a bag over his head, and Batman could break him in half just by bumping into him. Thus, in an adventure, it's hard to construct a plot where Scarecrow seems like an adequate threat for 20 minutes. Luckily, "Fear of Victory," in which Scarecrow invents a poison that causes people to become immobilized by fear during times of stress, makes Scarecrow into a legitimately intimidating foe.
"See No Evil"
"See No Evil" doesn't feature any famous Batman villains. Instead, the bad guy is someone that can turn himself, and other objects, invisible. And while this means that his psychological profile is pretty sparse, his duels with the Caped Crusader help turn "See No Evil" into one of the most purely satisfying action-oriented episodes on the show. It's basically Batman vs The Invisible Man, which is awesome on screen, but renders all of my fan fiction useless.
"Almost Got 'Im"
Being a Batman villain is tough. Either you're a large crocodile man, or shaped like an arctic bird, or you dress like a cat, and you're forced to fight a tech genius/ninja/billionaire every month. It's just not fair that no matter how close you get, Batman is always one step ahead. And that's the plot of the hilariously fun "Almost Got 'Im," in which five villains lament about all the times they got thiiiis close to beating Batman.
Killer Croc isn't a very smart guy. His tactics are either trying to drown Batman or trying to throw Batman, and considering that Batman is, well, Batman, these attempts rarely go well. He's also not a very sociable guy, with his alligator skin and a voice that sounds like he's slowly choking on gravel. But in "Sideshow," Killer Croc meets a group of sideshow "freaks," and, for the first time, actually becomes a part of a family. Does this all go poorly? Yes. But it's always nice to see Killer Croc in a setting where he's not trying to actively tear out Batman's spine 24/7.
"On Leather Wings"
The first BTAS episode is also one of the best. Usually, TV shows take a while to find their footing, but "On Leather Wings" is a home run from the first scene. Sometimes I watch it just to marvel at how smooth the animation is, or just to see the final action sequences involving Batman fleeing the police and then taking down Man Bat. It's a legitimately beautiful piece of art that just happens to include a plot about a guy that turns into a giant winged monster.
"Heart of Ice"
"Heart of Ice" is the number one pick for a lot of people, so don't take this ranking as me hating it. I hate very few BTAS episodes, mainly because it's scientifically impossible to. But even if it's not my favorite, there are still so many notable things to love about it — Mr. Freeze's wonderful reinvention as a tragic villain mourning his lost love, a surprise Mark Hamill cameo as the unscrupulous Ferris Boyle, the way Batman drops down and sweeps the legs of multiple thugs at one point (I don't know why that stuck out to me, it just looks so rad), and a plethora of others.
BTAS did a few "the villain gets better" episodes, like this, "Second Chance," which featured Two Face, and "Birds of a Feather," aka the Penguin Dating Simulator. However, I like "Riddler's Reform" most, mainly because, underneath it all, it's a wonderful examination of comic book relationships. Riddler's whole shtick is that he is psychologically unable to stop himself from leaving clues for Batman. He literally has to shoot himself in the foot every time he wants to commit a crime. However, he seems to have gone legit in "Riddler's Reform," so maybe it's Batman that's being paranoid over all these supposed "clues"? I won't spoil the ending, but this episode is a fine look into the effect that Batman and his villains have on each other.
"Perchance to Dream"
What if Bruce Wayne didn't need to be Batman? What if his parents never died? And if they never died, would Bruce still have that urge, deep down, to go fight crime? Or is Batman the perfect life... hell, the only life for Bruce Wayne? "Perchance to Dream" is all about these questions, and while I've never wanted to spoil an ending more, I won't be the jerk who does it here.
"Harley & Ivy"
"Harley & Ivy" is an episode that's always been fantastic and only gets better with time. Villain team ups weren't overdone in BTAS, and Harley and Ivy have the best chemistry out of all of them as they go on a "girls night out" around Gotham after Joker momentarily kicks Harley out of his gang. This episode goes a long way in showing you how you can flesh out characters like Harley and Ivy when you remove them from their normal settings and have them mostly interact with each other. So it's not just a fun episode, but a superhero TV show writing lesson. Neat!
"Read My Lips"
I feel like "Read My Lips" gets ignored because it's not really "important." It doesn't have a major villain's last hurrah, or a particularly deep moment that analyzes the heart of Batman. Instead, it's a mystery story about a sheepish man and his gangster puppet, and it's one of the most solid, self-contained episodes of any adventure show that I've ever seen. The episode was written by author Joe R. Lansdale (who also wrote "Perchance to Dream") and his awesome ability to combine moody crime and horror is on full display here.
"The Laughing Fish"
"The Laughing Fish" starts with the Joker wanting to copyright fish and therefore earn a profit from them. It ends with Batman having to escape a shark, and another shark seemingly eating the Joker. Basically, "The Laughing Fish," on paper, seems absolutely bonkers. But that's one of the great things about BTAS: It takes these stories of colorful criminals and a man that dresses like a bat and turns them into poetry, aka totally rad stuff.
Clayface is dying. That's the crux of "Mudslide," in which, due to the instability of his genetic make-up, Clayface finds himself unable to physically keep himself together. And so, with the help of a scientist that he may have fallen in love with, he now desperately has to do whatever he can to maintain his very literal composure. "Mudslide" is great because "Mudslide" is about desperation. Usually, when a villain is defeated by Batman, he is simply taken back to Arkham Asylum. But Clayface doesn't have that luxury. If he's defeated, he's gone for good.
"Two Face Part I"
"Two Face Part I" is a character study of Harvey Dent, a man with a beautiful new fiance, a great job, some close friends, and a quickly crumbling psyche. See, Two Face didn't become Two Face when he got scarred. As "Two Face Part I" shows us, he's always had a dark side, that of Big Bad Harv, who takes the reins of his personality whenever he feels stressed. The question is: Can he learn to control it? As you see from the "Part I" in the title, the answer is: "Well, no." But that shouldn't stop you from watching BTAS' most gripping, emotionally effective episode.
"The Man Who Killed Batman"
You want definitive proof that BTAS is a once-in-a-lifetime show? The best episode barely has Batman in it. In "The Man Who Killed Batman," a low level criminal seemingly offs Batman and suddenly becomes the number one targeted man in Gotham. The Joker's jealous eulogy for Batman is unforgettable, as he is unable to mourn the Caped Crusader without first exploding into a rage over the fact that he was NOT the man who killed Batman. It's wonderful stuff, and it's honestly my pick for the episode that you should show people if they've been unfortunate enough to never have watched BTAS before.
Disagree with this list? Feel free to hit up the comments below or tell the author on Twitter, as he is ALWAYS down to talk about Batman.