By now, pretty much everyone has read or seen Batman in some incarnation, so why would you want to watch a cartoon from 1992? Well, it's not only widely considered to be one of the best cartoons of all time (usually coming in second to The Simpsons), but it was extremely influential, even more than I realized. For instance, Harley Quinn? Created for the series and then added to the comics. There are several original characters that became part of the actual comics, including Renee Montoya. The tragic backstory for Mr. Freeze used in Batman and Robin? Taken from the Emmy-winning "Heart of Ice," which completely redefined the character. This series is essential viewing for any Batman fan, and for many, it is the definitive vision.
But what if you're not a Batman fan? Well, do you want to be? Because this is a very good way to get your Batman education, especially if you enjoy villains, since the show is pretty villain-centric. Classic villains like the Joker, Two-Face, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, the Penguin, and Catwoman make frequent appearances, as do the aforementioned Harley and Freeze. Some of my other favorites include Clayface—who, like Mr. Freeze, got a tragic backstory that informed the actual comic incarnation—the Ventriloqust/Scarface, and the Mad Hatter. There are dozens of villains to enjoy, however, several of whom recur. And, as the treatment of Freeze and Clayface demonstrates, the writers are experts at portraying these villains sympathetically and making them interesting characters. Several of them have reform episodes where they try valiantly to go straight and fail—or at least they pretend! And key to the audience's connection to these characters is the voice actors, who do excellent work. Mark Hamill—Luke frickin' Skywalker—turns out to be a perfect fucking Joker, embodying him with just the right amount of playful mania and psychotic glee and giving him several variations of his signature laugh. He's far from the only recognizable name this series snagged; listen for John Glover, Ron Perlman, Harry Hamlin, William Sanderson, and, yes, Adam West, among others. The non-recognizable names are perfect as well. Kevin Conroy does a much better Batman voice than Christian Bale, I'll tell you what.
(And on that note, B:TAS is more in line with the Nolan Batverse in that it treats Bruce Wayne as a person. Like in the Nolan movies, Bruce is clearly the mask—Bruce frequently talks in Batman-voice when out of costume—but he also has a life and a company to run. Even though any time we see Bruce Wayne, he's pretty much itching to get into his costume and bust some heads.)
For a half-hour kids' cartoon, the show is very well written. The episodes are fairly light on exposition, and they move very quickly. Although it's appropriate for kids, it's not dumbed down. The only major reminder that you're watching a kids' show is that no one ever dies, they just get really big boo-boos. (Unless you're a superhero's parents. Then you can die.) It struck me that it was a kids' show where the main characters are all adults. Even Robin/Dick Grayson is in college. There aren't really any characters or conflicts that a child could relate to, but I still loved it when I was a kid. Because it's just good storytelling.
The series is also notable for its visual style, deemed "Dark Deco" since it took the old Fleischer Superman cartoons and Gothamed them up. It's set in the present, but in a sort of retro-present that creator Bruce Timm describes "as if the 1939 World's Fair had lasted forty years." This allows the series to be both timeless and dated: villains shoot Tommy guns and drive 1940s automobiles but Batman uses giant computers with very primitive displays. It's a unique style that gives the writers the ability to tell stories from different eras of the comic.
After 85 episodes, however, the series became The New Batman Adventures and the visual style was completely revamped to look more cartoony and shiny and it lost a lot of what made it great. The writing wasn't as strong either, although there were still some great episodes. These final 24 episodes focused a little more on the supporting characters like Batgirl—who was recast with a better voice—Robin—now Tim Drake, a twerp of a kid—and Nightwing—the former Robin, Dick Grayson. The original series is much more Batman-focused; he normally works alone. And yet there are some great episodes where Batman hardly appears!
There's probably no better endorsement for the show than the recently released/leaked Writer's Bible, which shows just how much thought the creators put into, well, everything. This is the type of quality animated series that is held up as an example of what you can do with the medium.
In conclusion, Batman uses his grappling hook a lot.