The world needed a series about how Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon) grew up to be Batman’s butler as much as it needs one about the tailor who sells Bruce Banner all those purple pants. But to its credit, Epix’s Pennyworth — from Gotham creator Bruno Heller and that show’s chief director, Danny Cannon — doesn’t particularly care about filling in blanks of the Bat mythos, even though Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas (Ben Aldridge), keeps crossing paths here with his future manservant. Rather, Heller is using the connection to a popular brand (*) as an excuse to tell spy stories in a cracked-mirror vision of Swinging Sixties London.
(*) DC is still trying to get its DC Universe subscription service off the ground, and facing questions about the need for a standalone service as parent company Warner Media is setting up a bigger one, HBO Max. Given that, it does seem odd that Pennyworth was sold to another outlet — and not even one like Fox or the CW that has prior history of airing DC content — rather than kept in-house. The content’s too adult for a broadcast network — one episode includes a lengthy debate over the meaning of the phrase “fuck your mother” — but wouldn’t feel out of place on DC Universe alongside something like Doom Patrol.
“This great nation of ours is at war with itself,” shady, upper-class operative Lord Harwood (Jason Flemyng) warns Alfred in the first episode, “the forces of order and virtue battling extreme evil.” This war plays out as a rivalry between the Raven Society and the No-Names, revolutionary groups that both want to overthrow the Queen and Parliament. But where the Ravens envision “a fascist utopia,” the No-Names want a socialist one. That part feels very contemporary, especially with the show debuting days after Boris Johnson’s election to prime minister.
Caught in the fray is Alfred — Alfie to his friends, lest you miss the echoes of young Michael Caine (Bannon even occasionally sounds like Caine) — a combat veteran looking to make enough of a living that he can provide for new actress girlfriend Esme (Emma Corrin). Instead, his proficiency for violence — both solo and with military pals Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher) and Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett) — has him being recruited by different sides of this conflict at different times, when he’s not in the midst of thrashing local gangsters and the like.
“I want to be my own man,” Alfred tells his butler father (Ian Puleston-Davies) at one point. Mr. Pennyworth, perhaps aware that they’re all one small part of one very lucrative piece of intellectual property, retorts, “Nobody’s their own man, son. Not me. Not you.”
As was often the case when I still watched Gotham, the style here far outstrips the substance. Cannon and his crew have crafted an unnerving vision of a London that’s at once bygone and never existed at all, with grisly televised executions, one villain with a gruesome facial deformity, and another who specializes in dominatrix work. The stories are fairly thin, but the look of the show and the charisma of Bannon and some of the supporting players — notably the English singer Paloma Faith as Bet Sykes, a Raven Society enforcer who takes a quick dislike to both Alfred and Esme — cover for that for a while.
I confess, though, that my attention started to wander a few episodes in, after I’d grown used to some of the show’s stranger flourishes. (You see one proper butler wearing a gimp mask, lingerie, and pumps, you’ve seen ‘em all.) Though the other significant American character is named Martha (Emma Paetz) — I’ll give you three guesses whose mother she’ll surely turn out to be, and the first two don’t count — it’s admirable and smart that Pennyworth mostly runs away from the prequel aspects. Having to explain how various supporting players wound up part of a more famous story can be a narrative straightjacket (even a great prequel series like Better Call Saul occasionally struggles with this in its cartel subplots); better to just try to tell good stories that happen to involve familiar names.
But when your own stories start to flag, as Pennyworth’s soon do, an Easter egg can be just the thing to keep the energy level up. Ideally, Heller turns out to have more to say about the setting he and Cannon have (re)created. If not, bring on the Muppet Baby versions of Kite Man and Killer Moth, posthaste!
Pennyworth debuts July 28th on Epix. I’ve seen the first five episodes.