DC Comics and WarnerMedia recently celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Batman, so what better way to commemorate eight decades of a man dressed up as a bat, and his enormous influence over popular culture, than by giving audiences a peek into the history of the man destined to one day bring the hero his supper? That’s apparently the thinking behind EPIX’s Pennyworth, a pseudo alternate history take on the life and times of Alfred Pennyworth, one that imagines the butler-to-be as an elite soldier with skills that could rival his future ward, so as to find the character embroiled in a convoluted scheme to overthrow the British government, all while fending off job offers from none other than a young Thomas Wayne.
The series hails from Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon, two of the producers behind Gotham, another Batman prequel series that aimed to splash around in the flagship character’s expansive mythos by focusing on a young James Gordon and the peculiar villains that would eventually make up the hero’s rogue’s gallery. This time, Heller and Cannon are far from Gotham, and the U.S. in fact, as they’ve landed their new series in a post-war London, a place they’ve re-imagined as a gritty playground for their titular character, with petty criminals being pilloried on the street, and those deemed guilty of worse crimes suspended in iron cages for the public to take notice. This isn’t the only noticeable bit of decoration meant to establish the altered setting, as the sepia-toned sky is lined with dirigibles, calling to mind the preponderance of such aircraft in Batman: The Animated Series.
But, despite all the little flourishes and distinct visuals presented in the overlong 70-minute premiere, Pennyworth mostly comes across like a tourist in its own imagined world. Rather than dig deep into the troubling reasons why Britain is the way it is, the series is instead determined to keep such details on the fringe of the story and its audience’s understanding. That approach reflects back on the show as as whole, rendering Pennyworth not only cursory in its thematic approach to an otherwise inessential story, but, more overtly, reveals the series to be another unnecessary attempt to squeeze more blood from the proverbial Batman stone.
That’s not to say Pennyworth is a terrible show. It isn’t. Jack Bannon is engaging as the dapper Englishman, while Emma Corrin makes for a charming — if thinly written — love interest, Esmé. And the show even has a pair of wildly exaggerated villains in Lord Harwood (Jason Flemyng) and Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith), both of whom are fun, despite the sense they took a wrong turn leaving an early Guy Ritchie movie and wound up on the Pennyworth set. But even with nice visuals, familiar characters bouncing around, the presence of some Batman-like (or rather, Gotham-like) villains, and a bizarro London reimagined to be a lot like Bruce Wayne’s criminal-stomping grounds, there is still one troubling question surrounding Pennyworth: Why does this story need to be told?
It’s a question Pennyworth seems ill-equipped to answer in the episodes provided to critics ahead of the series premiere. Like most prequels, the show is locked in a tug-of-war between the newly introduced (and interesting) elements and the predetermined conclusions the audience knows awaits many of the main characters. As such, any scene in which the lives of Alfred or Thomas are threatened results in a tepid encounter where the ending is all but assured. Sure, that’s pretty much the case in any series where the title character runs into trouble, as he or she is bound to, but there’s an extra layer of insulation around so many of the show’s central characters that it becomes frustratingly obvious how much of the narrative is on rails.
Regardless the alternate version of London in which it takes place, or the wild, over-the-top villains it’s clearly having a lot of fun with, Pennyworth is still moving toward a predetermined endpoint, making so many of the show’s references and nods little more than assurances that, yes, one day, Alfred Pennyworth will be looking after the son of his doomed new acquaintance. There’s an audience for that kind of storytelling, obviously, otherwise Gotham wouldn’t have run for five seasons. But unlike Gotham, Pennyworth has an opportunity to be more than a lead-up to Batman's emergence, by virtue of how far removed it is from the vigilante's beginnings, not to mention as a result of all the tinkering Heller and Cannon have done to the world in which the story takes place.
There are hints that Pennyworth wants to tell a story about the haves and the have nots, as well as the threat of wealthy, insular, authoritarian movements within governmental structures (which could provide the series with an interestingly subversive angle on which to examine the Batman himself), but, like so much of the series’ actual points of interest, these too are remanded to the fringe of the overall narrative. Instead, viewers are presented with a sleepy series that revels in its f-bombs, nudity, and moments of visceral violence, as a way of bringing a sense gravity to an otherwise weightless story. Pennyworth isn’t terrible television, and it will certainly appeal to Batman fans, but as a television series competing for eyeballs in a congested market, the origin of Batman’s butler doesn’t immediately stand out from the crowd.
Pennyworth premieres Sunday, July 28 @9pm on EPIX.