TV Review: ‘Pennyworth’ Gives Batman’s Butler a Makeover

Pennyworth Season 1 Episode 101: Pilot

There’s a time in everyone’s life, maybe after hearing a certain story or seeing an old picture, when they realize with a sudden jolt that their parents were not born in early middle age, but actually used to be young; cool, even. They made questionable life choices. Maybe hooked up with strangers, or drank too much, or were way more stylish than you could ever hope to be. That’s sort of what it feels like to watch Alfred in “Pennyworth.” It’s bizarre, without a doubt, but also sort of fun.

For a lot of fans, Alfred Pennyworth, family butler and guardian of Bruce Wayne, ranks right up there with Dumbledore and Gandalf in terms of wizened English mentors. So it’s very strange to see this version of the character: young, not exactly carefree (after all, he did just spend ten years in the army) but certainly hopeful about his future and, most strikingly, very attractive. Sure, everyone probably rolled their eyes when the idea of hot young soldier Alfred was first pitched, but it’s hard to stress enough how much it works for the character and adds depth to the version of Alfred we all know and love.

For his part, Jack Bannon as Alfred is a massive part of what makes the show work. He’s at once charming, funny, commanding, and self-effacing. At the same time, his tone and presence are so innately familiar to audieces as being inherently Alfred that we buy into him immediately as the character.

This Alfred is a directionless one. Just out of the army and determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps who is, oddily enough, a butler. He decides to open up his own private security business. But in the meantime, he works as a bouncer at a hip London club, where he crosses paths with one Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) and meets his love interest Esme (Emma Corrin).

The overarching plot mechanisms of the series are muddled, especially at the beginning. This is an alternate version of 1960s London, where there are two cloak-and-dagger secret societies at war with each other: the Raven Society and the No Name Society. Their ultimate objectives are underdeveloped and frankly not as engaging as they should be. But the main takeaway is that they don’t like each other, the Raven Society wants to overthrow the British government, and the No Name Society may or may not be operating with some covert American aid. Alfred and Esme, inevitably, get caught between the two.

In a lot of ways, “Pennyworth” feels a bit like DC’s answer to Marvel’s “Agent Carter.” It’s a hip, stylish period drama that serves as a fresh interpretation of a well-liked but secondary – even tertiary – comic book character. But “Pennyworth” seems to go further in creating its own distinct universe that feels tonally different from its franchise of origin. “Batman” has always taken place in a gritty and dangerous world, but there’s strangely compelling sadomasochism on display in “Pennyworth” that would take a much longer piece than this to fully unpack. It is certainly far more mature than most other superhero properties – the creators take full advantage of the leeway granted to them by fledgling streaming network Epix.

There are elements that don’t work with “Pennyworth.” It takes a long time for Alfred’s friends and colleagues, fellow soldiers Bazza and Dave Boy, to connect with the audience and never fully escape the feeling that they serve little purpose to the overall narrative. The romantic subplot with Esme has some issues, both in its narrative construction and execution (it’s clear, for example, that Alfred has significantly more chemistry with Bruce Wayne’s future mother than he does with his own love interest.) But for the most part, it’s a stylish new addition to the DC universe, hitting the right notes with its story arc and action set pieces, helped along by what should be a star-making turn by Bannon in the lead role.

“Pennyworth” premieres on Epix on Sunday, July 28th. The first five episodes were reviewed.

GRADE: (★)

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