'Pennyworth': TV Review

A different take on a comic book character.
7/28/2019

Batman's butler gets his DC origin story on Epix from the 'Gotham' team of Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon.

It's nice when two people share the same passion and also happen to be two people who make television shows, though it's inevitably more important that those two people actually have talent. Luckily, that's the case with writer Bruno Heller and director Danny Cannon. The duo share a thing about Batman — they paired up for Fox's Gotham and now offer up the highly entertaining, clever and engaging Pennyworth for Epix, based on the characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for DC.

Pennyworth is the origin story of Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon, The Imitation Game, Ripper Street), who, of course, later becomes Bruce Wayne's resourceful butler (Gotham was the DC origin story of Jim Gordon and, to a lesser but growing extent, the adolescent, pre-Batman Bruce Wayne).

Heller and Cannon had a real vision for Gotham, shepherding it through five seasons at Fox  — though Heller, who also created and penned Rome on HBO, stopped writing Gotham after the second season, while Cannon, who also penned some episodes as well as directed, contributed through all five.

Both men will find Pennyworth less exhausting, since it's only 10 episodes (Gotham was a network-crazy 22 episodes for four seasons and 12 in the fifth), which should keep them creatively fresh throughout.

Pennyworth also has the advantage of being more grown-up and elegantly stylized, while not losing the sense that it's a comic book come to life. Gotham also achieved that, but went for it in a more wildly cartoonish fashion, where Pennyworth has more grit and gravitas. The new series also isn't hamstrung by the grade-school-Batman problem of Gotham, even though that show ultimately was more about Gordon.

Here, Pennyworth gives us Alfred as a young but mature British SAS soldier in his early twenties who leaves the service and starts up his own security company in rough and tumble 1960s London — an infinitely better premise partly because it's so deeply British at its starting point and navigates through an interesting era in a real (though visually exaggerated) city, devoid in the early going of the more cartoonish bad guys that later make Bruce Wayne's life annoying across the pond.

Stylistically, it's gripping and an enormous amount of fun (though, to be clear, shockingly violent in parts), with Bannon a real revelation as he swaggers around with his Cockney accent, channeling Michael Caine without coming off as a cheap imitation. He's accompanied by SAS friends, Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett, Eastenders) and Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher, Outlander).

You have to like that Alfred is a total badass here, and it's interesting to see the kind of horror that his later refinement clearly hid. In a pinch, of course, Alfred was always handy and could hold his own, but in Pennyworth you get the full story — he didn't need a costume to take control.

Alfred's father (Ian Puleston-Davies) wants him to be a butler and his mother (Dorothy Atkinson) just wants him to be happy. But there's a class struggle as he tries to court Esme (Emma Corrin, The Crown). Of course it's Alfred's work life that's most interesting. As a bouncer he runs into Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge, Fleabag), an American doing suspicious work in England, while also getting mixed up in at least two competing interests against the British government (one involving a tremendously fun villain named Bet Sykes, played winningly by British singer Paloma Faith).

Juggling more adult fare, Heller manages to make Pennyworth a compelling modern drama but adds in a darker hint of comic book ink, never letting the tone tilt too much toward the outlandish or over-the-top, but also just unhinged enough to stand out. Early on, that's the grandest achievement of Pennyworth and no small feat, either, since source material rooted in overly familiar comic-book history can struggle.

Cannon, whose cinematic work on Gotham instantly gave it a mood, once again dabbles in the darker hues here while making the alleys and roads of East London and environs seem rooted in something real (as opposed to a fictitious New York fantasy).

There's something very compelling about Pennyworth as a comic adaptation that's allowed to be more noirish and cultish than cartoonish, and it adds to Epix's strong, growing bench.

Co-created and executive produced by: Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon
Written by: Bruno Heller
Directed by: Danny Cannon
Cast: Jack Bannon, Ben Aldridge, Emma Corrin, Hainsley Lloyd Bennett, Ryan Fletcher, Paloma Faith, Polly Walker, Ian Puleston-Davies, Dorothy Atkinson, Jason Flemyng, Emma Paetz
Premieres: Sunday, July 28, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Epix)