"I thought Pennyworth sounded like a trustworthy name."
For decades, that’s about all the character development we needed for Alfred Pennyworth, the always-reliable butler for Bruce Wayne and Batman, memorably played by Alfred Gough in the Tim Burton & Joel Schumacher films and Michael Caine in the Christopher Nolan movies. Alfred Pennyworth wasn’t exactly the deepest character in the DC Universe, but he didn’t need to be. There was something charming about the simple devotion of his character. Alfred was always there. Alfred had the answers. Alfred provided simplicity in a complex world of heroes and villains. Alfred was a trustworthy name. Now, of course, in a world of entertainment dominated by superheroes, Alfred needs a backstory. The question I kept asking while watching Epix’s "Pennyworth," and never really felt like was satisfactorily answered, was: “Does he?”
Two of the men behind FOX’s hit-and-miss origin series “Gotham” take their talents to a cable network – which means boobs and blood! – for this vision of the early years of the man who would help raise Bruce Wayne and create Batman. Unlike “Gotham,” “Pennyworth” doesn’t have young versions of known characters like The Penguin and The Joker, unless you count Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), the man who will eventually give birth to Bruce and get shot in an alley. In the premiere, Thomas meets Jack Bannon’s title character, and, I guess, changes the DC Universe forever.
The show isn’t really about Batman in any way, and the connection is arguably distracting (especially when it feels like Bannon is doing a Caine impression). It’s best appreciated as a period action series – maybe something Guy Ritchie would have done if he weren’t busy with “Aladdin.” Pennyworth here is a suave, 007 type, a war veteran who opens a security firm with two of his buddies in a well-designed London. Believe it or not, that kindly butler used to be kind of a bad-ass, protecting the innocent and, gasp, even having sex. He does both in the premiere, getting into a relationship with a wealthy girl named Esme (Emma Corrin). In the premiere, Esme is kidnapped by a homicidal member of a cult named Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith, easily the best thing about the show) looking to overthrow the British Powers That Be led by Jason Flemyng’s Lord Harwood (I told you it felt like a Guy Ritchie movie).
“Pennyworth” is kind of fascinating in that it looks good, the performances are solid, the design is strong … and I just never found a reason to care. Like so much modern TV, every episode is too long, and the slack pacing doesn't help an already slow writing sensibility. There's nothing overly wrong with "Pennyworth," except it never quite justifies its existence. Being “solid if not spectacular” just isn’t enough in 2019, especially within the glutted world of superhero entertainment, which seems to have a new option for fans every week. Then again, this isn’t a superhero show, I guess, even if I somehow found myself wishing Batman would swoop in and liven it up.
Three episodes screened for review.