Batman, like any good icon, is such an impressive figure that even his second and third-string players can lure fans further and further away from the already interesting source simply by being on the hero’s periphery. We’ve seen Martha and Thomas Wayne gunned down so many times that we might as well have all of Bruce’s complexes ourselves. Fox’s pre-Batman series Gotham told the story of fresh cop Jim Gordon and the slew of supervillains finding inspiration in a city destabilized by their murder. Now two of its producers, Danny Cannon and Bruno Heller, are at the edge of the observable DC Extended Universe—and cutting out the superpowers. Epix’s gentleman spy series Pennyworth gives young-Alfred-who-fucks (for the first time, and not last, at the twenty minute mark of the bloated pilot) one of the strangest, least justified comic adaptations yet. It’s not awful. It’s just…”why?”
Having seen the first half of its premiere season for review, the gist is such: Jack Bannon plays the soon-to-be-butler with swagger, giving us a clipped Michael Caine impression that would frustrate the boys from The Trip series immensely. Here, Pennyworth is an ex-soldier who works as a bouncer and meets Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge, clipped and stagey as an American), as the billionaire strong-arms his sister out of Alfred’s club.
The scene’s tepid fistfight and 1940s sexism are only markers of things to come for a sleepy series whose female characters exist more often than not to seduce guards and inspire its men. Even the Queen is little more than a flirt. Martha (Emma Paetz), Batman’s eventual mother, does a bit to change this upon her mid-season introduction, but even her snappy performance is undermined. And yes, apparently everyone used to be wrapped up in intelligence work in those days. It’s hard not to think of all the times Archer subverted this trope in its flashbacks to its butler, as Woodhouse’s past kept hilariously coming up. Done seriously, the trapdoors and switcheroos fail to have the same charm. Yet, in the warped world of Pennyworth, it still makes a certain kind of sense.
Pennyworth’s post-war setting is an alt-history where a bloodthirsty U.K. walks by pilloried petty criminals and watches leather-clad agents perform executions that aren’t just public, but broadcast on TV. Two shadowy organizations battle for the soul of the country—one fascist, the other socialist—with neither quite apparent until a few episodes in. We’re promised black and white, but they’re introduced so fuzzily that rather than a moral gray, it just looks like static.
Mirroring this uncanny near-history in a visual sense, the show’s distracting urban backgrounds look a little like the perpetually CGI-clouded, distinctly-diffused nostalgia of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Some inspired production design (Alfred’s sexy club seems to have escaped from Eyes Wide Shut) and a few standout sequences (a runway lit by a flaming line of leaked fuel chasing a truck) shake things up, but it’s usually forgettable by way of practical.
The only clear theme here is the class divide. There’s friction between the sinister upper crust of England, with its not-so-secretive cabal led by Lord Harwood (Jason Flemyng), and the well-to-do do-gooders of America. The latter team up with a group on the other end of things, as Alfred and his supersoldier buddies Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher) and Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett) are recruited to slaughter a militia’s worth of baddies during their various adventures, like saving Alfred’s girlfriend Esmé (Emma Corrin). Alfred, more than his friends, plays to Kingsman or Harry Palmer’s working-class riff, as the dapper agent comes from a humble background. Alfred’s father is a butler, which means it’s only a matter of time before we get his origin story, I suppose.
The plot is wildly written, with huge swathes of time spent on things like Esmé’s acting career while almost none is devoted to fleshing out its strange world. That means we don’t get anything thrilling or complex enough to justify its weary, “troubled ex-military tries to adapt” narrative. Instead, its veteran trio’s PTSD is told through sporadic flashbacks of firefights and dead comrades that come and go seemingly at random points in the episode. Dave Boy’s alcoholism, quickly apparent and grotesque, is the only real flaw possessed by any of the good guys—aside from Alfred’s refusal to settle down and follow his old man into domestic work.
And settle he certainly won’t. With f-bombs and nipples aplenty, Pennyworth still isn’t quite going full Titans edginess, but it’s close. Campy villains like Paloma Faith’s Dolores Umbridge-channeling Bet Sykes (by far the most fun element of the show) aren’t afraid to get violent, but the majority (aside from a few notable gunshot victims) are only shown in aftermath or in lazy visual shorthand. Three near-naked torture victims in back-to-back-to-back episodes are covered in blood as they’re interrogated. It could be meant to show the similar tactics of the government and the secret societies, but no matter how generous I am towards the show’s thematic seed-laying, it’s still a boring watch. Even the twists, which serve as defibrillator doses trying to shock some life into the series, are so puzzlingly arbitrary that they’re more like passing jolts.
Like Gotham, Pennyworth is heading towards a predetermined conclusion. With survival guaranteed for the familiar and the opposite ensured for the rest, it’s hard to watch plots based on wondering whether swell ol’ Alfred will ever make good with that eccentric Wayne fellow or the charming Martha. Instead, there are competent case-of-the-week plots, messy long-term threads, and weak romance that hiccups and gasps to fill time when there’s not much else going on. Pennyworth seems to say that Alfred was never truly looking for a quiet life, but the chronicling of his backstory will certainly pass with a butler’s invisible discretion.
Pennyworth premieres Sunday, June 28th on Epix.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.