It says something about the sheer number of TV shows that are made nowadays that a show set in the “Batman” universe can sneak onto the air. But that’s the case with “Pennyworth” (Sundays on Epix), in which “Gotham” creators Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon give us the backstory of Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth.
Played by Sean Pertwee on “Gotham,” Alfred was arguably the best character and he was certainly the one who most existed in a down-to-earth, less stylized world. Jack Bannon ably picks up the mantle here, capturing the accent (although sometimes going full-on Michael Caine) and especially the way “Gotham’s” Alfred both dislikes violence and is extremely good at dishing it out.
If we figure Alfred is in his mid-20s, “Pennyworth” is ostensibly set in the 1980s in London, but as with “Gotham” it’s out of time and out of place, in an alternative comic-book world. The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” (1966) opens the episode, everyone drives 1940s black cars, and zeppelins hover above London like steampunk has made tentative inroads.
Those cityscape pans — where “Gotham” reminded us during scene changes that “This is Gotham, with all its grimy old buildings and gouts of steam, but with patches of glitz and futurism” — are back. “Pennyworth’s” London is dreary, sure, but with brick buildings that make you want to know their history, and an orange tint to the sky. Heller (who writes the pilot) and Cannon (who directs) tell us “This is London from a few decades ago, but forget what you know about London from a few decades ago.” The locations, sets and costumes further evoke this world, as it’s clear Epix has given “Pennyworth” more money at the start than Fox gave “Gotham” at the end.
Bannon already has chemistry with Emma Corrin as Esme, a budding stage actress. Their meet-cute really is cute, as Alfred promises to return a handkerchief in an obvious stealth date – a Saturday afternoon meeting in the park. Ben Aldridge makes a good Thomas Wayne, someone who isn’t a natural fighter like Alfred but who believes in improving humanity.
Alfred’s best interactions, though, are with his two war buddies, Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett) and Daveboy (Ryan Fletcher). “Gotham” sometimes got sloppy with its storytelling, and “Pennyworth’s” one slip-up is that it doesn’t clearly define how Daveboy makes it through this episode, because he appears to get shot. The fights and the shootouts are solid here, but I worry that the show won’t play fair with the stakes. If Alfred and his boys can shoot up the headquarters of the Raven Society (London’s answer to the Court of Owls, roughly) and get away scot-free, it’s a mark against “Pennyworth’s” seriousness.
By the end of the 70-minute premiere, it’s clear that Alfred will sign on with Wayne to work against the Raven Society, and he’ll also work with the queen on top-secret missions, thus preserving the traditional “Batman” continuity where Alfred is “just a butler.”
On the other hand, the Raven Society’s aims could be made clearer to viewers. They are definitely a formidable bunch, though, as Lord Harwood (Jason Flemyng) oversees the torture of a guy in a dungeon-like room. And his top henchwoman, Sykes (Paloma Faith), is unhinged, but not to a “Gotham” degree. The scariest moment might be when Esme escapes captivity into Harwood’s dining hall; everyone is nonplussed by her emergence. The Ravens already comprise a substantial and powerful chunk of the population.
There’s a lot to like here. We know Heller’s and Cannon’s hit-and-miss track record from “Gotham,” but they are clearly engaged with this concept, not merely cranking out an easy-money prequel. Indeed, “Pennyworth” might actually be a tough sell among the current glut of superhero shows: not merely the backstory of Batman’s butler, but a version of Batman’s butler not everyone is on board with. But those who buy in might be in for a secret gem.