I almost didn’t watch Pennyworth.
You want reasons? Well . . . I knew it was developed by Bruno Heller, the British gentleman who also created the show Gotham for FOX.
It’s not fair to let that sentence stand alone like that. It makes it sound like I didn’t like Gotham, which is not wholly true. I enjoyed the first three seasons of that series, before it made the hard turn towards Sucktropolis. I know Heller didn’t write any episodes after the second season, but I don’t really know how involved he was with the show after that point. Maybe he was actively involved all the way to the finale. I don’t know. It felt to me like something changed after the third season, and not necessarily in a good way.
Maybe I can explain my thought processes a little more clearly. Gotham was a Batman television series in which Batman never appears. From what I read about Pennyworth, it seemed that this new Heller-created series fit the same description. Characters from the Batman milieu were slated to appear, chief among these Alfred Pennyworth, but also including Batman’s parents, Thomas Wayne and Martha Kane, way back before they got married, had a son named Bruce, and then got gunned down in Crime Alley so that Batman could get his dark origin story. For a minute, I didn’t think I was ready for another superhero series in which no superhero appears.
However . . .
Once again back to Gotham. In that now-ended series, the character of Alfred Pennyworth, former SAS soldier and current gentleman’s gentleman, became one of the more interesting characters to me. In fact, the series gave me newfound respect for the comic-book version of the character. I wanted to know more of Mr. Pennyworth’s backstory. Bruno Heller must have realized this, and then went on to create this new series especially for me.
It doesn’t hurt that Heller had a track record of success with series such as Rome and The Mentalist. I’ve never watched either series (yet), but I know each had a loyal following. With this pedigree, there was no reason to think that Pennyworth would be bad television. I had to at least give it a shot.
I did. And, now, after watching the finale, I’m happy that I did.
I almost wish it had nothing to do with Batman.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a Batman fan. An OG Batman fan. I like the fact that this is sort of an orgin story for Alfred the Butler. I also like learning more about Bruce Wayne’s parents. But, I don’t like knowing that Alfred ends up being Bruce’s loyal servant, which means Alfie’s life is never in any real danger on this show. The same could be said for Thomas Wayne and Martha Kane, who are destined to die years after the period in which this program is set. Since all three characters are frequently in situations that could realistically end with their deaths, this robs the drama of some of its suspense.
You might argue that this could be an alternate timeline, But, we all know in our hearts that’s just poppycock. You can change a lot of elements in the Batman origin story or backstory, but two constants would have to be Alfred and the death of the Waynes. (Of course, Flashpoint featured Thomas Wayne as the alternate-timeline Batman, so maybe you do have a bit of a point after all.)
This is definitely an alternate 1960s London setting, however. I don’t believe there were ever actually televised public executions, including eviscerations, on Britsh telly during that period. Or at least, I hope not. I know that the Raven Society and the No-Name League were never real organizations. The London depicted in the series looks great, much in the same way the city of Gotham looked great in that series, with a judicious amount of CGI. The show has a bit of a dystopian feel to it that I actually like.
The London of this series feels more like the steampunk London of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or even Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes. The setting (with all of its lovely accents) also evokes 1960s spy shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers, and, certainly, the early James Bond movies.
More than once during this inaugural season, I was reminded of the Michael Caine movie Get Carter, which came out during that period of the ’60s known as 1971. Since actor Jack Bannon, in his portrayal of Alfred “Alfie” Pennyworth, seems to be channeling at least a bit of Michael Caine in his performance, this comparison seems doubly fitting. Since Caine also played Alfred in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight series of Batman films (as well as another famous character called “Alfie”), this seems retroactively fitting.
I liked the homage to entertainment of the period, which is apparent even in the crudely animated opening credits. The series looks terrific, and, even if its not 100% true to the time period it’s set in, it is faithful to itself and consistent from episode to episode. It has its own realistically created universe.
The cast of this series is excellent. Jack Bannon, with his pompadour and widow’s-peak, grew on me as the titular character. My first thought was that there was no way that this tall, lanky gent would look like Sean Pertwee, Alfred on Gotham, when he grew up. Then I remembered I had the same issue with Pertwee not resembling the body type of the comic-book Alfred when I began watching that series. This may be revealing the deep roots of my geekdom, but I think Bannon is more true to the comic-book image than Pertwee ever could have been. Of course, his accent would need to become more refined and less rough-and-tumble, and he’d have to grow a pencil-thin moustache and lose most of his hair. I like Bannon’s Alfie, a believable capable former-SAS soldier who seems to be suffering from PTSD in the days before it had that name. Unlike the future Batman, he has little aversion to killing when the situation calls for it. I kinda like that, too.
Alfie’s two best mates are his fellow SAS veterans Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett) and Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher). The two men are archetypal without fully lapsing into stereotypes, in my opinion. Just when you think you have either of the two characters figured out, they tend to surprise you. Plus, Dave Boy makes me laugh.
Alfie’s mother and father become a part of the extended Batman universe as well. Ian Puleston-Davies, the elder Mr. Pennyworth, is a butler who wants his son to pursue the trade. Mrs. Pennyworth (Dorothy Atkinson) is the doting mother and wife. Alfie also has an appealing love interest named Esme (Emma Corrin). I won’t tell you how that relationship pans out, but you can probably guess. Certain four-color tropes won’t be denied.
Billionaire Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge, another English actor playing a Yank convincingly) enters Alfred’s life early in the series, meeting him at the club where Alfie works as a bouncer. Wayne is not-so-secretly working for the CIA. Canadian-born actress Emma Paetz appears as Martha Kane, Bruce’s future-mom. Martha is an American agent for the No Name League, one of the fictional political factions in the seasonal story arc. She hires Alfred at one point and eventually meets Thomas Wayne through this connection. Watching the burgeoning relationship between Thomas and Martha is one of the things about this series that fans of the comic books will enjoy seeing. Of course, this is tinged with sadness since we know what happens to them in the future.
Playing for the other team, we have the lovely Paloma Faith as a Harley-Quinn-esque villainess named Bet Sykes. She’s unpredictable and fun, and more than a little scary. Jason Flemyng is the pompous leader of the Raven Society, Lord James Harwood. He begins to look more like a Batman villain after the British Prime Minister has his nose cut off and Lord Harwood replaces it with one made of gold. A local crime lord named John Ripper (Danny Webb) also weaves his way in and out of the plot. Sarah Alexander, whom I remember from the terrific BBC sitcom Coupling, is also on-hand as Undine Thwaite, who becomes leader of the No Name League.
As in any period piece or time-travel story, we get historic cameos. Another film version of Queen Elizabeth II (Jessica Ellerby) appears, and she likes Alfie a lot. Fans of Netflix’s The Crown (or British royal history in general) will also note the strategic presence of the Duke and Duchess of Windermere, based on Edward VIII and his American wife. Aleister Crowley (Jonjo O’Neill) also pops up in a couple of suitably psychedelic scenes.
I also enjoy the period music on the series. I can’t speak to all of the music, but I think Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” came out in 1970, which seems a little later than the series timeline. That’s just nerdy quibbling, however. It’s still a great song and fits in with the psychedelic visions of the goat-headed multi-eyed Satan.
You’ve probably already guessed my ultimate verdict on this series. I liked it. It benefits by having fewer total episodes than the average American hour-long series, and by being, in almost every sense of the word, an actual British series instead of an American series set in Britain. It has a more serialized feel rather than a procedural one, and each episode doesn’t have to feel self-contained or end on a splashy cliffhanger. The season finale is a thrilling one that whets my appetite for (hopefully) more to come. Alfred Pennyworth is supposed to be 26-years-old in this series. We should be able to get a few good seasons out of him before he’s forced to relocate to Gotham.
Firewater’s Alfie-Flashback Report Card: A
A stylish and interesting crime drama that didn’t need the Batman connection to get, and keep, my attention. But, it has that, too.