Advanced Review: Pennyworth
by Rachel Bellwoar
When it comes to Pennyworth, Gotham is both the reason I wanted to watch and the reason I had serious doubts, going in. After five seasons of Sean Pertwee, the thought of anyone else playing Alfred Pennyworth seemed dismal and my first reaction to the series was to write it off. Jack Bannon’s not trying to copy Pertwee, though, and one of the reasons the series works is it doesn’t encourage comparison. The other is its executive produced by Gotham’s Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon (Heller having written the first five episodes, and Cannon having directed the first two).
Watching Bannon, you’re not thinking about how Pertwee did it differently. They’re two, separate performances and that goes for the characters on the show as well. One day Martha Kane and Thomas Wayne will have a son and one day they’ll be murdered, but you’re not constantly being reminded of that while you’re watching. Martha and Thomas are a long way away from being parents and a lot more interesting than their deaths. Getting to see how they crossed paths with Alfred and the long history they had before Bruce is extremely fruitful ground for a TV show, and while technically a prequel, in the same way Gotham was, there are a lot more unknowns when it comes to their backstories than the DC villains’.
Another difference between the two shows: on Gotham every villain was out for themselves. Alliances changed on a dime. On Pennyworth you’re dealing with two factions: the Raven Society and the No Name League (hence the raven in the opening credits). The Prime Minister (Richard Clothier) sums them up simply as the socialists who want to overthrow the government and the fascists who want to do the same. Power shake-ups are grizzly and occur quite early but, unlike on Gotham, where you know the Penguin will rise again, London’s anybody’s game.
A lot of praise going into the series has been directed towards singer, Paloma Faith, and she deserves every bit of it for her turn as Bet Sykes, a heavy who beats to her own drum (and beats up other people). Danny Webb is slippery as a villain with a familiar name (though not for the reason you might expect) and Emma Paetz is terrific as Martha Kane, though her arrival doesn’t do Pennyworth’s love interest, Esmé (Emma Corrin), any favors. After one break-up Esmé points out that Pennyworth didn’t fight for her to stay, and that’s the problem with their relationship. Going on from their bumpy first date, you’re never sure why they go on a second, yet they keep getting back together.
For all that Pennyworth revels in 60’s, spy thriller fun (never more so than when you hear David E. Russo’s adrenaline rush of a theme song), it’s Pennyworth’s stalwartness that makes him an exciting hero to watch. Anyone can be charming (and don’t get me wrong, he’s extremely charming) but Pennyworth has goals and the drive to see them through. That’s why you want to see him succeed.
He’s committed to Esme. He’s committed to starting a business as a security consultant, and when he says he committed to not using violence, after serving ten years in the military (Pennyworth includes some flashbacks but they’re mostly for letting us know Alfred has PTSD), it’s not a punchline (like sure, no violence, *wink*). He means it and makes every effort to stop fighting. The security business just isn’t the best line of work for that life choice.
If Pennyworth’s father (Ian Puleston-Davies) had his way, Alfred would be a butler, but Alfred isn’t ready to return to service. EPIX may not be your usual stop for comic book content, but it could become one if it continues delivering shows like Pennyworth.
Pennyworth premieres July 28th at 9 PM EST on EPIX. I’ve seen the first five episodes.