Prequels are a funny thing.
For so long, they’ve been a lesser form of storytelling because they try to dramatize events readers and viewers already know. There is no great mystery at the heart of, say, the Star Wars prequels that we do not already know from Ben Kenobi’s stories. If anything, the prequels make him seem like the greatest liar in the galaxy. The great danger of prequels is their potential to cheapen an otherwise beloved story.
But for the prequel series based on DC Comics characters, a curious and strange thing has occurred. Their settings actually open up new realms for some fantastic storytelling. It happened on Gotham after a few years. It happened on Krypton after a few episodes. And with Pennyworth, it happens within minutes of its debut episode. The acceleration in confidence and quality must be attributed to executive producers Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon; both developed Gotham and implicitly understand what can be done with the story before the story. As Heller recently told me, he doesn’t feel he can write about superheroes, so he keeps seeking out the more seemingly mundane human characters in the Batman mythos. Commission Gordon was the obvious, natural choice to anchor a prequel series set in Gotham City. Moving on to Alfred Pennyworth, though, gave him the opportunity to tell a very British story.
And that British-ness sets Pennyworth apart from its fellow DC prequel cousins. Jack Bannon stars as Alfred Pennyworth, a lad freshly discharged from the army and ready to start his own private security firm. That mostly means he and a few of friends from the service freelance as bouncers at a London-area nightclub. Nonetheless, Alfred envisions a future in which he is an important businessman and not a butler like his father — a character Heller told me is at least partially inspired by the more rotund Golden Age Alfred. But the more vital element of “Mr. Pennyworth” (Ian Puleston-Davies ) on this show is the message he keeps giving his son: know your place.
That class struggle permeates the first episode of Pennyworth from the seemingly revolutionary notions expressed by contract killer Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith) to Alfred’s awkward interactions with potential love Esmé (Emma Corrin). It is also there in the way he meets Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), an American millionaire with dubious connections to political climate of the country. He’s also on Bet’s hitlist, which is how Alfred and Esmé find themselves embroiled in a world of intrigue, murder, and secret societies.
For fans of 1960s British spy series, the appeal is almost immediate. But the performances by Bannon, Corrin, Aldridge — and particularly Faith as the complex Bet Sykes — maintain the interest level far beyond Pennyworth‘s prequel curiosities or stylish ’60s setting.
It probably also helps that the show is funny; right down to the crazy fight between all of the Pennyworths and Bet’s comrades.
And that’s the real quality of Pennyworth in its first episode. It immediately creates a poppy, but odd DC Comics London of the era. Some of Gotham‘s timelessness seeped in; making the world as much of a mystery as the grand conspiracy the Queen and the Prime Minister appear to be hiding. Unlike Gotham, with its cavalcade of re-envisioned DC Comics characters, Pennyworth features just two characters with wide open histories even as their ultimate fates are known to us. While it will eventually explain why Alfred chose to be the Wayne Family butler, the story presented in this first hour is immediately more compelling than both Gotham and Krypton in their pilot episdoes.
Hopefully, that means it will reach the heights of those series quicker and chart new courses for what a television show can do with Batman supporting characters.
Pennyworth airs Sundays on Epix.