Batman’s butler Alfred is the ideal servant: unflappable, discreet, loyal. He seems to have no past and no family — his only goal in life is to serve Bruce Wayne. But for anyone who has ever wondered what Alfred’s life was like before it intersected with the Wayne family, Epix’s action-packed new series Pennyworth (premiering July 28) has the answer. The question is, why should we care?
A look Alfred’s youth in swinging London
Pennyworth’s debut episode (which screened at San Diego Comic-Con on July 17) opens on a fox hunt, set to the tune of the Rolling Stones’s “Paint It Black.” A close up on the grisly work the hounds have made of their prey sets the tone for the rest of the violent episode, which focuses on the young Alfred Pennyworth’s (Jack Bannon) first encounter with Bruce Wayne’s father Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge).
Alfred, a former British SAS officer recently returned from an unnamed war, is working as a bouncer in a London nightclub, which is where he meets the nebbish Wayne, a forensic accountant who’s in town on business. The two exchange cards — Alfred is trying to set up his own security business — but it seems destined to be a quickly forgotten encounter. That is, until a mysterious gang of thugs led by a blonde be-wigged woman named Bet Sykes (a winning Paloma Faith, easily the best thing about the episode) kidnaps Alfred’s new girlfriend Esme (Emma Corrin) after finding his card among Wayne’s things following a failed assassination attempt. To get Esme back, Alfred needs to produce Thomas Wayne. But will he hand over his new American acquaintance to these shady characters to save his love?
In the dark and gritty Pennyworth, executive producer and writer Bruno Heller and executive producer and director Danny Cannon, who previously worked on Gotham, strive to make Alfred into a hero in his own right, rather than simply Batman’s ever-present helper and surrogate father figure. In this show, Alfred resembles a young James Bond. He’s all style and swagger, but not afraid to throw a punch if the situation calls for it. (In a cheesy moment toward the episode’s end, he even gets to flirt a bit with the Queen.) This youthful Alfred is right at home in this alternate-history version of swinging London, where criminals still end up in the stocks and a shadowy group known as the Raven Society is plotting a coup d’etat. In other words, he’s a far cry from the reserved and dependable butler brought to life in various Batman movies by the likes of Michael Caine and Michael Gough.
An unnecessary origin story?
Pennyworth invents an origin story for Alfred, but did he really need one? As a standalone ’60s-set spy caper, the show would be serviceable, if a bit by the numbers. But it seems to be an unnecessary addition to the Batman universe.
Pennyworth revels in its casual, occasionally shocking violence — a scene where Alfred’s parents viciously kick a pair of home intruders when they’re already down earned plenty of laughs from the audience. And since this is premium cable, there are f-bombs aplenty, which seem designed to remind us that this is an edgy take on Alfred’s story. Sure, there are also some snappy dialogue and well-placed jokes, but it’s not enough to save the show. Pennyworth is proof that not every character needs an origin story.
Pennyworth premieres July 28 on Epix.