Is there a law that says there must always be a certain number of Batman properties on air at all times?
Just as Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films germinated a fandom that seemed to demand not merely a Ben Affleck Batman but also two different Joker-based franchise, so too did the conclusion of Fox’s “Gotham” seem to point the way forward for yet more stories of Bruce Wayne’s pals. Ahead of the forthcoming CW “Batwoman” comes Epix’s “Pennyworth,” a prequel series about the adventures of future butler Alfred in his days as a security company proprietor going on adventures in swinging ’60s London.
In the pilot, screened at San Diego Comic Con for fans, there’s a pleasant vibe of derring-do and of odd boundary-pushing at work: Knighted by a young Queen Elizabeth II, Alfred (Jack Bannon) is sworn to secrecy about his valor by a grateful, cooing monarch. The atmosphere, as well as a modish, sweet-spoken villain played by Paloma Faith, are chic and punch above weight as regard how much they seem to have cost. This is a show that delivers aesthetics and tone that are on par with the generally elaborate Batman franchise but telling a very different sort of story.
The problem “Pennyworth” faces, though, is the question of who really cares. Were this a show about any old security officer in the rich milieu of sixties Britannia, it’d be easier to click with; because Alfred is allied with Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), the future father of Bruce, we’re constantly on the watch for bits of Batman ephemera or details about the earlier life of Alfred, a character who hardly seemed to cry out for further explication. (Isn’t part of the fun thing about Alfred that he just is omnicompetent, without any credible explanation as to why?) The overarching story here, about an evil society of villains, feels as undercooked as the aesthetics seem pleasant and impressive, though Faith’s turn as a sickeningly-sweet monster is at least good fun.
In short, “Pennyworth” would be more fun if it ditched the origin aspect and just told a story of its own, without feeling the need to tie us into a franchise to which the show is only the most tenuously connected. But then, perhaps, it wouldn’t exist at all. If unsubtle, hammering nods to Batman were the only way the show could be made, well enough; at least, on TV if not on film, the Batman story is nimble and mutable enough to fuel stories told in different tones and with different palettes.
“Pennyworth.” Epix. July 28. Ten episodes (four screened for review).
Cast: Jack Bannon, Ben Aldridge, Paloma Faith, Jason Flemyng, Ryan Fletcher, Hainsley Lloyd Bennett, Emma Paetz, Dorothy Atkinson, Polly Walker, Emma Corrin.
Executive Producers: Bruno Heller, Danny Cannon.