Epix is slinging gems and the world is rushing past.
Now this review should really be written by one of the many comic book aficionados on staff, a club of which I am decidedly not a member. But I do have an Epix subscription, and therefore the honor has fallen to me.
I also love Batman, in most of his forms. I grew up with Adam West, so he’s sacred to me. And I greatly enjoyed the darkness and grit of the Nolan films. That was closer to my idea of Batman than, say, your Clooneys and Keatons. Otherwise, I don’t really count myself among the throngs of superhero fans that seemingly have multiplied like Gremlins in water over the last thirty-odd years or so.
While the MCU has been better than expected for people like me who aren’t necessarily superhero positive, I have always admired that miscreant from DC…the caped crusader. A human being first. Just a regular dude with some gumption and a dream, looking to free his enslaved people from the various sins of sloth and greed and avarice. And he’s a billionaire. Did I mention that? Yeah. That can tend to help when the dry cleaning bill comes due.
In this world where fraud and malice and greed seem to permeate society from the wealthiest to the most downtrodden, wouldn’t it be nice to think of a billionaire who actually used his money to even the score a bit? (Note: Not talking about #6Underground). I always forget which billionaires are our guys. Bill Gates? George Soros? Are any of them really our guys? Some part of me has a fertile and insistent mistrust of anyone with a house bigger than mine and that tends to grow exponentially for people with helicopters and in-house somaliers. That said, if you could paint me a picture of one of them flying through the air in an ultra-light, ultra-strong space age shell to kick Moscow Mitch out of office, I’m sure I’d be more inclined to listen.
But this show isn’t about Batman. Not in the general sense. It’s the origin story of Alfred Pennyworth, the famed butler and noble protector of the Wayne legacy. And that may possibly turn some Batman diehards off. I can understand that. Most of the reviews of Pennyworth that I’ve read were written based on the pilot or the first three episodes. And while many lauded the style of the show, I was often reminded by reviewers, all of whom know more about Batman than I do, that this shit ain’t canon, and IS THIS EVEN BATMAN ANYWAY?
Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn.
If you’re pressed for time, here’s all you need to know. You can get Epix for about the price of a McRib sandwich and it won’t cause your intestines to bleed. Pennyworth is smart, well written, beautifully shot, and fun. The ten hour-long episodes are well worth the price of admission. I wanted to wait until the season finished (which it did this past Sunday) before I wrote my official review and I can honestly say that I enjoyed every episode and that the show was dotted with a number of stellar performances.
Now, if you want more detail, read on.
I decided to tune in to Pennyworth as a chaser to the recently ended ‘Perpetual Grace, LTD’, and I ended up getting hooked. That’s often as high a level of praise as I can offer. If a show hooks me, that tends to be a good thing, but not always. Like most of you, I’ve mainlined some true guilt-watch shit over the years, as my dear friend T.K. Burton never lets me live down (my review got him hooked and he binged alllll the Shannara. Haha!)
‘Pennyworth’ is ostensibly the prequel to ‘Gotham’, though I’m not sure it’s ever explicitly framed that way. It takes place in sort of an alternative, 1960’s London by way of Assassin’s Creed. Think police officers in ski masks and sooty streets lined with stocks and gibbets. Smokestacks pumping aerosol death into the sky where dirigibles float menacingly over the horizon. Brutal public executions and hard boiled people. It’s dark.
The show was created by Bruno Heller, of HBO’s ‘Rome’. He also created ‘Gotham’ and ‘The Mentalist’. I love ‘Rome’ so much I wish I could take it to the prom. I never watched the other two, mostly because I’m a network snob. (Though, I enjoyed ‘Pennyworth’ enough that I might go back and give ‘Gotham’ a whirl.)
One of the things that most connects me to a show — any show — is the feeling that I’m in good hands. I don’t want to get sucked into Narcotic TV only to realize the production team hasn’t the foggiest idea where the show is going. I also can’t stand when a show feels like a crazy good episode hook, followed by nearly an hour of filler and then a great cliffhanger. This is decidedly not that. It’s jam packed with great stuff.
‘Pennyworth’ opens in a way that made me feel right at home. Some lovely camerawork with The Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ over the top of a traditional British hunting party and wrapped up with some highly stylized dialogue and some quick-hit character work. The cold open grabbed me and made me think “oooooh. I’m gonna like this.”
Here. If you have three and a half minutes, take a look for yourself:
Now, that opening is a bit of a lie. Because I thought that character, Bet Sykes, played by UK singer Paloma Faith, was a hard-charging public servant, working a nine to five but rousted from her day off to do the Queen’s business. Really, she’s closer to the Harley Quinn of this particular show than she is Commissioner Gordon.
Still, she’s great in season one, even if the cold open is a wee bit of a head fake.
The cast, largely made up of unknowns, is sparkling.
The show doesn’t work if Alfred Pennyworth isn’t awesome, and Jack Bannon’s Alfie is awesome. I loved him. He does this sort of reserved British working class thing combined with an emotionally scarred and yet tight lipped veteran thing and wraps it up in a handsome bow that barks like a young Michael Caine.
He’s fantastic. The Alfie we meet is a twenty six year old former elite SAS trooper who has flashbacks about some dastardly shit in the bush. We’re not sure exactly where. With him in the jungle and later on in London are his two best mates, Daveboy and Bazza.
The name Daveboy kind of irked me at first because it feels like it should be Daveyboy, but then it grew on me and now I kind of love it. Especially the way Alfie says it. Daveboy is played by Ryan Fletcher, who starts out a little iffy as a color-by-numbers drunk painted into a corner by the writing, but grows into a character you enjoy.
Then there’s Bazza, played by Hainsley Lloyd Bennett. This is a beautiful man. He’s great from the start and stays that way. He has dreamy eyes and a soft voice and you may end up wanting to cradle yourself in his arms and have him rock you to sleep and tell you that it’s all going to be alright.
Pennyworth runs into Thomas Wayne, the future dad of the future Bat-man almost immediately. Numbers are exchanged and before we know it, the proverbial streams are crossed. Wayne, played by Ben Aldridge, is not a doctor. At least, not yet. He’s sort of a Hudsucker Proxy-talking businessman looking after his family’s interests in Londontown.
We also meet an exciting gun for hire named Martha Kane.
She’s an American woman way ahead of her time, functioning as sort of a project manager of dangerous initiatives. Her interest is ostensibly helping the No-Name League, a radical leftist underground organization looking to topple the government. Their chief rival is called The Raven Society, a radical right wing underground organization also, shockingly, looking to overthrow the government.
That’s where we find the show’s big bad, Lord Harwood, played by Jason Flemyng. The Raven Society is growing in power and poses a major threat to Her Majesty’s government. Much of the plot skeleton of season one chronicles the ever-shifting political landscape, and how the Ravens, No-Names and government forces joust, spar and undercut one another. And more importantly, the series of events that always seem to pull former SAS killer Alfred Pennyworth back in to the center of the action.
Flemyng is good as the Raven’s chief, and has to flex his acting chops as his character endures the ups and downs of the power struggle.
His character is aided at all turns by the delightfully nutty Sykes sisters, played by Paloma Faith and the unsinkable Polly Walker. She’s always great, and you’ll never hear me utter even whispered criticisms of Atia of the Julii.
What many people will point to as a general failing of Heller’s is the amount of style over substance. Eh. I wasn’t affected by that. To me, if you want style over substance, look to something like Into the Badlands, which is one of the most breathtaking shows ever shot but had some of the worst writing, acting and directing that you’ll ever see. Ditto for something like FX’s Taboo, which had just about every single awesome thing in it and yet fell flat.
Pennyworth didn’t feel that way to me. I was engaged and entertained. Some of the finest acting came from the supporting cast, which was a treat.
Emma Corrin as Esme Winikus was incredibly charming as Pennyworth’s love interest.
Ramon Tikaram was solid as Pennyworth’s frenemy, Detective Inspector Aziz.
Anna Chancellor’s Frances Gaunt was a pleasant twist on the Raven Society’s Fascist face.
Dorothy Atkinson as Alfie’s mum…
…and Ian Puleston-Davies as Alfie’s dad were excellent across the board. Their stalwart performances helped keep the stylized, comic-book aesthetic of the show grounded.
Richard Clothier is a note perfect Prime Minister
Harriet Slater makes the most of every scene she’s in, proving there’s no small parts, only small actors. She was ridiculously winning as Barkeep’s daughter Sandra.
And Danny Webb is menacing as a local gang leader who happens to partake of the odd human liver now and then.
Lastly, Jonjo O’Neill as Aleister Crowley, an effete, cultured Satanist stole every scene he was in. He was so threatening while being languid that I watched his scenes twice. If I was a casting director I’d put him in all the things. His talent seems effortless, with just a hint of the theatre about him.
I give the cast high marks, with my only reservations surrounding the performances by Ben Aldridge as Thomas Wayne and Emma Paetz as Martha Kane. I’m just not sure about either of them yet. Aldridge, the top-billed name in the cast, might be toeing a certain line that I can’t yet see and delivering a more subtle performance than I recognize, but right now he feels schticky to me.
Ditto for Paetz’ Kane. It could very well be that there are things in the Batman universe that I’m not aware of, but so far her performance feels the most uneven to me. Gladly, even at their ‘worst’, so to speak, both of these characters are a far cry from poor, and they’ve both earned more than enough goodwill for me to tune in if and when the second season is announced.
My suspicion is that if you’re a Batman diehard, you’ll tend to be a bit more protective of the story that I was. This show is not high art, but it’s still far better and more interesting than your average cable TV offering. There’s some graphic violence and some imagery that certain watchers may find jarring, but I think it’s the show being dutiful to the stakes in this reimagined London.
If you like a good romp that features espionage, dark mysticism, cannibals, witches, gang warfare, and bar fights in concert with high tea, butlers and royal dinners, then Pennyworth might just be ten episodes to put on your watch list.
I know I have my fingers crossed for season two.
Header Image Source: EPIX