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Advance Review: PENNYWORTH Pilot ‘Makes a Shockingly Strong Case’ (9/10)

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Pennyworth
Credit: Epix

Credit: Epix

Pennyworth
‘Pilot’
Directed by Danny Cannon
Executive Produced by Danny Cannon, Bruno Heller
Written by Bruno Heller
Starring Jack Bannon, Ben Alridge, Paloma Faith, Hainsley Lloyd Bennet, Ryan Fletcher, Jason Flemyng, Polly Walker, Emma Paetz
Airing on EPIX
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

A spy drama centered around Batman’s loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth may seem like an unusual play for a network television show, but Pennyworth, premiering July 28 on EPIX, makes a shockingly strong case. The show follows a young Alfred, fresh from service abroad as a British SAS soldier in the 1960s and eager to find a way to find a steady civilian living on the back of his military service who quickly finds himself knee-deep in a government conspiracy involving the “fascist utopian” Raven Society. The show, and particularly its star Jack Bannon in an impressive performance as the titular Pennyworth, navigate a careful path that blends the camp and dry humor of Gotham with a thoughtful and empathetic approach to the much-beloved butler and his history that fits startlingly well with the broad archetype of the character presented over the decades.

The production choices are, at times, a bit on the nose for a ‘60s spy drama – neither Small Faces’ “Tin Soldier” as Alfred walks the streets nor Thomas Wayne’s not-at-all suspicious fedora and trenchcoat and flat American accent are particularly subtle – but the cast makes the debut issue a genuine delight. Bannon has an easy chemistry with everyone he shares a scene with. His easy rapport with Emma Corrin’s Esmé, and Corrin’s wry fondness for Bannon’s boyishly goofy Pennyworth in their early scenes together, make their blossoming romance feel genuinely and believable. Bannon’s earnest face and youthful energy keep the show accessible even when it leans into heavier topics; this Alfred is a soldier plagued by memories of his service, and the show navigates a careful balance in its debut episode of acknowledging the reality of what Alfred and his friends from the service would have experienced without making it central to who he is as a character.

Credit: Epix

It would have been easy to retroactively frame Alfred as a stoic, womanizing Bond type, but Bruno Heller’s script and most importantly Bannon seem to understand that Alfred’s paternal warmth as Batman’s trusted confident is what gives the character such appeal. Pennyworth aims to answer the question of how someone like Alfred winds up remaining so steadfastly loyal to someone who takes on a long career as a mask-wearing vigilante crime fighter. More than once Alfred is told he’s soft, not necessarily as an insult but as a statement of fact — he cares too much, isn’t mean or driven enough. Bannon embraces this, and the empathy he brings to the character does the premiere a great service in hooking you in.

Credit: Epix

Where the show does shine in terms of production is with its villains. The Raven Society, wealthy British elites with an eye for totalitarianism, are the lurking evil this season, and for its overarching plot Pennyworth leans heavily into the slow creep of fascist ideals under the high shine of wealth and “keeping up appearances.” Led by Jason Flemying in an unsettlingly cool turn as the even-keeled and deadly Lord Harwood, the Raven Society is all about aesthetics, and Pennyworth uses them well. The little touch of the Raven Society symbol, a clawed foot with talons outstretched perched on the lapel, has a sort of ominous eccentricity about it. Paloma Faith as Bet Sykes delights in Sykes’ quick-witted meanness, and fully embraces the discordant values of the Raven Society – stylish in a way that feels put-upon, with a deceptive charm that tips quickly into something dangerous.

Credit: Epix

The real challenge for Pennyworth moving forward is with the women it introduces. There are three women with substantial speaking parts in the film, and of the four only Faith’s Bet Sykes gets to be a particularly active player in the episode for most of it. Heller’s script seems pleased to give Esmé and Dorothy Atkinson as Alfred’s mother each a moment to exact some measure of revenge when they’re left as damsels in distress, but outside of Bet Skyes and Esmé, most women seem to just exist as opportunities to provide useful exposition or move the plot along (this is even true with Esmé, to a point, who winds up serving as a catalyst for Alfred’s dealings with the Raven Society). With luck this will change in future episodes, but it’s hard not to notice in the premiere, and serves as an obvious weak spot in an otherwise truly engaging series debut.

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