Last summer, Teen Titans GO! to the Movies became one of the sleeper hits of the year, in large part due to its takedown of everything DC Comics related. One of the best jokes in the entire movie revolves around Robin thinking he's going to get his own feature film, only to find out that Alfred, Batman's loyal but elderly butler, was getting a starring turn instead. This moment works as a great bit within Teen Titans GO!, but it's made even better by the fact that it was mirrored in real life. Just a couple of months before the film hit theaters (long after the joke had been written), Epix announced that a live-action TV series based on Alfred was being sent into production. You literally couldn't make this timing up. Regardless, the idea of Pennyworth, a show about Batman's butler, is ridiculous, made only more ridiculous by a joke in children's movie. And yet, veteran DC producers Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon turned that idea into something great.
Don't get me wrong, the new Pennyworth series is actually ridiculous, but in the best possible way. The show takes place in an alternate history version of 1960s London and follows a 26-year-old Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon), who is fresh off a decade of military service. Needing a job, Alfred and his two friends launch a private security firm, which leads him straight into the middle of an underground civil war. Along with several notorious gangsters and spies, Alfred crosses paths with two young, secretive American operatives, Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) and Martha Kane (Emma Paetz).
That's about all you need to know in regards to the plot of the series. It's a truly wild ride that's a lot more action-packed and gruesome than one might expect. Seriously, this is not the Alfred that you've grown up watching, so don't go in thinking it's a happy-go-lucky comic series. It gets dark VERY quickly, and often when you're least expecting it to.
Instead of thinking about this like a comic-based property, just imagine the extravagant '60s-era James Bond TV series that you've always wanted. Bannon's Alfred is an intriguing mix of the Daniel Craig and Timothy Dalton Bonds, with a heavy dose of Michael Caine's Harry Palmer. He's likable while simultaneously difficult to put up with, which makes him an intriguing lead for a series where the lines between right and wrong are so often blurred.
Pennyworth really values the shock factor, which both helps and hurts its case throughout the first five episodes. There are some unexpected moments that genuinely made me jump as I watched. Other times the shocking scenes felt gross and exploitative, and the show couldn't move on quick enough. For what this series is trying to be, this style of storytelling is largely effective, even when off-putting, but it won't be able to keep it up forever. Hopefully as the characters develop, there will be a lot more leaning on them and their decisions, not just the luck and random chance surrounding them.
The combination of these designed-to-shock sequences and the show's twisted sense of humor makes for a wholly unique tone that I'm not sure I've seen on TV before. It's bothersome from time to time, but it's mostly charming and interesting, which is something I really didn't expect going in.
Pennyworth is not your run-of-the-mill spy thriller. It's also not a superhero project in the slightest bit. For better or for worse, this quirky little series is in a genre all its own. Fortunately, Heller and Cannon fully embrace and accept that fact, allowing Pennyworth to reach much higher than its premise. If you want something totally different than the TV you're used to, Epix's Pennyworth is certainly worth your time.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Pennyworth premieres on July 28th on Epix.