When I heard there was going to be yet another Batman spinoff show, I rolled my eyes. Then a British friend told me it was worth a look and I found the first three episodes of EPIX‘s Pennyworth for free on Amazon Prime.
Good Lord, this series is insane – in all the right ways!
The show is about young Alfred Pennyworth in the 1960s, fresh from the Army and trying to get on with his life in London. He meets a younger Thomas Wayne and Martha Kane before they get married. Eventually he’s going to become their butler and move to America.
This Show is Really Weird
If you take out the Batman-related names, the show is a lot better as a standalone. The alternate history 1960s England setting is utterly nuts. The show is like a postmodern version of Sixties British shows like The Avengers and The Prisoner, but darker and more intense. Jack Bannon is terrific as Young Alfred, a Sixties working class lad from the East End fresh from fighting communist insurgents in Borneo and starting a security firm in London.
This is a brutal, near-medieval 1960s London we were lucky we didn’t get. Armed Beefeaters patrol the streets of London. Blimps litter the air above the city. Criminals are displayed in stocks in the public. The government shows public hangings live on TV, the corpses disemboweled to a braying crowd. The Prime Minister tortures enemies of the state. There are hints WWII went slightly differently. Fascists and socialists are fighting a war in the shadows. Thomas Wayne and Martha Kane are American spies working undercover for the socialists.
Strange and specific British cultural references abound. Paloma Faith plays Bet Sykes, a ruthless lesbian gangster who looks like notorious child murderer Myra Hindley. There’s an East End street gang that fashions themselves after Jack the Ripper. That’s a surreal and baroque touch that’s not unusual when you read about the history of British street gangs.
Bruno Heller has Done This Before
Showrunner Bruno Heller previously created Gotham and The Mentalist, but his best work was on HBO’s Rome. Themes from Rome recur in Pennyworth: the struggles of honourable men under a brutal, unjust system that can destroy them at any time. Instead of Rome, we get a fever dream nightmare version of London. Alfred and his ex-Army friends Bazza and Dave Boy have to navigate a London of widespread brutality and corruption with only themselves for support. Bazza and Dave Boy are like Titus Pullo and Lucius Verenus, the centurions from Rome sticking to their moral code no matter what. Heller even casts Polly Walker (Atia in Rome) as a gang boss with a kink for male servants in women’s underwear.
The working-class heroes have a pragmatic approach to morality and violence that the BBC, ITV and Channel Four would never dare show. The London setting and cultural details feel authentic. The class politics and tensions ring true. The show is darker, kinkier and more brutal than the Sixties shows could ever be. Its political anger and anti-establishment leaning is clear. Like those Sixties shows, it is overtly antifascist. And Alfred is genuinely smart and cunning in ways he hasn’t been on Gotham or the last 10 years of the comics.
It’s all very strange and very, very British.