Brainiac On Banjo #049: Pennyworth – Might See TV?

Did you notice there are a lot of television shows based upon superheroes? Do you have a television set and an internet connection?

If you think it’s getting crowded, just wait. Disney announced a whole bunch of new Marvel shows, including Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, She-Hulk, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel – and remember, Loki, WandaVision, What If…?, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have yet to debut.

DC has Stargirl coming up soon, and they’re threatening to follow Arrow up with a new CW series – not counting Batwoman, which starts in a bit over a month. Watchmen starts soon (maybe it’s already on – I can’t tell anymore), and the Harley Quinn animated series is pretty much in the can.

There are others, but my head hurts.

This is not to say these shows will last forever. Gotham already wrapped, Krypton has been shit-canned taking the alleged Lobo series with it, Swamp Thing failed to grow roots, Legends of Tomorrow seems to be winding things up, Arrow’s only got one more shaft in the quiver and Agents of SHIELD has but one more season in the pipeline. Is Runaways still happening? Cloak and Dagger? Not certain.

Last month Epix added another series, one that hits most of my buttons for shows about which I couldn’t care less. I usually don’t care for prequels because they boldly go where we never wanted to go in the first place. Krypton was a prequel to Superman and showed the world that Adam Strange is just an empty suit. Gotham was a prequel to Batman, and that would seem impossible. The WB Batverse has been even more inconsistent and contradictory than the DCU Batverse.

When the new Pennyworth show was announced, I yawned wide enough to risk dislocating my jaw. Pennyworth is a prequel to a prequel, the latter being Gotham. The idea was to pick up on an oft-used concept that prior to becoming Alfred the Butler he was Alfred the Action Spy. To me, a prequel to a prequel wallows in the darker side of incest.

But I watched the first episode anyway.

And it turns out I was completely full of shit.

Pennyworth seems to have as much to do with Gotham as Gotham had to any version of Batman in any medium ever. It is a spy thriller, but in a Len Deighton way. Outside of the existence of Alfred and Thomas and Martha Wayne (pre-pearls), there’s no relation between this show and anything with a cape and cowl thus far. It sort of fills in some of the backstory of Alfred in the Gotham series, which is cool by me because Sean Pertwee’s Alfred was the only thing I liked about that show during the season-and-a-half I bothered to watch it.

The well-cast Jack Bannon (Medici, The Imitation Game) plays the title character, and he is completely convincing in the role as defined by this series. He makes a great spy-type action hero, and, amusingly, he seems to channel Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer more than Sean Pertwee’s Armed Butler. Then again, maybe I’m just conflating actors who employ a Cockney accent.

If the great spy shows of the 1960s were remade in 2019 to contemporary storytelling virtues, Pennyworth is what you might get. Of course, the show is aided by its ability to take 10 episodes to create and tell the story. The villains are wonderful, by the standards of the great spy shows and not by the standards of your typical Bill Finger / Dick Sprang collage of crimes. Queen Elizabeth II is equally fascinating – she may or may not be good or evil or a transgendered Trump. I think we’ll find out.

As Thomas Wayne – no mention of his M.D. thus far – Ben Aldridge seems to be channeling Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark, particularly as seen in the short-lived (but truly great) Agent Carter series. It’s a bit disconcerting, but the weight of the series does not rest upon the Bat-father’s shoulders. I’m more focused on how he’s going to put a ring on Martha Kane’s finger after (SPOILER ALERT!) she tries to seduce Alfred, initiating this summer’s greatest guilt trip.

I’m enjoying Pennyworth so much that I was taken aback by (ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT!) Alfred’s death in last week’s Batman. Normally, my reaction would be “What? Again? C’mon!”

The moral of this story is, well, yeah there are too many superhero-based television shows, but there’s always room for a great superhero-based television show. It looks like Pennyworth is likely to hit that mark.