For many years, DC lagged far behind Marvel in the world of comic-book-to-screen adaptations. Marvel attracted bigger names, put out more films, had a higher hit rate, and boasted less problematic fans. But in more recent years, as the two cinematic universes have increasingly competed on TV, DC’s shows have done something unexpected: they’ve dared to be weird. Whereas the samey-ness of Marvel’s shows is a truth so universally acknowledged that, just last week, it was called out by the first-season finale of Marvel’s own She-Hulk, DC’s shows can, apparently, focus a lot less on saving the world from frequent catastrophes, and instead dig into their characters’ unique idiosyncrasies. Long before The Whale, Doom Patrol gave life to the Brendan Fraser renaissance with his role as a tragic race-car-driving jerk uneasily resurrected in a robot body that houses his brain; his journey is less about using his superpowers and more about trying to make peace with his estranged daughter. Animated sitcom Harley Quinn features Kaley Cuoco giving a career-best performance as the titular chaos agent, who surprises herself and the audience by falling in love with fellow supervillainess Poison Ivy (Lake Bell). Peacemaker manages to be one of TV’s funniest shows (straight from the instantly viral opening credits) and one of the most violent. And then there is Pennyworth, which goes back to a time before Bruce Wayne was a glint in his doomed parents’ eyes, to show that the coolest guy in the Batman saga is actually Alfred.
Created by Bruno Heller (HBO’s Rome and, more relevantly, Fox’s Gotham), Pennyworth spent its first two seasons hidden on the easily-overlooked Epix, but is finally being exposed to a much wider audience now that it’s moved to HBO Max for Season 3. When HBO premiered it on October 6, giving it major landing-page placement with the show’s new title, Pennyworth: The Origin Of Batman’s Butler, the roasting began immediately—justifiably so, considering that, 24 episodes in, the titular character doesn’t seem to be anywhere near butling for anyone, superhero or otherwise.
As a Pennyworth obsessive, I canceled my Epix subscription the moment I heard the show was moving to HBO Max, and prepared to start yelling about it to everyone who would now be able to get on board. As the series begins, it’s the early ’60s…or a version of it. As with For All Mankind, Pennyworth’s timeline branches off from human history as we know it somewhere around the middle of the last century. Alfie Pennyworth (Jack Bannon) has returned from serving in the British Secret Air Service, and he’s working at a nightclub to pay the bills until he and two of his SAS buddies can launch their own private security company. Then he happens to meet Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), son of a wealthy American industrialist, and Alfie’s life changes forever.
The show’s first season is more political than we’re used to seeing in stories like this: Alfie’s alternative Britain leans fairly authoritarian—executions of convicts are not just performed in public, but are televised; prisoners are still being held in the Tower of London—but an overtly fascist organization, the Raven Society, is gaining power, and Thomas has been charged by the CIA with trying to disrupt their activities. When Alfie’s father Arthur (Ian Puleston-Davies) isn’t haranguing Alfie about becoming a butler like himself, Arthur secretly offers himself out for terrorist missions intended to destabilize the government. By the second season, full-blown civil war rages as the democratic majority, assisted by the Queen, desperately fights to retain control of London. As though all of that wasn’t hassle enough, Alfie decides to invite even more trouble by getting intimately involved with Melanie (Jessica de Gouw), wife to Gully (James Purefoy), Alfie’s old SAS captain. Though the affair is a risky choice for all the obvious reasons and some unexpected ones later on, it marks a hallmark of his character and another differentiator from the MCU: Alfie fucks. From the first season, when Alfie reports to his nightclub job, it’s in the sharpest suits you’ve seen since early James Bond. His casual grace and effortless confidence may remind you of a Cockney Roger Moore.
The second season is when the show’s sci-fi elements start ramping up: No spoilers, but it turns out that a chemical weapon developed to kill millions of people at a time will have entirely unexpected side effects if it ends up inside just one person. When the third season begins, set five years later, “PWEs”—people with enhancements are popping up enough that a government agency needs to be created to deal with them. (Where did the PWEs come from? “Some blame nuclear clouds, drugs, mad scientists; no one knew the reasons,” Alfie tells us.) Ever the businessman, Alfie has figured out a way to make money off the chaos, but based on what we’ve seen so far, a guy with an enormous cybernetic arm holding a woman hostage is a minor annoyance in the grand scheme. Instead, the show keeps the larger focus on what will define Batman’s stories when Alfie changes careers later in life: Superpowered individuals are around sometimes, but the true villains are just smarter-than-average normies, and it takes ingenuity (assisted by the inventions of gifted engineers) to get the better of them. Alfie’s fight scenes deliver everything you could hope from a military-trained character bred in London’s rough East End: he hits hard, but he’s also vulnerable when his opponents hit back. Alfie avoids permanent damage in his many physical scraps, but if you tune in for these shows for ultraviolence and you’re experiencing withdrawals since Peacemaker wrapped its first season: yes, things here do get good and gory.
By the later ’60s of Season 3, mass murder by the state has become passé; instead, the CIA is soft-launching a mind control drug, and testing it on unwitting seekers who’ve fallen in with like-minded spiritual movements (read: members of upstart cults). And the return of Thomas’s flighty sister Patricia (Salóme Gunnarsdóttir) and the introduction of off-putting performance artist Francis Faulks (Paul Kaye) suggests that there is more brainwashing on the horizon. Alfie may have traded his suits and ties for turtlenecks and suede, but his interest in the counterculture only extends as far as the female hippies who’ll sleep with him. The show is trying hard to make the viewer invest in Thomas and his marriage to the former Martha Kane (Emma Paetz), but they are so much less compelling than Alfie, an operative as resourceful as he is unflappable: One of the funniest moments in the third season so far comes when his immediate reaction to being held at gunpoint is seething annoyance.
The irony of Pennyworth now officially being known as Pennyworth: The Origin Of Batman’s Butler is that, on top of it being goofy, the title undercuts the show’s biggest strength: creating a protagonist so fascinating and fun to watch that he outshines every version of Batman I’ve ever seen. Given the state of Bat-world at the moment, the likelihood that Pennyworth: TOOBB lasts even one more season—never mind long enough to link up with any other Gotham story—may be remote. But don’t let that deter you from visiting Alfie’s counterfactual London for sexy birds, international incidents, and a bit of the old ultraviolence..