A darling of blockbuster cinema and cult TV less than a decade ago, Joss Whedon has faced enough recent accusations of unprofessional behavior that HBO can’t even promote its new supernatural feminist empowerment drama as “From the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the director of The Avengers.”
Responses to the show will be so thoroughly filtered through viewer perceptions of the allegations that it would be easier if The Nevers were brilliant and easiest if it were horrible. Instead, the first four episodes sent to critics are the exact sort of rough, unfocused opening that fans of Buffy and Dollhouse know to expect. Those shows benefited from goodwill toward Whedon, allowing audiences to concentrate on quippy dialogue, clever themes or the occasional bit of visual flair instead of the clumsy storytelling or misguided subplots. Based on the taxing duration of several of these new episodes, he hasn’t lost his creative carte blanche. What’s gone is that unlimited reservoir of viewer goodwill, which The Nevers probably could use.
Despite HBO’s reticence to use his name in promotion, Whedon has the first four credits in the 63-minute pilot, as creator, writer, director and executive producer. The episode kicks off in London in 1896, where a mysterious, possibly alien-related event has left some people forever changed. Referred to as “touched,” they now have strange and occasionally indescribable powers, condescendingly called “tricks” or “turns.” As with most manifestations of difference in London of that period, the touched are treated as deviants and even criminals.
As any good comic book fan knows, the best way for people-of-difference to find their voices and develop their powers is at a retrofitted orphanage. St. Romaulda’s Orphanage is run by self-destructive Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), prone to seeing “ripples” of the future, and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), whose ability to “see energy” has helped her create all manner of steampunk future-tech, like a three-wheeled motor carriage and an assortment of spy gadgetry. The residence is funded by stern socialite Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams) and boarders include polyglot Myrtle (Viola Prettejohn, which surely ought to be the name of a different Nevers character), super-sized Primerose (Anna Devlin) and human truth serum Desirée Blodgett (Ella Smith).
It’s hard out there for the touched, and it’s getting worse because an unstable woman named Maladie (Amy Manson) is killing people and raising a kind of rival army of gifted women, led by fire-wielding Annie (Rochelle Neil). Maladie’s violence torments brooding detective Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin) and gives the glowering Lord Massen (Pip Torrens) the ammunition he needs to take action against the gifted/touched.
If that sounds like a lot, it is, and I haven’t even gotten to louche pansexual aristocrat Hugo Swan (James Norton), who wants to exploit the touched for sleazy profit; Denis O’Hare as a crazed doctor; or Nick Frost as a foul-mouthed crime lord called the Beggar King.
The touched are mostly women, mostly women of a lower station, frequently women of color; the subtext, illustrated mostly in the pilot and then pushed further and further into the background because there’s too much blooming text, is that this constitutes another threat to a power structure of wealthy white men already sensing their grip on the world slipping. As one of these fading titans notes, it’s an “age of power,” in which electricity and X-rays are analogous to any disempowered group — women, immigrants, people with off-menu sexual interests — gaining agency.
With Whedon at the helm, the pilot comes closest to fulfilling the show’s potential. There are a couple (not enough) snort-out-loud lines of dialogue. The production values are as polished as you’d hope for with Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) as cinematographer, Gemma Jackson (Game of Thrones) on the period London production design, Jane Petrie (The Crown) on lavish costume design and more. The action scenes — which no subsequent director (including Whedon in the second episode) is able to match — expand on the idea that the “touched” are embodiments of modernity as the indefatigable Amalia dives away from explosions in slo-mo, falls from great heights landing in the trademark superhero kneel and executes martial arts-inspired fight maneuvers that have no connection to her power.
Even at this relatively early point, though, The Nevers is a show in desperate need of focus, and as episodes progress, more and more characters are added and the connection to the richest thematic throughline becomes increasingly tenuous. In familiar Whedon fashion, deaths are leveraged for hollow emotion and every time there’s an opportunity to find new layers in the characters we know, the show gets distracted by something shiny, new and usually less interesting.
In this bulging ensemble — at least 19 regulars, it looks like — there’s room for every viewer to have favorites and feel other people are wasted, and the nice thing is that probably not every list will overlap. Skelly is the standout for me, an unexpected source of perfectly delivered punchlines and vulnerability that offers ballast to otherwise flimsy serious scenes. With a uniform including a bowler hat, long trench coat and fireballs, Neil has so much badass swagger, you wonder why the touched are putting anybody else in charge. I enjoyed Frost’s larger-than-life scenery-chewing and Torrens’ withering rectitude, and I appreciate that Chaplin, so often miscast as a foppish leading man in his youth, has a character this sloppy, gruff and exhausted in him.
The plotline that feels most instantly directionless involves Norton’s character and the sort of dingy sex club HBO dramas seem to produce in bulk; it feels like a calculated effort to see how many times Norton has to show his butt to compensate for how otherwise on-autopilot he appears. Consummate pros like Williams and O’Hare were cast, presumably, because they’re capable of generating something out of the nothing they’re given here. It’s astonishingly easy to count all the characters and subplots a broadcast version of this show would have saved for a second season — packed in here just because Whedon could. (It’s the same problem that Netflix’s all-too-similar recent The Irregulars faced, and that’s definitely not a comparison an HBO drama from Joss Whedon wanted to attract.)
A generous take on The Nevers is that it’s a fin de siècle X-Men, or maybe a Victorian Watchmen. A less generous take is that it’s a more expensive version of Fox’s The Gifted, one made without any clear understanding of hour-long cable narrative rhythm, structure or momentum. After four episodes, there’s little indication of where this six-episode half-season is heading other than, “Somebody wants to wipe out all of the touched and… that’s about it.” The second half of the season (yet to be shot and not involving Whedon) will be worth checking in on to take its post-Whedon creative temperature. But perhaps not for any other reason.
Cast: Laura Donnelly, Olivia Williams, James Norton, Tom Riley, Ann Skelly, Ben Chaplin, Pip Torrens, Amy Manson, Rochelle Neil, Nick Frost
Creator: Joss Whedon
Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, starting April 11.