HBO’s steampunk fantasy series has more kickass/traumatized women, X-Men superpowers, and inane banter than you can shake a Reaver at.
In a lot of ways, I feel a bit sorry for The Nevers. A show created and conceptualized by Joss Whedon, former pop-culture wunderkind now revealed to be an abusive terror behind the scenes of some of his most high-profile works, it’s already weighed down by the lodestone of its controversial creator even before it airs. Whedon left the show’s production in November (presumably as a result of these allegations coming forward), the current showrunner position shifting to Philippa Goslett. Time will tell if Goslett will have the time or the opportunity to make the show her own and drag it out from the shadow of its provenance. But if the first four episodes provided to critics are any indicator, she’ll have an uphill battle, as every bit of its worldbuilding and thematic concerns scream the kind of quippy, fly-by-night faux-progressivism for which Whedon’s output is known.
Set in turn-of-the-century London, The Nevers takes place three years after a mysterious event (you’ll see exactly what it is at the end of the pilot episode, though it just raises more questions than answers) imbues a goodly portion of London’s population — mostly women — with mysterious supernatural abilities, known as “Turns”. Hewing predictably to the show’s brief as “steampunk X-Men“, those affected by the event (called the “Touched”) are marginalized even further than they already are: white men in smoke-filled rooms tut-tut about the social changes such people present. “What women are shocked by now, they will tolerate tomorrow, and demand the day after,” murmurs one such aristocrat, Lord Massen (Pip Torrens), who sees the event as the end of the white male social order.
In the meantime, the Touched are treated with skepticism, many of them turning to crime or, in the case of wild-eyed serial killer Maladie (Amy Manson), mass murder on a mission from God. But hope springs in the form of an orphanage/sanctuary for the Touched financed by the wealthy Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams) and administrated by the headstrong Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), a Touched woman as skilled in corset-bound combat as she is in discerning the mysterious glimpses of the future her Turn provides her. Together with her best friend and inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly, a lovely Irish rose), Amalia seeks to find other Touched in London and keep them safe from the bigotry and violence that awaits them in the outside world.
If The Nevers was content to keep its focus on Amalia, Penance, and the motley crew of Touched who occupy her sanctuary, the show might benefit from a greater, if derivative, focus. But as with many of these high-fantasy shows trying to fill a post-Game of Thrones cultural space, the worldbuilding just gets too out of control, a half-dozen subplots vying for attention. There’s the pansexual lothario (played with sniveling delight by James Norton) and his soft boi business partner (a Hugh Grant-ian Tom Riley) who wants to start a kinky brothel where people can touch the Touched; the dour Scotland Yard detective (Ben Chaplin) who has a curious sympathy with the Touched; the mysterious experiments by a mad doctor (Denis O’Hare) dissecting Touched to figure out what makes them tick; the list goes on. Nick Frost even shows up as a Fagin-esque crime boss called The Beggar King, whose motivations are as vague at this point as anyone else’s.
Whedon clearly wants to delve deeper into this world he’s conjured up, but doesn’t know where to start, and leaves us with many logistical and narrative details unexplored. There are spurts of fun to be had; when the show gets over its incomplete and clunky metaphors about the plights of marginalized peoples and allows its Touched characters to buckle some swash, it can be enjoyable. I want to learn more about some of the kids who populate Amalia’s orphanage beyond their current status as background players, beyond their abilities to freeze objects with their breath or speak multiple languages or, in one case, be as huge as Clifford the Dog. (How do they make her clothes? How does she get in and out of buildings? The Nevers never cares to answer these questions.)
Whedon clearly wants to delve deeper into this world he’s conjured up, but doesn’t know where to start.
The fact that little of it feels particularly original doesn’t help, either, The Nevers feeling like a petticoat-ed redress of everything from Buffy to Firefly to Dollhouse and beyond. His characters, Amalia True especially, spit out Whedonesque bon mots and ironically-idle banter in life-threatening situations with aplomb. Like Mal Reynolds and Buffy Summers before them, Amalia’s snarkiness comes with no small amount of self-satisfaction, and you can hear the author patting himself on the back for his own cleverness.
The show clearly prides itself as a series about female empowerment (literally, in many cases), but always cloaks that in deep-seated traumas that offset those abilities. Women become ‘strong’ when they can scissor-grab fools and crack wise while doing so. Stories about superheroes are often metaphors for marginalization, but they’re rarely laid on as thickly as they are here, with characters outright stating those critiques in dialogue rather than letting the story speak for itself.
As creaky as these first four episodes are — reams of exposition alternating between soap-opera twists and cutesy inventions like Penance’s li’l electric car — I want to believe there are glimmers of promise. The actors are giving it their all, particularly Donnelly, who holds up admirably through the Whedonesque tics to form the kind of no-nonsense protagonist you want to build a series around, and Mark Isham‘s string-laden score offers plenty of fun surprises (especially in the form of an alien song one Touched siren sings in order to find other Touched — yes, exactly like Cerebro). But we’ll have to wait and see whether the show will improve past its Whedon-penned initial episodes and whether Goslett can right the ship to give her cast and intermittently fun premise the treatment it deserves.
The Nevers premieres on HBO April 11th.