Plot: August 1896. Victorian London is rocked to its foundations by a supernatural event which gives certain people – mostly women – abnormal abilities, from the wondrous to the disturbing. But no matter their particular “turns,” all who belong to this new underclass are in grave danger. It falls to mysterious, quick-fisted widow Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and brilliant young inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) to protect and shelter these gifted “orphans.” To do so, they will have to face the brutal forces determined to annihilate their kind.
Review: It is difficult to review The Nevers, the new HBO genre series debuting on Sunday, without discussing Joss Whedon. Just a few years ago, Whedon’s name was synonymous with series centered on female empowerment as well as his blockbuster work on the first two films in The Avengers franchise for Marvel Studios. In the last twelve months, Whedon has plummeted thanks to the MeToo movement and the vocal outcry from the stars of his various television series. Even though Whedon departed The Nevers, his trademark writing and characters are all over the blueprint for this new series. Unfortunately, even objectively distancing this series from Whedon doesn’t help elevate what amounts to a big-budget production that feels underwhelmingly generic.
By the time the credits roll, Whedon has the first four that appear on-screen. As the director, writer, creator, and executive producer, his stake in The Nevers is substantial. Despite leaving the project, many of his former Buffy and Dollhouse colleagues, led by Jane Espenson, are shepherding this series to the inevitable finale. Whether the series returns for a sophomore run remains to be seen, but based on the five episodes made available for this review, the fan reaction to the series could swing either way. From superhero landings to strong female characters, bizarre monsters, and anachronistic plot devices, The Nevers is a steampunk wonderland achieved on a Games of Thrones level budget but fails to feel like more than a slightly more expensive variation of Doctor Who. As someone who enjoys Doctor Who, I don’t find much here to differentiate this production from many of the Victorian-era standalone episodes from the iconic BBC franchise.
What works in The Nevers is the cast. Every single actress in the ensemble makes the best of their superpowered roles. Led by Laura Donnelly as leader Amalia True and Ann Skelly as the inventive Penance Adair, the heroic characters are known as The Touched, primarily women who all gained abilities of varied kinds during a mysterious event three years before the series begins. Financed by Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), a surrogate for Charles Xavier, the Touched that inhabit The Orphanage have varied powers ranging from premonitions and strength to wielding fire and energy to gigantism and more. The explanation as to where these powers come from is teased through the series but from the outset, there is a clear parallel with The Touched and Marvel’s X-Men. Like Marvel’s Mutants, the Touched are looked at as abominations and second-class citizens on top of already being women in an era dominated by men. The subtext is not subtle in the least which is par for the course with any Joss Whedon productions.
Like FOX’s recently cancelled Marvel series The Gifted, The Nevers uses the more mediocre characters to populate a show we are supposed to deeply care about. Where Netflix gave some spunk and energy to The Umbrella Academy, HBO let Joss Whedon maintain the air of classiness that the network used in Game of Thrones to offset the violence, bloodshed, and nudity that is meant to draw people into the narrative. There are a lot of intriguing characters like the villainous Maladie (Amy Manson) and Nick Frost as The Beggar King who I want to learn more about while there are others that seem like two-dimensional creations like James Norton’s pansexual Hugo Swan and Denis O’Hare’s creepy Dr. Edmund Hague that seem like generic placeholders from any comic book adaptation.
There is a lot to take in during the first couple of episodes of the series and without really anchoring the viewer, it takes the length of the series premiere and halfway through the second episode before I felt comfortable with who everyone is and what exactly is going on. So many plot threads and elements are introduced at the start of the series that you may find yourself trying to orient yourself to who has what powers, who are the heroes and villains, and just exactly why you should care. The Nevers feels like an adaptation of a comic book or novel that viewers should already be familiar with. Because the cast is all excellently matched to their roles, this series has the feel of a show that has already been on the air for a while but the feeling that I was needing to catch up with the story from the first episode was not exactly the best feeling to get from a brand new series.
Aside from the bigger budget that imbues the series with some excellent production values, so much of The Nevers feels like it has been done before, and better, in previous Whedon projects. From superhero landings to witty one-liners, this is a rehash of later seasons of Buffy. If you enjoyed the last few years of vampire hunting in Sunnydale, you may not have an issue with The Nevers, but I was expecting so much more out of this show. While it looks good, lurking under the pretty young cast and solid special effects is a story that doesn’t really do anything new. A lack of focus and too much going on in the first episodes may endear some to stick with this series while others may tune out quickly. The only thing that is for certain is that The Nevers rarely feels like a cohesive tale but one trying to cram too much into a shorter, marquee cable series run of ten episodes. While never a bad series, The Nevers is mostly a forgettable one.
The Nevers premieres on April 11th on HBO.