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‘The Nevers’ Can’t Escape Joss Whedon’s Shadow, for Better or (Mostly) Worse

The ambitious HBO fantasy feels muddled after the director exited the series during postproduction and pandemic delays hampered its new showrunner

Scott Laven/HBO

For a show with so much happening on the page, The Nevers can feel awfully thin. On a story level, the new HBO drama features a sprawling cast, which floods the viewer with a deluge of character bios and fanciful names. (“Primrose Chattoway” and “Augie Bidlow” are a representative pair.) On a more meta plane, the show is a noisy collision of genres—part superhero, part steampunk. And then there’s the matter of creator, producer, and director Joss Whedon and the recent reports of his on-set abuse; those reports don’t appear in The Nevers itself, but inevitably color the experience of watching it.

For all these reasons, The Nevers ought to at least be an object of interest, even if it ultimately doesn’t succeed. An alternate history set in post-industrial London, The Nevers is the latest of its network’s attempts to capitalize on the success of Game of Thrones—not including actual spinoffs of Game of Thrones. Between The Nevers and Lovecraft Country, it’s striking to see just how quickly HBO has embraced full-blown fantasy in the wake of Thrones mega-success. The prestige platform had previously dipped its toe in the supernatural pond with series like True Blood, albeit with distancing measures like camp and political allegory to keep it from slipping into earnest lore; even Thrones began its life as a self-aware commentary on storytelling tropes in both fantasy and TV, a trait that was arguably key to its appeal.

The Nevers, by contrast, is surprisingly straightforward. Its central mystery and inciting incident is the sudden-onset phenomenon known as the Touched. Three years prior to the events of the show, a significant number of Londoners—most of them women—instantly manifested seemingly magical powers. Each so-called “turn” is different, and some are more useful or immediately apparent than others. (Predicting the future is a practical skill; speaking in random languages no one around you can understand, not so much.) The Touched unsurprisingly become the object of widespread fascination and fear, much of it blatant misogyny. The protagonists of The Nevers are residents of an orphanage that’s become a kind of safe haven from this scrutiny, overseen by Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), a wealthy benefactor in a wheelchair. Or, to restate this paragraph in fewer words: Victorian Lady X-Men.

There are a few plot twists that arise in the four episodes of The Nevers that were shared with critics before this past weekend’s premiere. But for the most part, the show proceeds exactly as you would expect it to based on that brief logline. The Touched become a metaphor for marginalized groups that, thanks to their makeup, isn’t really a metaphor. (It’s easy for the filmmakers to comment on fear of women’s empowerment when your heroes are actual women with powers.) Conservative politician Lord Massen (Pip Torrens)—who also hates labor unions and the word “employee,” which to him represents a creeping Gallic influence on British culture—whips up public resentment against the Touched; rich playboy Hugo Swann (James Norton) just wants to exploit them for profit, ideally as employees at his up-and-coming sex club. Like all stories that use superpowers as a stand-in for identity, including both X-Men and True Blood before it, The Nevers’ analogy is as shaky as it is simplistic.

We meet many factions in the world of The Nevers—perhaps too many, given how unfocused the show starts to feel as the subplots pile up. This isn’t the Touched versus the world; it’s the Touched who live at the orphanage versus renegade Touched versus a mysterious group targeting the Touched versus the political power structure, with a few outliers and observers supplying even more loose threads. The good news is that there are two clear, charismatic leads: Laura Donnelly, as the closed-off and fiercely protective Amalia True; and Ann Skelly, as the dreamy Irish inventor Penance Adair. Penance and Amalia are a bit like the older sisters of the orphanage, adults who protect their young charges while handling business of their own. Each is an archetype: Amalia the ass-kicking loner, Penance the idealistic dreamer. But their platonic chemistry lends a certain vitality to otherwise stale tropes.

Skelly and Donnelly also headline some of the show’s best scenes: the action sequences, which set aside overcomplicated story arcs in favor of more accessible pleasures. Penance’s “turn” is a bit of a stretch—she can apparently intuit electricity, which makes her good at gadgetry—but it allows her to build a getaway car that ejects from a moving carriage. In one scene, Amalia encounters a kind of super-soldier who can walk on water, enabling a creative form of combat that’s half-submerged, half-open air. It’s an improvement on the likes of WandaVision, whose final episode turned a showdown between two sorceresses into yet another trade-off of brightly colored CGI beams.

“Super-strong women getting in fights, both symbolic and literal” describes a good deal of Joss Whedon projects, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dollhouse to Serenity. The Nevers is perhaps less quippy than its predecessors, though that may just be the British accents. But otherwise, it conforms neatly to the Whedon house style, even though Whedon suddenly resigned as showrunner in the fall of 2020, replaced by Philippa Goslett early the next year. Whedon declined to name a specific reason, simply saying the job was “more than I can handle.” Four months earlier, actor Ray Fisher had publicly described Whedon’s “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” behavior while filming 2017’s Justice League. Three months later, Buffy and Angel actress Charisma Carpenter offered a similar account that was backed up by her costars.

Whedon exited The Nevers too late for the show not to bear his fingerprints, both in style and more tangible markers like credits. But his recent headlines—which in turn followed years of criticisms, both of his personal conduct and his creative output—have stranded The Nevers in an awkward no-man’s-land. HBO hasn’t exactly been touting Whedon’s involvement, and the creator has conspicuously sat out The Nevers’ initial round of press. (Chief content officer Casey Bloys has stressed that there were “no complaints” about Whedon’s behavior during production.) But the show also can’t escape his shadow. It’s an auteur-branded concept that’s suddenly missing its auteur.

The good and bad news is that The Nevers doesn’t need Whedon to stand on its own merits. Between switching showrunners in postproduction and pandemic-induced delays, it’s not shocking that The Nevers mostly feels muddled, if punctuated by moments of excitement. But that aimlessness takes a toll on the engagement required of any new fantasy—the hook that drives the viewer to ask where the Touched came from or what will happen to them.

As it stands, it’s easy to imagine the distracted viewer reaching for their phones and turning to Instagram, which is the last thing The Nevers should want. Nothing breaks a fantasy faster than letting unpleasant realities intrude.

An earlier version of this piece stated that the showrunner was switched partway through production; the showrunner was switched in postproduction.