Why does The Nevers feel so thin? I’ve been mulling over the four episodes released to critics for a few days, wondering why a show that ostensibly has so many elements I like—inventive historical fiction, a nice blend of comedy and drama, an emotionally complex female lead—failed to grab my attention. At least some of it has to do with what I wish i could wave off as “the Joss Whedon of it all,” which I will get to in a moment. But the primary culprit is the world this show is being born into—one where The Nevers’s most fascinating innovations have already been done elsewhere, even as the economy of streaming makes what could have been rich and dense feel curiously budget, right down to the dinky-looking magic tricks.
This is not to say The Nevers is a failure. I think there’s always going to be an appetite for a ragtag crew of misfits bound together by a solemn mission, especially when led by a pretty woman (Laura Donnelly, who played a supporting role in Outlander) who kicks butt. In this case, the crew of misfits is called the Touched—a subset of Londoners, largely women, who each gained unique powers during a mysterious happening three years before the events of the show.
Set at the end of the Victorian era, The Nevers follows Amalia True (Donnelly) as she contends with her own powers, shelters others who are ostracized for theirs, and tries to understand what is happening to all of them. Think X-Men, but steampunk: Amalia’s best friend is Penance “Penny” Adair (Ann Skelly), an Irish rose with a talent for channeling electricity into charming contraptions. In the pilot’s opening scene, she invents, wait for it, a car! (And an electric one, too: Take that, Elon Musk.) There’s lots and lots of other X-Men Touched people: A giant girl, one who speaks in a patchwork of other languages, explosions lady, ice breath woman, pretty singing voice girl, and oh yeah, one that is evil and maybe planning to kill everyone. Her name is Magneto Maladie (Amy Manson) and she’s wearing a lot of eye makeup.
I spent a lot of the first episode wondering if Amalia and Penny are supposed to be lesbians or not. Though it seems they are not “supposed to be,” I confess that would have been a lot more interesting than the efforts the show makes to get both women in some kind of fraught romantic liaison with a man. It’s fun to romp around in Victorian times, and The Nevers has a lot of characters it wants to throw at you: A brothel owner obsessed with having sex with the Touched (James Norton), the mysterious benefactor of the shelter for the Touched (Olivia Williams), an investigator of a murder (Ben Chaplin), and a brooding bereaved lord who hates the Touched (Pip Torrens). But the storytelling is a tangled mess, abetted by a tone that vacillates between comedy and thriller and thus fails to hit either end.
That might have something to do with the Whedon of it all. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator dreamed up The Nevers, wrote the first episode of it, and directed three of the six episodes in its first season. But the creator and executive producer also left the series in November, stating that “the level of commitment” at the time was “more than I can handle without the work beginning to suffer.”
His move came after Justice League actor Ray Fisher accused Whedon, who directed the theatrical cut of that film, of “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” behavior on set. In February, Charisma Carpenter alleged that Whedon had created a hostile work environment on the sets of Buffy and its spin-off, Angel, saying that he punished her for becoming pregnant while working on the latter. Other stars from the Buffyverse corroborated her description of Whedon’s behavior as “toxic.” This all comes on top of a 2017 essay from Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, written during the #MeToo moment, that called Whedon’s bona fides as a feminist auteur into question.
Whedon’s fingerprints are all over The Nevers: A crew of misfits. A talented (yet isolated!) female protagonist. Homoerotic tension. Dramatic stakes leavened by inane banter. But it feels empty, as if the scripts are just going through the motions; the characters have so little substance beyond their spunky quips that the dramatic moments, when they inevitably arrive, ooze into each episode like treacle. Fast-paced patter has been animating and engrossing in other Whedon shows—but in The Nevers, it’s a little hand-wavey, as if the dialogue is there to distract and stave off further examination.
Weirdest of all is the quote-unquote progressivism on display—the multicultural cast, the girl power, the vulnerable outcasts organizing against a hostile hegemony. The elements are all there, but have surprisingly little depth. Whedon’s style has arguably always relied on a bit of slick sleight-of-hand—but that stands out in a drama attempting to be Game of Thrones more than it does in superhero movies or a teen drama about a vampire hunter. By contrast, what made Thrones so engaging was that its ideas appeared to be steeped in richness, weighing every ridiculous detail with character, myth, and duty. The Nevers joins His Dark Materials and Lovecraft Country as recent HBO endeavors in the genre space that feel like rushed properties, stuffed with good ideas but underbaked in execution.
There’s something a little too silly about The Nevers at present. Simply put, we not seeing Whedon at his best, and it’s difficult to imagine how the show will resolve into something coherent when its creator has stepped away. If a show has thorny, unanswered questions behind the scenes, how will it approach them onscreen?
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