An Unimpressive Monument to Joss Whedon’s Obsessions, The Nevers
The new HBO series The Nevers, which Joss Whedon created and is currently directing, begins with its first episode with a dark-haired woman on the run who also happens to have a traumatic superpower and excellent hand-to-hand fighting skills.
The Victoriana fantasy world of the show has been terrorised by a baddie, a serial killer psychopath (but a lady! ), and Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) is on the hunt for her, following her through a crowded opera house and down a rickety back stairwell.
Amalia jumps over the bannister after the murderer as she descends the stairs, falling several stories. As she tumbles, her red dress catches on the nearby wooden stairs and is torn off over her head.
Because that’s how things work on The Nevers, Amalia lands in a fighting crouch, looking vicious and focused, and she’s now down to just a corset and bloomers.
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Substitute for all of The Nevers
This brief section works well as a substitute for all of The Nevers. It is purposefully implausible, eye-catching, and at times even amusing. Additionally, it is shoddy produced nonsense.
The fast, flimsy shot of True’s dress getting caught on some shady wooden railing is almost as funny as the rrrrrrrip! sound effect of it coming off.
The sequence takes place in a fantasy setting where practicality trumps caution. Additionally, it is a Joss Whedon production about a strong, traumatised woman whose strength is slightly more apparent when she is only partially dressed.
The Nevers Overarching Thesis
The Nevers’ overarching thesis is deceptively straightforward while also being quite perplexing. The perplexing version of the show is the one that is easiest to see. It takes place in a world where some people (mostly women) have suddenly started developing a range of strange abilities in a late Victorian era London.
They are referred to as “The Touched,” and their abilities are known as “turns.” The “turns” have little structure or logic, and there is little groundwork for establishing what kinds of things are and are not feasible in this world.
Amalia sees brief glimpses of the future, but Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), her best friend, sees… electricity? which she uses to create a variety of steampunk-inspired devices.
One girl is just enormous, looming like a Henry James character and Clifford the Big Red Dog, whose presence raises all kinds of fundamental logistical questions that The Nevers have no interest in addressing. Another young woman can shoot fire with her hands, while another young woman can use her breath to freeze things.
Amalia Serial Killer
The Nevers layers buckets and buckets of other plot on top of that foundational provocative but dubious world-building. A disturbed Touched woman named Maladie (Amy Manson) is Amalia’s serial killer.
She has enigmatic plans and occasionally pops up to cackle and grimace. Denis O’Hare portrays a mad scientist type who kidnaps Touched individuals so that he can extract their powers.
James Norton plays an aristocratic sexual free spirit who enjoys engaging in a lot of literal Touching in a bordello side story. The character Lavinia Bidlow, a wealthy spinster with hazy motivations, is played by Olivia Williams.
Although Augie Bidlow (Tom Riley), her brother, hangs out with the bordello guy, he has conflicting emotions about it and is also very interested in birds.
That sounds flimsy and possibly made up, I know, but there’s actually more because these episodes also feature an underworld figure named the Beggar King (Nick Frost), who is unquestionably doing something(?) with some characters(?) on occasion.
The Strong Performance
The result is a convoluted plot that is made worse by character development that appears to be based primarily on peculiar, mannered names. The strong performance by Laura Donnelly as Amalia and James Norton’s enthusiastic portrayal of a pansexual louche are positive signs.
The Nevers, however, is a confusing, disjointed collection of ideas on a purely textual level that is made even stranger when you already know the major twist from the conclusion of the first episode.
(I won’t give anything away, but when you watch it you’ll be like, “Wait, what? And when you do, kindly bear in mind the contents of this review and know that I concur with you in asking, “Wait, what?”
Joss Whedon is the Creator, Writer, and Director of The Nevers
The Nevers, it turns out, makes more sense subtextually even though it makes very little sense based solely on what appears onscreen. Even though it doesn’t sound like a better show, it makes more sense to ask “what is this show doing and why is it like this.”
Joss Whedon is the creator, writer, and director of The Nevers, and a lot of the show’s themes, images, and tics are borrowed from his earlier works. The Nevers is a show about female empowerment, similar to Buffy, Dollhouse, and Firefly, but only as accessible through female degradation.
When women are hurt or cut off from the outside world, their lives take on a special significance. Female power is best displayed when it manifests as a physical force, such as a finesse high kick or other physically impossible feat that is delivered with wit and panache.
There are additional recurring tropes as well. Amalia and Penance are best friends akin to Buffy and Willow, and the entire houseful of Touched people long to come together in the same way as the Firefly crew or the Scooby gang. Maladie is a Victorianized version of his Buffy character Drusilla.
Women and Marginalised People
The way Whedon embraces the idea of women and marginalised people (a Black doctor, a white man of the Wells for Boys variety) being Touched as a metaphor for their marginalisation also contains other well-known elements.
An analogous fictional connection like that can occasionally be instructive by allowing one side of the metaphor to suggest something novel and unexpected about the other. The Touched metaphor here devalues both sides of the argument.
The magic is oddly diminutive. The discussion of exclusion and cultural isolation is flimsy and brief. Underneath it all is the unseen presence of Whedon himself, who is the target of an ever-growing chorus of accusations that, despite penning stories that appear to be superficially feminist, he is actually a dismissive, careless, cruel, and vindictive boss.
In November, HBO revealed Philippa Goslett would succeed Whedon as the showrunner of The Nevers. HBO is not promoting the programme using Whedon’s name, and it is obvious that they would prefer to disassociate Whedon from The Nevers.
But even though it might eventually become a completely different series under Goslett’s direction, the first four episodes made available to critics are basically spelled “this is a Joss Whedon show” with his distinctive style and fictional interests all over them.
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Exciting to Watch
If The Nevers does manage to reinvent itself over the course of its first season, it will be strange and perhaps even exciting to watch. (HBO is releasing the first six episodes on a weekly basis; the remaining episodes are scheduled for a later, as of yet unconfirmed date.)
It’s difficult to envision what that future might even look like because the main components currently feel so entangled in the passions and legacy of its original creator.
The fact that Whedon’s name casts a shadow over the entire series would be more of a shame if these first episodes had been better produced. The Nevers is now a forgettable memorial to a storyteller whose work has meant a lot to many people, but who is unable to capitalise on the opportunity.