HBO's historical fantasy is the most Whedonesque Joss Whedon project in a decade, for better and for worse.
The Nevers
Credit: Keith Bernstein/HBO
The Nevers

The last time Joss Whedon made a TV show, he was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly promoting Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. Now here's The Nevers — the last time Joss Whedon will probably ever make a TV show. Too dramatic? The Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator is only 56, and was self-funding Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog back when streaming originals were still called web series. Still, given the cascading misconduct allegations swirling around him – and the blade of bitter betrayal slicing through his fandom's heart — I'm not sure another network will give him a universe-building budget anytime soon. (Whedon has not responded to the claims.)

So HBO's historical fantasy arrives with unwanted weight, and a bit of fascination: Just what was the influential icon going for here, before his legend descended into ongoing controversy? Whedon departed midway through season 1, with Philippa Goslett replacing him as showrunner. He wrote and directed the pilot, though, which embodies his style more than anything in his Marvel decade. Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) are an odd couple of action friends in an 1899 London overrun with biological anomalies. A girl suddenly speaks every known language, a girl grows as tall as a house, a girl named Wendy turns quite bendy: Basically, someone spilled X-Men in your Bridgerton. Men can be "Touched," too, yet society overreacts against the affected women. Females are accused of Satanic encumbrance, hunted by law enforcement, tormented by reactionary bros, even lobotomized. So, yes: A feminist drama, made by a man many feminists despise.

The story centers on a safe-space orphanage full of Touched individuals, led by Penance's brain and Amalia's brawn. Donnelly exudes fancy-tough swagger, knocking two bad guys out a window (and riding one to the ground) before the opening credits roll. She's the Gallant to Skelly's chatter-nerd Goofus. Their chemistry works; not much else does. A minor subplot about a sex club becomes a major plot about a sex club, with James Norton as a sleazy aristocrat who "auditions" Touched prostitutes personally. I just threw up in my mouth, and The Nevers stumbles even more awkwardly as it juggles overt social themes with flat-out silly plot developments. There's a speech-y serial killer named Maladie (Amy Manson), and a speech-y archconservative baddie Lord Massen (Pip Torrens) who is very speechily introduced as "the last line of defense against the scourge of modernity."

Whedon's theatrical banter was wonderfully unusual in his WB days. It was the cadence of the drama club — picture kids in a runty back-of-the-gym theater doing Shakespeare — and it gave his genre projects a unique tone of sincere absurdity. On The Nevers, too much of the florid conversation sounds like well-educated people showing off all the words they know. Something similar happened to Aaron Sorkin with The Newsroom; in hindsight, both writers benefited from the broadcast-TV requirement to Get On With It Already. Here's Maladie after she survives a brutal beating: "There's a German philosopher, very well respected, who said a saying about all the things that don't kill you." There's a TV critic who said this dialogue stinks.

There are two good insane twists and two bad insane twists. The orgies look silly. The romances are adolescent. By episode 4, multiple enemies have become friends (and vice versa). Ben Chaplin haunts the margins of the show as Frank Mundi, a gruff detective with a heart of gold. Amalia's power grants her premonitions of the future, which means she stands around waiting for the universe to suggest plot points to her. In episode 4, she tells her friends a certain villain can be found in "The Narrows," and I suddenly realized what TV show The Nevers reminds me of: Gotham, Fox's Bat-prequel, which turned its own city-of-super-weirdoes mythology into a deranged soap opera. As a crime lord who calls himself the Beggar King, Nick Frost is more or less playing a Gotham mobster, and Denis O'Hare's mad scientist is a Hugo Strange by any other name.

For me, the comparison is beneficial. Gotham pushed its loopy sensibility to pulpy extremes, and The Nevers gets better when it embraces its wild side. There's a very fun action scene with an opponent who walks on water, and the vague promise of a fascinating mythology just out of reach. Season 1 has been split into two parts due to a production shutdown — six episodes now, six episodes later — which seems to speed up the plot momentum after a sleepy beginning. Yet Whedon's trademark wit feels corseted by the Victorian setting and the demands of a sprawling premium-cable ensemble epic. Will The Nevers improve on his shaky foundation? Right now, it's all steam and no punk. C+

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The Nevers
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