Near the end of the first episode of The Nevers, the new HBO series created and originally helmed by Joss Whedon, a dark-haired woman with a traumatizing superpower and incidentally great hand-to-hand combat skills starts to give chase. There’s a baddie, a serial-killer psychopath (but a lady!) who’s been terrorizing the show’s Victoriana fantasy world, and Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) is on the hunt, tracking her through a crowded opera house and down a rickety back stairwell. The killer runs down the stairs and Amalia leaps over the bannister after her, plunging down several stories. As she falls, her scarlet dress snags on the wooden stairs around her and gets pulled off over her head. Amalia lands in a fighting crouch, looking vicious and focused and also, because that’s just how things go on The Nevers, she’s now wearing only a corset and bloomers.
This short sequence is a decent stand-in for all of The Nevers. It’s deliberately unrealistic and eye-catching and even kind of fun in moments. It’s also shoddily produced nonsense. The rrrrrrrrip! sound effect of True’s dress coming off is nearly as funny as the fast, flimsy shot of the dress itself caught on some suspicious wooden railing. The sequence belongs to a fantasy world that prefers convenience over carefulness. And, as a Joss Whedon show, it happens to be about a powerful, traumatized woman whose power shines a little clearer when she’s half-dressed.
The general premise of The Nevers manages to be both simple and pretty baffling. The baffling version is one most visible right on the surface of the show. It’s set in a late-Victorian-era London, in a world where some people (mostly women) have suddenly begun developing a range of strange abilities. They’re called “The Touched,” and their powers are referred to as “turns.” There’s not much rhyme or reason to the “turns,” or much solid world-building foundation about what sorts of things are and are not possible in this world. Amalia sees brief flashes of the future, but her best friend Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) sees … electricity? … which she uses to invent all sorts of steampunk-y contraptions. One young woman can freeze things with her breath; another can shoot fire with her hands; one girl is just enormous, a looming cross between a Henry James character and Clifford the Big Red Dog, whose presence raises all kinds of basic logistical questions that The Nevers has no interest in answering.
On top of that baseline provocative-but-iffy world-building, The Nevers layers buckets and buckets of other plot. Amalia’s serial killer is a deranged Touched woman named Maladie (Amy Manson), who has mysterious plans and turns up occasionally to cackle and grimace. Denis O’Hare plays a mad-scientist type who kidnaps Touched people in order to dissect their powers out of them. There’s a bordello side plot starring James Norton as an aristocratic sexual free spirit who enjoys doing a lot of literal Touching. Olivia Williams shows up as Lavinia Bidlow, a wealthy spinster with unclear motives. Her brother Augie Bidlow (Tom Riley) hangs out with the bordello dude, but has mixed feelings about it, and also is really into birds. That sounds tenuous and possibly made up, I know, but there’s actually even more, because there’s also an underworld character called the Beggar King (Nick Frost) who’s definitely doing something(?) with some characters(?) occasionally throughout these episodes.
All of it adds up to a snarl of story, and it’s not helped by character development that seems primarily based in odd, mannered names. There are promising elements, including Laura Donnelly’s strong performance as Amalia, and James Norton slurping up his role as a delighted, pansexual louche. But on a purely textual level, The Nevers is a mystifying, higgledy-piggledy jumble of things that only seems odder when you know the big twist from the end of the first episode. (I will not spoil it, but you’re going to watch it and say wait, what? and when you do, please remember this review and know that I am with you, also asking wait, what?)
As it turns out, although The Nevers makes very little sense based solely on what shows up onscreen, it does make more sense on a subtextual level. It doesn’t come away sounding like a better show, but the question of “what is this show doing and why is it like this” makes more sense. The Nevers was created, written, and directed by Joss Whedon, and much of the show is related to ideas, images, themes, and tics of his previous shows. Like Buffy, Dollhouse, and Firefly, The Nevers is a show about female empowerment but only as accessible through female degradation. Women’s lives become special when they are wounded or alienated from the world. Female power is best seen when it’s a physical force, a whirling and physically improbable high kick delivered with panache along with a sharp quip. There are other returning tropes, too. Maladie is a Victorian gloss on his Buffy character Drusilla; Augie has a strong dash of Xander; Amalia and Penance are Buffy-and-Willow-esque besties; and the whole houseful of Touched people long to gel in the same way as the Firefly crew or the Scooby gang.
There are other familiar elements, too, particularly in the way Whedon leans into the idea of women and marginalized people (a Black doctor, a white man of the Wells for Boys variety) being Touched as a metaphor for their marginalization. Sometimes a metaphorical fictional connection like that can be illuminating, letting one side of the metaphor suggest something new and surprising about the other. In this case, the Touched metaphor impoverishes both sides of the equation. The magic is weirdly small. The exploration of marginalization and cultural isolation is lackluster and shallow.
Underneath it all is the subterranean factor of Whedon himself, who is the subject of an increasingly loud clamor of accusations that, even as he writes superficially feminist stories, behind the scenes he is a dismissive, thoughtless, cruel, and vindictive boss. Whedon left The Nevers in November, and HBO announced that Philippa Goslett would take over as showrunner. HBO is not using Whedon’s name to promote the show, and it’s clear that they’d prefer to distance The Nevers from Whedon’s involvement. His characteristic style and fictional interests are all over this show, though, and although it may eventually turn into an entirely different series under Goslett’s tenure, the first four episodes available to critics basically have “this is a Joss Whedon show” stamped all over them.
It will be strange and maybe even exciting to watch The Nevers if it does figure out how to become a new show over the rest of its first season. (HBO is rolling out the first six episodes weekly, with the rest of the season set for a later as-yet-unconfirmed date.) As it is, the key features feel so mired in the interests and legacy of its original creator that it’s hard to imagine what that future could even look like. If these first episodes were better made, the fact that Whedon’s name leaves a fishy smell on the whole show would be more of a shame. Today, though, The Nevers is an unimpressive monument to a storyteller whose work has meant a lot to many people, but who cannot now figure out how to rise to the moment.