The Nevers is undoubtedly going to kick off a debate. Not about whether HBO’s upcoming sci-fi/fantasy drama is good or not – because it’s great! – but rather folks will starting chewing the cud again on that age-old question of “Can you separate the artist from the art?”.
The artist, in this case, is Joss Whedon, once upon a time the fan-favourite writer/director who could seemingly do no wrong. Whedon shot to fame with beloved geek-tastic TV productions such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, before launching his career into the stratosphere with Marvel’s The Avengers, and becoming arguably the most influential creative voice in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. But then came 2017’s Justice League and everything fell apart. Following the poor reception for his studio-mandated hack job of Zack Snyder’s original film, a series of “gross and abusive” on-set misconduct allegations from Justice League star Ray Fisher – subsequently backed up by his co-stars – led to a lengthy and very publicised inquest by Warner Bros. which then led to even more shocking revelations about Whedon’s past unsavoury behaviour by Buffy and Angel actress Charisma Carpenter – also subsequently backed up by her co-stars – that painted the erstwhile geek golden boy as a plain asshole at best and a skeevy sex pest at worst.
So when Whedon issued a statement that he was stepping away from his new HBO TV show mid-production due to the “level of commitment required moving forward, combined with the physical challenges of making such a huge show during a global pandemic,” just about everybody knew this was PR speak for HBO parent company Warner wanting Whedon and his troubles to just politely go away. The show, of course, was The Nevers, which has now seen Whedon replaced as showrunner by writer Phillipa Goslett… but not quite. That’s because what would have been a 10-episode first season had to be split into two blocks of six and four episodes respectively as production was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Only the first four episodes – which we got early access to for review – had been filmed under Whedon’s direction (he personally helmed the pilot episode) before the set was closed and an additional two were then shot later under strict COVID protocols. The remaining four episodes, which will now be fully overseen by Goslett, are still to be filmed at an unspecified future date, pandemic dependent.
And all of that production trouble preamble to this review was so that you can understand that what there currently is of The Nevers is very much a Joss Whedon production through and through. And that may just stop some people from never giving it a chance given his now-revealed terribleness. The catch though, is that The Never is also some of the best work Whedon’s done in ages, even if he’s basically pilfered a huge chunk of it. Luckily, the target of his larceny is mostly Whedon himself as he liberally borrows from his past work and then blends it all together
Set in glum Victorian England, The Nevers kicks off three years after a mysterious event above London sees a large number of people – predominantly women – developing special abilities. These “Touched”, as they become known, possess a myriad of “turns” that range from the inconvenient (being able to speak in all languages except English) to the sideshow-esque (giant teenage girl) to the useful (healing of wounds) to the utterly disturbing (literally sweating bullets). As the group of stuffy old men that secretly run Britain (led by the always-great Pip Torrens’ Lord Massen), as well as the general populace, greet these Touched with mistrust, fear, and violence, many of them flock to the sanctuary of an orphanage owned by wealthy sympathetic spinster Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams) and run by Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) with the support of her best friend Penance Adair (Ann Skelly).
Amalia and Penance are not your everyday governesses though. Both Touched, troubled and hard-drinking Amalia has the gift of precognition, getting flashes of events before they happen – on top of being an incredible brawler – while plucky Penance can see the flow of potential energy in things, allowing her to invent exactly the type of technological marvels that her devoutly religious upbring could view as heretical. Together, the two women protect their charges as well as try to rescue new Touched from an increasingly hostile population, driven even further in their paranoia and prejudice by Maladie (Amy Manson), a deranged Touched on a vicious murder spree.
Just from that brief synopsis alone, you should have already picked up on the familiarities here. You have the complicated, ass-kicking female leads bristling against society’s expectations a la Buffy. The marginalization and prejudice thrown at the Touched are straight from the X-Men comics (which Whedon had a critically-acclaimed run on), right down to their wealthy benefactor whose house they live in even being wheelchair-ridden. The mix of steampunk tech and superpowers in Victorian times is also directly from the second volume of The Runaways, another of Whedon’s comic book runs.
That’s all on top of Whedon’s ever-present rapid-fire witty dialogue, his penchant for unhinged villains, etc. Even some of Whedon’s foibles are present though, as he sticks hard to certain character archetypes. This also being an R-rated production allowing nudity, sex, and violence, it almost feels like Whedon gets a little too enthusiastic now that he can shirk the fetters of PG-13 and just throws some extra boobs or blood in there just because he can.
So yes, besides for that adult spin, there’s very little here that’s original (at least so far), but it’s still rather thrilling entertainment. That’s helped along handily by some very well-choreographed action beats and pretty solid production values. The show also moves as its plot leaps acrobatically from one twist or revelation to another with not much in the way of dead spots (though, admittedly there are a few). Credit should also be given for how free of hand-holding it is. The Nevers respects the audience enough to know they don’t need every detail explained to the nth degree.
More importantly, the fun comes down to the characters – rounded out by the likes of James Norton’s pan-sexual aristocrat Hugo Swan, Rochelle Neil’s fireball-hurling Bonfire Annie, Tom Riley’s nebbish gentle soul Augie Bidlow, Nick Frost’s surprisingly intimidating crime boss, and more – and the actors who bring them to life. As Penance, Skelly is an absolute delight, while Manson’s Maladie is equal amounts disturbing and intriguing. But the biggest highlight is easily Donnelly’s Amalia True, a heroine with a mysterious past (how did she go from mild-mannered housewife to possessing savage fighting skills and a capacity for hard drinking that would put a pirate to shame?) that carries this whole affair on her very capable thespian shoulders.
Donnelly is an Olivier Award-winning Irish actress with a predominantly stage background, but she most notably has had a supporting role in swooning time-travel drama Outlander. I’ve not seen that show, but from what I’ve read, Donnelly’s screen time wasn’t much to get hyped about. There’s a lot to get hyped about here. Whether it’s delving into Amalia’s fractured psyche and heavy burden of responsibility or just her cracking skulls as she lays waste to a room full of thugs, Donnelly excels with effortless conviction and charm. In Amalia, Whedon has given her the type of supernova-esque star-making role that once saw the likes of Sarah Michelle Gellar turned into a household name overnight, and Donnelly exceeds all expectations. I would comfortably say that just watching her alone is worth the price of admission here.
And as the four episodes I’ve seen just started scratching away at the surface of just what Amalia’s backstory is and how it ties into much larger events, I found myself raging at the heavens that I didn’t have more to watch yet. And that also led me to the realization that we may not get all that much more in the future. Even before Whedon’s dirty laundry was aired to the world, he didn’t always have the best track record when it came to his shows being picked up for renewal (the wound of how they did Firefly dirty is still raw). Will The Nevers actually manage to overcome the recent stink of his association to see this story completed properly?
In the episodes I had access to, Whedon’s name is everywhere in the title cards and credits, but these screeners did come with a disclaimer that some aspects are not finalized. It will be interesting to see if HBO will scrub his name from the episodes when they start airing in the US this coming weekend – as they did from the most recent trailer – or leave it as is. For some, that could be a deal-breaker. If that’s not the case for you, I would definitely recommend giving The Nevers a watch. After all, I would have… ahem… never thought a female-led steampunk superpowered Victorian-era drama series was something I was looking for, but here we are!
The six-episode Part 1 of The Nevers will air locally on Showmax with episodes 1 & 2 airing Monday 19 April, with further episodes to follow weekly. Part 2 will air later this year.
Last Updated: April 9, 2021