Review: THE NEVERS, Don't Call It a Comeback, They've Been Here For Years

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: THE NEVERS, Don't Call It a Comeback, They've Been Here For Years

Joss Whedon’s (Avengers, Firefly, Angel, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) banishment from public life has been as swift as it has been brutal. By all accounts, Whedon’s fall from professional grace was well-deserved.

After the box-office failure and critical drubbing of Whedon's rushed revamp of Zack Snyder’s Justice League and the subsequent cancelation of his big-screen Batgirl adaptation, Whedon’s ill-fated attempt to rehabilitate his professional reputation by creating and overseeing a new series for Warner Bros./HBO Max, The Nevers, an X-Men-themed, female-centered, Victorian Era-set science-fiction/action-fantasy, floundered in mid-production when credible accusations of current and decades-old workplace harassment and mistreatment flooded social media and entertainment sites, leaving Warner Bros. with little alternative but to force Whedon’s departure via a face-saving resignation.

Despite a sprawling cast of dozens and not hundreds, an impressionistic, semi-coherent prologue set in 1896 that covers the seemingly inexplicable event that gave select Londoners, mostly women, marginalized, non-Caucasian immigrants, and the poor, the equivalent of superpowers, The Nevers skips ahead three years as the engaging central leads, Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), a woman gifted with a combination of foresight (“rippling”) and videogame-quality fight moves, and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), a one-woman steampunk inventor who can “see energy.” Together, they make a formidable duo, using their combined skills to save young, gifted women (“touched”) from, among other things, religious superstition that treats difference of any kind as the Devil’s work, and bringing them back to live, work, and presumably thrive in Professor Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

No, that's not exactly correct, but Whedon obviously modeled the female-centered orphanage at the center of The Nevers, funded by a benevolent aristocrat in a wheelchair, Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), on the X-Men academy, a safe space, a sanctuary from the slings and arrows of the outside world. (Not coincidentally, Whedon wrote a well-respected run on the Astonishing X-Men comic-book series more than a decade ago.) For the “touched,” great power might come with great responsibility, but they also live in a hostile, cruel world that doesn’t understand them.

At least initially, though, Amalia, Penance, and their benefactor aren’t concerned with protecting humanity or saving the world, but on saving and protecting others like them, including the target of their first onscreen mission, Myrtle Haplisch (Viola Prettejohn), a young woman who can speak in tongues (actually a polyglot of multiple languages), convincing her parents she’s been corrupted by the Devil, reason enough for Myrtle’s parents to quietly acquiesce to their daughter’s permanent departure from their lives.

Before they can rescue Myrtle, however, Amalia and Penance find themselves beset by masked, robed men, representative of another, shadowy organization that wants Myrtle and others like her for predictably nefarious ends. They succeed in saving Myrtle, but others aren’t so lucky, their grisly fates orchestrated by a not-quite-mad scientist, Edmund Hague (Denis O’Hare), with a trepanation fixation and a penchant for talking to himself, and a mysterious benefactor of his own. Hague represents just one threat to the “touched,” possibly even a minor one, less a menace that an obstacle Amalia and Penance will have to overcome or push aside when the central plot makes him a more active hindrance to their goals.

In the overstuffed, frenetic pilot episode, Whedon introduces a handful of old white men, living, breathing symbols of an imperialist, colonialist British Empire, sitting around a gilt-edged table, discussing the existential threat the emergence of the “touched” represent to them directly, their privileged way of life, and the patriarchal power structure that sustains them. Their de facto, reactionary leader, Lord Massen (Pip Torrens), puts a plan in motion that will come to play a key role in the increasing danger Amalia, Penance, and the others like them face.

At least initially, however, Lord Massen remains on the sidelines, teasing things to come in later episodes while The Nevers focuses on various other subplots, including Maladie (Amy Manson), a flamboyant serial killer with a God obsession, Hugo Swann (James Norton), a frequently naked, decadent aristocrat who pulls Lavinia’s younger brother, Augustus Bidlow (Tom Riley), into a scheme to commoditize Swann's underground sex cult into a capitalistic venture.

That doesn’t even begin to cover Amalia’s intriguing relationship with Horatio Cousens (Zackary Momoh), a doctor with literally healing hands, Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin), a perpetually surly, mustached Scotland Yard detective tasked with stopping Maladie’s rampage, or Mary Brighton (Eleanor Tomlinson), a background opera singer with a secret and not coincidentally Mundi’s ex-fiancee, or the ever-expanding cast of “touched” characters, each with their own special, unique gift/curse (some, to be fair, far more interesting than others), that wend and weave their way into the central storyline or one of the seemingly tangential, marginal subplots that Whedon’s successors will pay off over the densely threaded remaining episodes.

Not surprisingly, The Nevers feels like way too much way too soon. Spoiler: It is. Emphasizing speed and quantity over pacing and quality, Whedon introduces far too many characters too quickly (he also casts more several ginger-haired actresses, a rarity in any media). Likewise the disparate, seemingly unconnected subplots that feel shoehorned into the early episodes, less out of narrative necessity than out of fear or concern that any other alternative will lead to declining audience interest.

Whatever the rationale, Amalia, Penance, and maybe one or two others excepted, Whedon rushes the characters in The Nevers through major and minor plot beats with minimal, surface-deep development. Too often, characters feel like placeholders, compelling individual performers to add nuance and shading where the dialogue, set-ups, and action give them almost nothing.

And while Amalia and Penance manage to get a few choice bits of familiar Whedonesque dialogue, Whedon reserves the lion’s share of pithy, quippy lines for Swann, reminding us that when Whedon was at his absolute best one or two decades ago, he could drop dialogue filled with humor, pathos, and insight to rival Oscar Wilde. Whedon may be gone for good from the fictional world he created now, but hopefully new showrunner Philippa Goslett (Mary Magdalene, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Little Ashes) will deliver more than just memorable dialogue, rousing, female-centered action scenes, and authentic, character-revealing moments: the thrilling, moving conclusion Amalia, Penance, and Ms. Lavinia Bidlow’s School for the Positively, Truly Gifted (not the school’s actual in-series name) and viewers not only want, but also deserve.

Due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Nevers will be released into two parts, six and four episodes respectively. Episodes 1-6 will premiere on subsequent Sunday nights beginning April 11 on HBO and HBO Max. The remaining episodes will air at a later date.

The Nevers

  • Joss Whedon
  • James Norton
  • Laura Donnelly
  • Ann Skelly
  • Olivia Williams
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Anna DevlinBen ChaplinDouglas PetrieElizabeth BerringtonHBOJane EspensonJoss WhedonThe NeversJames NortonLaura DonnellyAnn SkellyOlivia WilliamsActionDramaFantasySci-FiThriller

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