The Nevers review: Every Joss Whedon obsession in one Victorian X-Men show

It nearly feels unjust to judge The Nevers based upon the 6 episodes that start airing this month, called “Part One” of the program’s 12-episode very first season. The brand-new HBO drama has actually accidentally ended up being questionable, thanks to its developer Joss Whedon, who composed and directed the pilot and at first worked as showrunner up until he stepped down in November 2020, mentioning fatigue amidst a wave of continuous scandals. According to the program’s stars, Whedon dealt with this very first batch of episodes, and the variation of The Nevers premiering on April 11 is the closest thing we’ll get to his variation of the program. When “Part Two” of this season premieres (“at a later date,” per HBO) The Nevers may start to appear like another program completely. Ideally it’s a much better one than this.

The Nevers happens in an alternate London circa 1896, after a supernatural occasion presents specific individuals, primarily females, with weird capabilities. These “Touched” are concerned with suspicion by society at big, and their “Turns,” or powers, are viewed as hazardous. One heiress sticks up for them: Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), who moneys an orphanage for the Touched. Running the orphanage is up to Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly); the previous is a capable fighter who gets quick, unwanted premonitions, and the latter is a genius developer.

The facility right away conjures up the X-Men, perhaps leaning a little in the instructions of Miss Peregrine’s House for Peculiar Kid. (A Few Of the Touched don’t precisely have powers — they’re simply various. While one lady tosses fireballs, another is just 10 feet high.) Provided The Nevers’ status as a Whedon program made, the superhero concept discovers credence — he’s composed X-Men comics and directed 2 Avengers motion pictures — however even in his earliest Buffy the Vampire Slayer days, Whedon has long been associated with work that welcomes the pacing and rhythms of comic book-style storytelling. He’s a writer with a reputable perceptiveness, and it’s on complete screen in The Nevers. This is, eventually, the program’s most significant issue.

Laura Donnelly, in a corset and underskirt, looks in a mirror in The Nevers

Image: Keith Bernstein / HBO

From the start, The Nevers is a confusing suitable for HBO. The premium network’s track record as the standard-bearer for status tv offers each of its dramas a sense of celebration, the expectation of tv that desires press limits. The Nevers, nevertheless, is remarkably pedestrian. It’s a simple Whedon program with the addition of nudity and a couple of swear words, and less quips than his normal average. In the very first 4 episodes provided to critics, the series gradually develops its folklore: Amalia True and Penance Adair (state their names aloud, you’ll get it) experience a strange cabal of frightening masked males kidnaping the Touched simply as public belief towards Touched is reaching its nadir, thanks to the work of Maladie, a serial killer with her own gang of Touched bad guys. The world is carefully constructed, however it has really little stimulate. Sadly, it’s presently most fascinating as a referendum on its developer.

Whedon has had a slow public fall from grace over the last year, following accusations of “abusive and unprofessional” conduct on the set of Justice League from actor Ray Fisher, and reports of similarly toxic behavior on the set of his hit shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. None of this has been openly linked to his exit from The Nevers, and stars Laura Donnelly and Ann Skelly went on the record with effusive praise for him based on their work together on the first six episodes. Still, Whedon’s deteriorating reputation is the biggest cloud hanging over The Nevers, and even if it wasn’t, the series feels like enough of a retread of his prior ideas that the whole thing can’t help but feel a bit retrograde.

According to Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was meant to subvert the horror-movie cliché of the blonde victim who dies at the start of the movie. What if, instead, she kicked the vampire’s ass? That pop-feminist idea was lauded as revolutionary back in 1997, even though critics at the time noted that Buffy’s heart wasn’t as feminist as its developer seemed to think. In watching The Nevers, it’s hard to shake the feeling that history is repeating itself.

The biggest hooks the show has actually on offer are moments of dissonance, scenes that lean hard on subverting audiences’ familiarity with Victorian-fiction tropes: strictly defined gender roles, repressed feelings, and overt classism. Against this backdrop, Penance Adair steps forward as an inventor who doesn’t have time to bathe and barely rinses her mouth (but still looks good). Amalia True is a stoic, proper woman who can absolutely wreck dudes while wearing a corset and giant skirts. As they reveal how they defy convention, Whedon comes across as more pleased with his own ideas than the audience necessarily will be.

Ann Skelly messes with a steam invention in The Nevers

Photo: HBO / Keith Bernstein

Laura Donnelly in a superhero crouch in The Nevers

Photo: HBO / Keith Bernstein

That dissonance does the show it’s biggest disservice. Unlike the X-Men, The Nevers doesn’t have any real metaphor underlying its sci-fi take on Victorian London. In X-Men stories, mutation can be read as a stand-in for all manner of marginalized identities, from queer communities to people of color. X-Men tales use genre twists to make stories about conflict between the majority and the minority more palatable than it is in real life — and more fun. Victorian fiction, however, plays on the gap between modern social mores and the ones from two centuries ago. We know, for example, that gender roles of the era were restrictive and social mobility was out of the question, all to a degree that seems cartoonish now. But we can still find relevance in those stories, because stories about garishly drawn cultural lines can help us understand the subtler ways the same lines are drawn in the present.

But the comic-book twist of The Nevers isn’t additive. Instead, it feels like dead weight — another layer standing in the way of audiences getting to know these characters, or understanding why anyone would care in the very first place. Having seen a lot of Joss Whedon’s work, I think I know why he cares — he’s fixated on telling stories about attractive women who can fight. That’s a limited understanding of feminism. Buffy Summers, River Tam in Firefly, Faith on Buffy and Angel, Echo in Dollhouse — his heroines have quipped and kicked their way past men who would prefer them dead literally hundreds of times. It would’ve been nice to see Whedon, before he faded from view, start to question why his concept of strong women all look the same, no matter what eras they’re from, or what costumes they’re using.

The Nevers premieres on HBO Sunday, April 11, and will be readily available to stream on HBO Now and HBO Max.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.