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Rochelle Neil manifests a wheel of fire in a dark room in The Nevers Photo: HBO

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The Nevers showcases all of Joss Whedon’s obsessions — again

The HBO drama is a dull retread of the embattled creator’s greatest hits

It almost feels unfair to judge The Nevers based on the six episodes that begin airing this month, dubbed “Part One” of the show’s 12-episode first season. The new HBO drama has inadvertently become controversial, thanks to its creator Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the pilot and initially served as showrunner until he stepped down in November 2020, citing exhaustion amid a wave of ongoing scandals. According to the show’s stars, Whedon worked on this first batch of episodes, and the version of The Nevers premiering on April 11 is the closest thing we’ll get to his version of the show. When “Part Two” of this season premieres (“at a later date,” per HBO) The Nevers might begin to look like another show entirely. Hopefully it’s a better one than this.

The Nevers takes place in an alternate London circa 1896, after a supernatural event gifts certain people, mostly women, with strange abilities. These “Touched” are regarded with suspicion by society at large, and their “Turns,” or powers, are seen as dangerous. One heiress sticks up for them: Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), who funds an orphanage for the Touched. Running the orphanage falls to Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly); the former is a capable fighter who gets brief, uninvited premonitions, and the latter is a genius inventor.

The premise immediately invokes the X-Men, maybe leaning a little in the direction of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. (Some of the Touched don’t exactly have powers — they’re just different. While one girl throws fireballs, another is simply 10 feet tall.) Given The Nevers’ status as a Whedon show made, the superhero idea finds credence — he’s written X-Men comics and directed two Avengers movies — but even in his earliest Buffy the Vampire Slayer days, Whedon has long been associated with work that embraces the pacing and rhythms of comic book-style storytelling. He’s a storyteller with a well-established sensibility, and it’s on full display in The Nevers. This is, ultimately, the show’s biggest problem.

Laura Donnelly, in a corset and underskirt, looks in a mirror in The Nevers Photo: Keith Bernstein / HBO

From the outset, The Nevers is a puzzling fit for HBO. The premium network’s reputation as the standard-bearer for prestige television gives every one of its dramas a sense of occasion, the expectation of television that aspires to push boundaries. The Nevers, however, is astonishingly pedestrian. It’s a straightforward Whedon show with the addition of nudity and a few swear words, and fewer quips than his usual average. In the first four episodes made available to critics, the series slowly builds its mythology: Amalia True and Penance Adair (say their names out loud, you’ll get it) encounter a mysterious cabal of frightening masked men abducting the Touched just as public sentiment toward Touched is reaching its nadir, thanks to the work of Maladie, a serial killer with her own gang of Touched villains. The world is meticulously built, but it has very little spark. Unfortunately, it’s currently most interesting as a referendum on its creator.

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 creator 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 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 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 idea of strong women all look the same, no matter what eras they’re from, or what costumes they’re wearing.

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

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