Watching The Nevers—HBO’s new epic fantasy series created by Joss Whedon, who’s no longer involved with the show—can be overwhelming. “Victorian ladies with superpowers” is already a high-concept idea, but The Nevers, while entertaining, somehow finds a way to make things even busier.
An apparently lavish budget gives the worldbuilding a huge assist; the costumes, production design, and vaguely steampunk gadgets and flourishes provide ample amounts of Victorian eye candy, though there’s often an issue of wanting to look too many places at once (and since this is HBO, the visuals include a not-insignificant amount of nudity, in case you have any kids around who’re intrigued by the premise). This busyness isn’t helped by the fact that The Nevers has a huge cast—in nearly every scene there’s a new face or a few new faces, and in the early episodes especially it can get a bit confusing. Who, among all these folks we just met, is an important character that we need to pay special attention to, and who’s only here for this one scene? What bits of seemingly crucial information do we need to retain while—whoa, hold on, suddenly we’re in a kick-ass fight scene involving fists, feet, and prim yet weaponized parasols!
But wait...now we’re meeting an entirely new group of characters plotting their own sinister agenda? An over-the-top maniacal murderer? A weary yet tough as nails detective? A mad scientist operating in a murky basement? A debauched socialite who runs London’s underground party scene? A gangster who controls the black market? And...and...is that a [spoiler]????
Amid all that, which is truthfully only a fraction of what The Nevers throws at you in its first four episodes, there are also some genuine protagonists (four were provided by HBO for review; there’ll be six total in this first batch, with another six arriving sometime later this year—the production was affected by covid-19 like so many others). The set-up is that three years prior to the main timeline, a mysterious event imbued certain people—mostly women, mostly working-class people—with superpowers (the show calls them “turns”) specific to them, with no two people having the same abilities. In-universe they’re known as “the Touched,” regarded with suspicion by most un-gifted people, and as straight-up dangerous by those in power.
Amalia True (Outlander’s Laura Donnelly), who’s able to see glimpses of the future in addition to being a first-class brawler, helps run an “orphanage” (though most residents are adults) for Touched women who’ve been outcast by their families or society at large. Amalia’s BFF, Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), a brainiac whose ability to visualize energy has made her a genius inventor, helps her run the place and together they prowl London rescuing Touched who need protection. Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters...er, the orphanage...is possible because of wealthy patron Lavinia Bidlow (Counterpart’s Olivia Williams), who is not Touched and appears mostly benevolent but also has some kind of scheme brewing that Amalia and Penance aren’t privy to.
The protection of these special individuals is a growing concern; public sentiment has begun to really turn thanks to an apparently Touched serial killer named Maladie (a terrifying Amy Manson, who fans of Once Upon a Time’s Merida may barely recognize) who’s been targeting high-profile victims. An example of her preferred style: storming the stage and slaughtering a singer in the middle of an opera performance. Add to that Miss Bidlow’s upper-crust frenemy Lord Massen (Preacher’s Pip Torrens), who’s not a fan of the Touched, women in general, unions and workers, or anyone who isn’t old-money elite having a say in anything whatsoever; “the Beggar King,” an outlaw kingpin played by a scenery-devouring Nick Frost; Miss Bidlow’s sensitive, suggestible brother, Augie (Tom Riley), who takes a shine to Penance; and so many more, including multiple Touched who pop up at the orphanage, have a quick scene that allows them to show off their turns, and then promptly fade into the background again.
So you can see—and again, this isn’t even everyone in the show, not by a long shot, nor have we even gotten into all of the different plots to keep track of—why The Nevers can make your eyes start to cross with all of its moving parts. But despite everything, the story is familiar enough to follow without too much difficulty—we made an X-Men joke earlier, but think of just how many “special people who are different band together against an outside world that doesn’t understand” stories there are in sci-fi and fantasy fiction. Also, at least some of the storylines seem to be setting up the potential for a serious payoff down the line if it can manage to live up to the teasing potential.
It’s pretty rare to see any show, much less a genre show involving superpowers, so heavily focused on female characters. Admittedly, that’s one of a few Whedon tropes on display here; despite his departure, he’s still credited with directing three of the first six episodes, writing the pilot, and is the show’s creator and one of its executive producers—his fingerprints are all over this thing and it will be obvious from the get-go for fans. It’ll be interesting to see if new showrunner Philippa Goslett shakes up the formula much, or makes some changes that could improve things moving forward—streamlining some of the clutter would be a good start, as would making sure that any new performers (not that The Nevers needs more) bring greater diversity to the series.
But The Nevers still does a reasonably good job fleshing out the relationships between the women, even as it leans into Penance’s interest in Augie and Amalia’s affair with a Touched (male) doctor to make sure we know Penance and Amalia are, alas, destined to be strictly platonic (fandom will enjoy the pairing nonetheless). And the terrors The Nevers explores are certainly worthy; along with operating under an oppressive cloud of misogyny, it digs into worker’s rights, class warfare, actual warfare, violent persecution, and that cheery trio of pain, guilt, and grief.
Despite that, there’s a wicked sense of humor running through all but the most somber scenes; while making a convoluted and daring escape in the pilot episode, Amalia looks over to the terrified girl she and Penance are in the process of saving and wryly assures her, “This is weird for us too!” Hey, it’s also weird for us, Amalia—but we’re still intrigued enough to see where all this weirdness is going to take us.
The Nevers premieres April 11 on HBO. Stay tuned for our interviews with (a very, very small fraction of) the cast coming up later this week.
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