'The Nevers' Could Stand to Be Way More Fun
The first half of HBO's new fantasy series is off to an uneven start.
There's a certain joyful energy that comes from combining genres in unexpected ways. In HBO's new series The Nevers, Victorian England and steampunk science fiction collide, creating an entirely new world populated by downtrodden women (and some men) with supernatural gifts, and men in power (and some women) who want nothing more than to erase them from the planet. It's an electrifying setup that promises intricate plots and fun fight scenes and sci-fi eye candy at every turn, which makes The Nevers' general listlessness feel all the more bizarre.
The show introduces us to Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), a woman who has been "Touched," this show's word for having superpowers, and her close friend Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), another Touched whose connection to electrical energy helps her to design all sorts of whirring gadgets and vehicles. The two run a boarding house for fellow Touched people in London, taking in anyone with gifts who has been turned out of their own home, or on the run from any number of creepy gangs who tend to kidnap anyone with supernatural abilities. The Touched, as mentioned above, are mostly women, having been granted strange abilities from a source none of them remembers (which is revealed in the final astounding moments of the first episode). The underworld of the city is in the thrall of the murderous Maladie (Amy Manson), another Touched with a penchant for violence, and, seemingly, the only one who remembers how any of them got their powers.
The premiere episode is a mix of dour, meaningful conversations amongst the Touched and their enemies, and fun fight scenes that nonetheless run the risk of repeating plenty of stuff we've already seen in plenty of other superhero movies and TV shows to date (there are at least two three-point landings in the four episodes provided to critics). For a fantasy world that sounds this engaging, it's frustrating when most of the airtime is given to long exchanges explaining how the world is unfair for the marginalized.
It would be impossible to talk about this show without addressing the Joss Whedon of it all, partially because of his recent fall from grace that saw him booted from creator-director-producer duties on The Nevers after six episodes (the second half of the season will be finished by someone else), and also because of how Whedon-y this, like all of his projects, tends to be. His pet themes are on full display here: The Nevers is populated by beautiful female protagonists who quip and kick their way out of trouble, and Villains Who Might Just Have A Point, If It Weren't For All The Violence They Keep Doing.
Closely tied to all this, the show also contains all of his contradictions. The female characters, powerful fighters and brilliant thinkers they may be, are not NOT sexualized, as in a scene in the first episode where one woman's dress is ripped off during a fight, and she continues throwing jabs in what constitutes her underwear, or another laughable shot in a later episode that follows a makeup brush from powder compact to cheek, taking plenty of time to linger on the character's cleavage on the way up. Girl power is great, and admirable, and we love it, but it's weird to see a show so satisfied with its own feminism when its own setting so rigidly adheres to the entertainment world's outdated view of the sexism of the times. I am simply begging all the fight choreographers involved to do some reading on Victorian women wearing pants.
In spite of this, the show is honestly promising, and I'm interested to see how HBO goes about finishing the season, the second half of which (episodes 7-12) will premiere at a later date. The Nevers isn't good enough to overcome the sour taste in your mouth you may have for any Whedon project considering what we know now, but it's also not bad enough to completely discount, with some really great actors doing everything they can with an uneven script. In someone else's hands, it might finally grow into itself, if it could only stop tripping over its own hoop skirts.