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Joss Whedon's 'The Nevers' Is a Very Fine Mess

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 13, 2021 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 13, 2021 |


I never got hardcore into Whedon, although there were a lot of years where I wouldn’t admit that here. I couldn’t get into Buffy or Dollhouse, and I was indifferent-to-hostile toward his Avengers movies. I loved Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but I think I realized at some point that it had less to do with Whedon and more to do with Nathan Fillion. I’m not saying this so that I can be one of those people who say, “I never liked him anyway!” because that’s not true, either. A lot of this site’s early success came via Whedonesque (RIP) links, and I admired what I thought he represented until I found out along with most everyone else (around the time that Kai Cole released that open letter) that he wasn’t who he said he was.

I mention this in the context of HBO’s The Nevers only to illustrate that I’m not intimately familiar with all those Whedon tropes, the clever Whedon patter, or the misogyny disguised as feminism in his work. I think that allowed me to watch The Nevers without some of the Whedon baggage, and I’d have never known — as Roxana points out — that Whedon basically plagiarizes himself here.

All of which is to say: I went into The Nevers with something of a blank slate, and this is what I will say about the pilot: It’s a belabored, overstuffed mess and there were a few moments that were painfully icky given what we know about Whedon … and yet, I liked some of the characters. I mean, not their cutesy names or some of the tortured, self-important dialogue, but I liked Laura Donnelly as Amalia True, Ann Skelly as Penance Adair, and Amy Manson as Maladie, and I’m reluctant to dismiss their strong work (as well as the impeccable set design) because of the show’s association with Whedon, who created the show and wrote/directed the pilot. Likewise, none of the show’s elements are original in and of themselves — it’s basically Buffy the Steampunk X-Men — but it’s an interesting mash-up of those elements.

Whedon is no longer part of the series. Showrunning duties were eventually handed over to Philippa Goslett (screenwriter of Mary Magdalene), although I am guessing that Whedon’s handprints will continue to be all over The Nevers for the first half of the season, at least. Is that reason enough to bail? Probably, and if it’s not, the lackluster pilot will probably make that decision easier. Longtime Whedon fans may have a kneejerk desire to stick around until it gets better (as apparently, all Whedon shows do, as I am often told), The Nevers will likely only improve once it is out from under Whedon, a prospect that I am begrudgingly interested in seeing.

In 1896, an unexplained cataclysmic event rains stardust down over London, which afflicts many of the residents with different types of supernatural gifts known as the Touch, although many of those with the Touch are treated like Salem witches. The action picks up three years later, where Amalia True can see glimpses of the future, while Penance Adair can redirect energy and come up with cool Q-like inventions. The two of them run an Orphanage for the Touched. Basically, Amalia and Penance are Xavier and Magneto and the orphanage is Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, only with more corsets. Olivia Williams’ Lavinia Bidlow (god, what a name), is the rich benefactor in the wheelchair whose inability to walk allows her to empathize with the Touched outcasts.

The season’s big bad, it seems, is Maladie, a murderous woman who is Touched, and who possesses a few henchmen sidekicks who have machine-gun arms or are human flamethrowers. Maladie kidnaps a Touched singer during an elaborately choreographed action sequence set at an opera, and I think the singer may be the series’ River Tam (OK, I lied. I have seen enough to recognize Whedon plagiarizing himself). Amalia and Penance will no doubt exploit their weaponized props, er, characters at the orphanage to help rescue The Nevers’ River Tam, while Nick Frost’s Beggar King — a local gangster — plays both sides. There’s also an Oscar Wilde caricature who runs an underground sex club (the character’s name is Hugo Swan, people!), an awkward Chalamet (Tom Riley), and Pip Torrens plays a delightfully Pip Torrens disguised as a Hugh Laurie character.

It’s a mess, and I haven’t even mentioned the uncomfortably sexual wisecracks, or how tonally inconsistent it is. Yet, for all its faults, I still want to see where The Nevers goes when Philippa Goslett takes over (I understand she takes the reins in episodes five and six of the 10-episode season, although the back four are still in production). I really want to see a female-led steampunk superhero show, just not one run by Joss Whedon. It remains to be seen, however, whether The Nevers will ever be able to successfully separate itself from its creator.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

Header Image Source: HBO