HBO’s The Nevers arrives as a tough show to review for a few reasons: (1) The show lands with many of the (frankly appealing) pluses that one would expect from the showrunner of Firefly, Dollhouse, and the Buffy series; and (2) The series finds itself saddled with the baggage of the guy who created those same beloved series. Sadly, there’s no way to separate those two statements because Joss Whedon’s particular quirks, his sensibilities, and his favorite tropes run throughout the first four episodes screened for critics.
An allegorical alt-superhero series about gifted women in Victorian London makes it to the screen, but without its currently embattled creator.
The historical fantasy series streams on HBO Max from April 11, It begins with a wordless opening scene in which people wander about in old-timey frocks for several minutes, but hang in there: The fun soon starts as out Victorian-era heroines seek out a child who may be cursed by the devil. That leads to an acrobatic fight scene packed with luminescent hand grenades and weaponized parasols, setting the tone for an adventure full of kick-ass women taking on sinister baddies.
Kicking butt in corsets and slaying with parasols, Victorian sci-fi drama “The Nevers” arrives under, or at least alongside, a cloud: Creator Joss Whedon, who left the series in November citing exhaustion, has been the subject of multiple allegations since last summer of creating an abusive work environment on other projects, including by”Justice League’s” Ray Fisher and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Charisma Carpenter and Michelle Trachtenberg.
Amalia, gifted with foresight, has a shadowy past, a legendary right hook and a habit of ditching her walking dresses mid-brawl, because a long skirt can really spoil a roundhouse kick. “You throw yourself at danger like you think it’s going to propose,” a colleague tells her/
Donnelly lives more quietly, though she did quit drinking early in the pandemic, which must qualify as an unusual ability. Production on “The Nevers” won’t resume for a few months, so she is currently locked down in London – in the home that she and Butterworth share with their two daughters, 3 and 4 – mothering, batch cooking, trying to get a decent night’s sleep with the help of some meditation apps.
For sure, The Nevers is of a piece with Whedon’s kickass-girl-power oeuvre, which includes Buffy and Dollhouse, as well as elements in Angel, Firefly and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The period drama, which premieres Sunday (HBO, 9/8c) focuses on a (primarily female) group of 19th-century Londoners who have been mysteriously “touched” by a force that bestowed assorted powers upon them.
“The Nevers” is every bit a Whedon show. It’s got strong women protagonists who are curiously adept at fighting. It’s got quirks coming out of its ears. It’s got snappy dialogue (though not nearly as much as “Buffy,” which may be an attempt to make it more “mature”). It’s also got a lot going on, too much. That couples with a slightly cartoonish feel. In some of his shows, this works. In others, it doesn’t. “The Nevers” splits the difference right down the middle.
Set in Victorian London, The Nevers explores a world where few individuals — mostly women — awaken supernatural abilities, ranging from visions to annihilating power. However, these gifts leave them vulnerable to a white male-run society determined to eliminate their kind. Under the guidance and protection of seer Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and steampunk inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), the Touched form a collective to protect each other. But not all Touched ones find a benevolent way to process society’s persecution of them.
The Nevers should be a triumphant TV homecoming for Joss Whedon. It’s the first series in more than a decade solely created by the man responsible for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. (He co-created Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. back in 2013 with brother Jed Whedon and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancheroen, and wasn’t really involved past the pilot episode.) It is his first dance with premium cable, after spending the earlier phase of his career working for broadcast networks with either low budgets or minimal faith in his ideas. After he spent much of the last 10 years directing comic-book movies, it’s a return to the medium that made him a creative superstar, with a premise – a host of superhuman women cause a stir in Victorian England – hearkening back to the familiar Buffy themes of female empowerment in a world run by bad men.