Review: HBO’s The Nevers struggles with the legacy of creator Joss Whedon

The writer/director left the show last fall, but accusations of abusive behaviour blunt the enjoyment of his Victorian fantasy series


THE NEVERS (Joss Whedon, Philippa Goslett). Premieres Sunday (April 11) at 9 pm on Crave, with new episodes airing weekly. Rating: NNN


The Nevers was to be Joss Whedon’s first television series since Dollhouse, and technically it still is: while the writer/director/producer departed the show last November, claiming exhaustion, principal photography for the first season had already been shot. Post-production was completed by Philippa Goslett, who replaced Whedon as showrunner in January… shortly before cast members of Whedon’s previous projects came forward with accusations of abusive behaviour dating back to Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

So that’s an awkward way to launch a show – and it’s complicated further by a COVID shutdown that means a split season, with six episodes set to air in the spring and four more later this year.

It’s difficult to imagine what The Nevers will look like post-Whedon; the show is so utterly his thing, focusing on a band of eccentric underdogs trying to overcome their own differences while battling an entrenched power structure intent on keeping them under its control. It’s Buffy and Firefly with lashings of Marvel’s X-Men, with Whedon’s remixing mildly disguised by setting the whole thing in 1899 London, three years after an inexplicable incident left hundreds of people – all of them marginalized, most of them women – with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men.

Outlander’s Laura Donnelly and Vikings’ Ann Skelly are the show’s centre as Amalia True and Penance Adair, respectively a prognosticator (and enthusiastic brawler) and a technological genius who run a home for their fellow “Touched,” taking in youngsters and training them in the use of their abilities. Olivia Williams, who co-starred on Whedon’s Dollhouse, is Lavinia Bidlow, their benefactor; Tom Riley, of Da Vinci’s Demons, is her odd-duck brother Augie, an awkward love interest for Penance. Ben Chaplin is a drunken copper what might be an ally, while Preacher’s Pip Torrens plays the British noble who sees our heroes as an existential threat to his status and comfort.

Nick Frost makes a meal of the Beggar King, a crimelord sympathetic to Amalia’s cause, while James Norton is engagingly debauched as Hugo Swan, a sexually omnivorous gentleman whose ambition to launch a high-class sex club puts him in a position to be of use – or to use – pretty much everyone in the cast. (Hugo’s workplace also allows The Nevers to indulge in the full-frontal nudity and general sexualization that HBO’s viewers have apparently come to demand after Game Of Thrones, though it feels even ickier given the allegations against Whedon.)

All these Londoners have a common enemy in the form of Amy Manson’s Maladie – a deranged member of the Touched whose singsong menace feels drawn from the same well as Buffy’s Drusilla or Firefly’s River Tam – it’s soon made clear that things are much more complex, because there’s a whole season arc to play out.

The first four episodes of the series are a little messy, but undeniably entertaining: Whedon knows how to balance banter and action, how to use them to illuminate his characters and how to hide fun surprises in the structure of a given episode. The pilot, which he wrote and directed himself, establishes the show’s world and its stakes elegantly. He’s very, very good at this stuff, and his gifts for writing strong female protagonists and economical illustrations of power dynamics are well-employed.

The larger issue, of course, is that now it’s impossible to watch Whedon exercise those gifts when we know he’s been accused of creating toxic work environments (he has not responded to the allegations). Which means The Nevers arrives with an asterisk: you can enjoy it in the moment, only to be angry all over again when you read that its creator reportedly failed utterly to live up to the ideals of his work.

@normwilner

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