Review: The premiere of The Nevers is charming, earnest and ungainly

The series premiere of The Nevers has charming characters, a plot that lurches from one scene to the next, and an ambition that has me curious to see more.

The first episode of The Nevers throws a lot at us. It’s a period piece set in Victorian London, with all the Masterpiece Theater trappings that implies. We’ve got ladies in corsets, we’ve got a string-heavy score, we’ve got English accents by the barrel-load. Fans of series like Downton Abbey and Sherlock will probably feel at ease; there’s a mannered stylization that should feel familiar.

The Nevers is also a full-on fantasy drama. For reasons unknown, many people throughout the city — mostly women — have gotten “touched” and gained superpowers. Main character Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) gets flashes of the future, although they come without context. Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) has an especial understanding of electricity and can create all manner of crazy steampunk gadgets, from James Bond-ian electric umbrellas to gearwork motorcars. Writer-director Joss Whedon has come up with all sorts of charming X-Men knock-offs, with special praise going to Primrose, a proper young English happy who happens to be 12 feet tall. (“I’m large,” she says when explaining her power to a newcomer.)

Oh, that’s right: The Nevers is also a Joss Whedon show. I don’t think anything has ever been more a Joss Whedon show. All of the director’s favorite themes are here: the cast of warrior waifs facing impossible odds, the self-aware dialog, the hand-to-hand combat scenes that sometimes feel lifted directly from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but now done with the kind of budget not available to genre shows in the ’90s.

In fact, if not for the extra budget (and the occasional dirty word and bare body part that remind us we’re watching HBO), this feels like something Whedon could have made back then. Is that a bad thing? Well, it’s a certainly a complicated thing given that Whedon was recently outed for inappropriate behavior on his sets and effectively cast out of Hollywood — he’s no longer working on The Nevers, although HBO has already hired a replacement showrunner. In other words, Whedon is super-cancelled, which means a cloud hangs over his new show.

I expect that to be reflected in the discussions about this show online. But what about the show itself? Overall, I’ve liked what I’ve seen, although it’s certainly messy in places. Like I said, this first episode throws a lot at us. We’ve barely gotten acquainted with Amalia and Penance before it serves up a fight scene and a 19th century car chase. We’re just meeting some of the Touched at the orphanage where they live when we switch locations and meet rich hedonist Hugo Swan (James Norton) and his befuddled upper crust friend Augustus Bidlow (Tom Riley). There’s a psychotic Touched woman named Maladie (Amy Manson) running around London murdering people and a stuffy lord named Massen (Pip Torrens) who thinks the Touched are part of an attack on Britain from an unknown enemy, and is determined fight back against them and any other signs of change.

It all climaxes at the opera, where Maladie appears onstage, kills the actor playing the devil (“Is nobody going to say thank you?”), and makes off with a Touched girl who happens to be in the cast, a woman named Mary who has the ability to sing a song that can identify other members of the Touched…or something. Amalia chases her, loses her dress in an entertainingly preposterous fall down the center of a staircase, fights Maladie, loses, and lives to fight another day.

It’s not always clear how one scene leads to another, and I’m not mentioning every moving part here — there’s also Augustus’ rich sister Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), who finances the orphanage; and the gruff criminal the Beggar King, played by most-famous-person-in-the-room Nick Frost. But even if not everything fits neatly together, the show has confidence in its hodgepodge construction. The characters are well-drawn, particularly Amalia and Penance, and there are enough fun details at the edges that I want to see more — I mentioned the 12-foot-tall girl, right?

Whedon’s distinct dialogue is by turns winning and irritating. I liked the conversation between a bunch of the principals at the opera house, where a discussion about the English language segues into a talk about the Touched, all while various characters reveal new things about themselves. On the other hand, I can see Maladie’s dialog getting old quickly. Whedon has a thing for characters who can see things others can’t but aren’t believed because they’re not all there upstairs — see Drusilla in Buffy or River Tam in Firefly. Maladie is definitely in that tradition, and as with those other characters, her loopy, random dialog is a bit much.

But as scattershot as parts of the episode were, it pulled me back in at the end. “Touched” opens with a montage of the main character going about their days three years before the meat of the story, before everyone got their powers. At the end, we see what they’ve forgotten: what looks like an alien spaceship flies over London, leaving glowing balls of light in its wake. Those touched by this strange rain become Touched, but the catch is that after the ship passes out of sight (it may have crashed, I’m not sure), no one remembers what they saw…no one except Maladie, which provides a nice turn for the character right at the end.

I found this sequence moving. I’m not sure quite what it was, something about an unexplained and possibly unexplainable event being at the root of all these characters lives. I don’t know if I want an explanation or if it’d be better to keep it mysterious, but I am curious enough to keep watching.

But will others join me? I don’t know if this show is broadly accessible enough to gain a following, at least not quickly, and that’s without getting into all the problems caused by Whedon’s cancellation. But it’s clearly made with a lot of heart.

Did you watch the first episode of The Nevers? What did you think?

Episode Grade: B-

Notes and Observations:

  • How and why are Augustus and Hugo friends? Does the episode explain that and I missed it? Cause they seem like two completely incompatible people.
  • I didn’t even mention Ben Chaplin as Detective Frank Mundi, an honest cop who’s apparently working with the dishonest Hugo to settle some kind of debut. Look, there was a lot going on.
  • The jury’s out on Maladie, but I think the show has something in Lord Massen, who’s a frighteningly human sort of villain. He’s a powerful man with a politically regressive agenda, and speaks against progress in terms that resonate today. “Chaos is not change. Shouting for recognition does not make worthy of it.” And the twist that his young daughter is Touched gives his character someplace to go.
  • “Don’t leave the theater, please.” “Oh, I could never leave the theater.”
  • I won’t reveal the details, but having seen the first four episodes, there are lots of little moments in the premiere that make more sense after you’ve seen what’s to come. Feel free to speculate below.

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