‘The Nevers’ Review: Joss Whedon’s New HBO Drama Bears His Signature

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It takes a minute for “The Nevers” to feel like something other than a steampunk “Doctor Who” interlude in Victorian London where, despite stubbornly buttoned-up appearances, things aren’t quite as they seem. The new HBO drama, which follows a group of women who have been “touched” by some mysterious power that grants them extraordinary abilities, unabashedly embraces its cross-section of genres. It’s a historical drama awash in lush costuming and production design. It’s a sci-fi epic unraveling the mysteries of the universe. It’s a screwball comedy and Harlequin romance starring quick-witted heroines, surly detectives and devastatingly handsome heirs. Even when it errs towards the silly, it’s fun and twisty enough to be an engaging page-turner of a show that should grow its own fanbase without much trouble.

Somewhat overshadowing the actual text of “The Nevers,” however, is the fraught fact that the series parted ways with creator Joss Whedon last fall, after “Justice League” actor Ray Fisher accused him of workplace misconduct and before “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” actor Charisma Carpenter alleged the same. (The second half of the new series’ first season, premiering at an undetermined later time, is produced entirely without him under new showrunner Philippa Goslett.) As someone who has alternately followed, admired, and been disappointed by Whedon and his work, I went into “Nevers” wanting to judge it separately from the controversies surrounding its creator. But after sampling the first episode, written and directed by Whedon, it was clear that separating the artist from the art in this instance would prove impossible. Despite distancing itself from Whedon in retrospect, “Nevers” bears so many of his narrative and stylistic hallmarks that it might as well be playing Whedon Bingo, for better and for worse.

The series kicks into high gear three years after a mysterious cosmic event bestows special abilities upon hundreds of women and girls (plus a few random men), causing a volatile mix of confusion, fear, intrigue and horror. While many of “The Touched” are left to deal with their sudden new powers on their own, others have found solidarity and community in each other. For one, taciturn Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and friendly Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) have opened an “orphanage” for Touched women and girls, where they can all (ostensibly) take refuge from prying eyes and those determined to snuff the strange new phenomenon of the Touched out for good. And since no two Touched people appear to have the same abilities, “Nevers” gets plenty of leeway for going down different inventive avenues with its deep bench of characters. (If this series was a book, I’d want a family tree-style guide for constant reference.)

Amalia, for instance, can see blips of the near future, while Penance can see and interpret energy in a way that fuels her advanced inventions. Harriet (Kiran Sonia Sawar) can turn anything into glass, while jaded lieutenant Lucy (Elizabeth Berrington) shatters anything she touches. Posh Primrose (Anna Devlin) is ten feet tall, while Myrtle (Viola Prettejohn) can suddenly speak a muddled version of every language but her native English, leading her parents to believe she must be a conduit of Satan. Men’s varied reactions to The Touched form the other half of “Nevers,” from conflicted policeman Frank (Ben Chaplin) waffling on whether or not to work with them, to louche nobleman Hugo (a peacocking James Norton) exploiting their exoticism, to mad doctor Edmund Hague (Denis O’Hare) trying to find the root of their powers with no regard for any pain they might feel as he slices open their skulls. Meanwhile, a Touched woman going by “Maladie” (Amy Manson) tears up the city with gleeful abandon as her righthand woman “Bonfire Annie” (a magnetic Rochelle Neil) burns anyone who gets in the way.

It’s a world rich with compelling characters, narrative possibilities and actors up to the task of making their parts sing. Donnelly and Skelly are especially good as the show’s central odd couple, their friendship anchoring “Nevers” as its mysteries unfurl and the stakes get impossibly high. It’s also undeniably fun to watch Donnelly embrace a bit of a gender-swapped role in “Miss True,” a hard-drinking widow whose brash leadership style and tendency to default to bashing people’s faces in makes her feel like she swaggered straight out of a Western.

For those familiar with Whedon’s work, all of the above should have inspired several pings of recognition. Most obviously, “Nevers” includes many imperiled brunettes who are either headstrong or helpless, depending on the day. The show also shares much of its DNA with Whedon’s short-lived space epic “Firefly,” from its steampunk aesthetics, to Amalia as the show’s gruff leader (a la Nathan Fillion’s Captain Mal Reynolds), to Penance as their resident quirky fixer-upper (a la Jewel Staite’s mechanic Kaylee).

Then there’s the central conceit of “The Touched,” which directly echoes “Buffy” with its powerful “Chosen” women. Maladie’s particular brand of chaos owes plenty to The Joker, but also to “Buffy” vampire Drusilla (Juliet Landau), another enigmatic villain who fancies herself divinely blessed with visions and speaks nonsense through a thick Cockney accent. Hugo finding a business angle in recruiting vulnerable women to his lascivious cause comes straight from “Dollhouse,” as does “Dollhouse” actor Olivia Williams in the role of the orphanage’s benefactor. Even Amalia’s frequent fight scenes include unmistakable parallels to those of Whedon’s Black Widow in his “Avengers” movies. And as with just about all the Whedon properties, characters of color in “Nevers” such as Harriet, Bonfire Annie and orphanage doctor Horatio (Zackary Momoh) mostly play small supporting roles to their leading white counterparts.

For as much as “Nevers” might try to divorce itself from Whedon amid his ongoing controversies, there’s no denying that he’s all over it — and that, in many instances, his approach is effective. The series has so much mythology and so many characters (far more than I could feasibly list in this review), but its vision and characters are nonetheless immediately distinct and cohesive. It’s just also undeniable that its vision and characters are also ones Whedon has used before, over and over again, often with diminishing returns. This tendency towards repetition isn’t altogether unusual for creators who find a lane and stick to it; you only have to look so far as the Aaron Sorkins or Ryan Murphys of the TV world to know that. But it’s interesting, to say the least, to watch a show so obviously borne of its creator and know that it will soon be forging ahead without him.

This doesn’t have to spell doom for “Nevers.” On the contrary, David Semel’s nimble directing in the third and fourth episodes stands out more than Whedon’s more straightforward approach to the first two, and the possibility of other writers twisting the script into more unexpected shapes could give “Nevers” a necessary jolt of contrast. For now, though, the show is unmistakably a Joss Whedon production, with all the quippy banter, elaborate world-building, supernatural strangeness and Badass women that his trademark implies.

“The Nevers” premieres Sunday, April 11 at 9 p.m. on HBO.