It’s been a long 12-years since Joss Whedon created and ran his last television show, Dollhouse. But even then, that show’s concept—of a beautiful young woman conscripted into a program where she’s hired out to clients to do whatever they pay her to do—inherently had a lot of ickiness baked right into its DNA. And in the ensuing years, despite big screenwriting and directing successes from Serenity to The Avengers, Whedon’s life has been marked by a succession of real-life ickiness. It has disillusioned a big chunk of his once ardent fanbase, especially women who embraced and cherished in his feminist, pop-culture creation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as played by Sarah Michelle Gellar).
In the wake of recent disturbing revelations about Whedon’s behavior with women on prior shows, many have included his name in discussions about how to separate problematic creatives from their art. Now, surely adding fuel to that fire. will be Whedon’s first foray into non-broadcast television: the richly-produced, HBO sci-fi drama, The Nevers.
If the series existed in a vacuum, the very Whedonesque hallmarks present in the show’s concept certainly speak to his geek base: a newly supernaturally empowered, female-centric ensemble (dubbed “the Touched”) live together in an orphanage in Victorian-era London, and try to navigate their imposed “otherness” at the hands of the white patriarchy and everyone else just fearful of their abilities. However, in light of recent history, if Whedon’s past work meant something to you artistically, culturally, or emotionally, that logline might as well scream “RED FLAG” or “trigger-warning.”
But if you can tolerate the tone deafness of Whedon wading into those themes at all, then the obvious question becomes how he comports himself in exploring all of that, in a medium where his skills have arguably been displayed to their best effect? Unfortunately, the answer for The Nevers is not well.
While The Nevers is a beautiful series (production-designed, costumed, and produced to the nth degree by many of the talents behind the cinematic spectacle of HBO’s Game of Thrones), the narrative is often dense beyond comprehension. Despite sexy intentions, the series is sometimes laughably prurient. Moreover, it’s riddled with Whedon’s signature dialogue that’s entirely too self-aware with how smart it’s trying to be.
Maybe existing outside of the everyday grind of episodic storytelling for the last decade has made Whedon incredibly rusty, or perhaps it’s just the sheer volume of ideas, themes, characters, and plots he’s crammed into The Nevers that renders it inert. Despite a talented cast, led by the exceptional Laura Donnelly (Outlander) as the Touched protector, Mrs. Amalia True, it’s frankly far too large—there are 19 principal cast members are all vying for screen time. Each has a complicated and purposefully enigmatic history that Whedon dribbles out to the audience in haphazard and confusing ways. At the same time, he’s also using many of them to contextualize this high-concept world through huge lumps of exposition-filled dialogue, all told across a plethora of regional English, or Irish, accents. A viewer’s brain has to be working in 4-D to process everything coming at them in any given minute. It’s exhausting to the eye and ear from the get-go, and what is sacrificed in the din is the audience forming genuine connections with any of characters, which is usually Whedon’s forte.
The Nevers problems aren’t limited just to its first episode, either. In the four provided to critics, the pile-on of new characters (they just keep coming), over-abundance of side plots, and concurrent character machinations are relentless. There’s no clear through line for what the show is about even at the end of four hours, what with murders, arch mental patients running amok, messy romances, secret societies, sex clubs, and more all vying for narrative supremacy.
Frustratingly, there are glimpses of greatness in smaller scenes peppered about in each episode, especially between True and her best friend, Penance Adair (Ann Skelly). Their quiet moments of friendship are the show’s most genuine and real; rare respites from the chaos. A few of the other Touched also standout, like Zackary Momoh as Dr. Horatio Cousens, who connects to quite a few characters and brings sly wit or needed candor. And Rochelle Neil’s Bonfire Annie becomes a welcome scene stealer as she bridges the seedier sides of London to the orphanage’s needs.
On the other end of the spectrum, Whedon manages to fail some of his cast hard by directing them to overact in performances that are endlessly untethered, especially Amy Manson’s Touched villainess, Maladie. To say she’s larger-than-life is the understatement of the year, as she struts, spits, or thrusts through every scene like a female Joker on opium. It’s tedious and unfortunate. But she has plenty of other company from others like James Norton’s excessively posh and almost offensively swishy Hugo Swann, or Tim Riley’s sputtering Augie Bidlow, a character who comes across like an unending Hugh Grant impression. I don’t blame the actors, I blame the writers and directors for doing this to them.
At this point, the best thing going for The Nevers is that Whedon left the series in November of 2020, which means his creative rudder will be absent from the show after Episode 6. Episodes 7 through 12 (shooting now and airing later in 2021) will be guided by new executive producer Philippa Goslett, who inherits a show that needs major course corrections. However, asking audiences to patiently stay with any series in creative crisis flux is a lot these days considering the ample alternate options out there. Usually, the potential has to be extremely present and The Nevers might just be too messy to fix.
The Nevers Part One premieres Sunday, April 11th on HBO; Part Two will air later in 2021.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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