The Nevers<\/em> Has Promise, But Needs to Escape Joss Whedon\u2019s Gaze FirstApril 9, 2021
The Nevers spoilers won’t be found in this review.
Ten minutes into The Nevers, Laura Donnelly swaggers into a fight and “kicks the shit out of a few undeserving males,” (as Olivia Williams told Digital Spy), followed by some “snappy dialogue that includes words you have to look up in the Oxford English Dictionary.”
The Nevers puts its best foot forward early on (right into a man’s face) by foregrounding Amalia True as the latest kickass woman to quip and punch her way out of danger. Sound familiar? It’s a fun, promising start for HBO’s latest fantasy show, but then as the show progresses, what starts out as a niggling sense of déjà vu soon becomes all-consuming.
Just like Amalia is pulled out of her surroundings by random glimpses of the future, we too are taken out of the story over and over again by numerous scenes that evoke other, often more memorable stories.
Essentially, The Nevers focuses on a group of (mostly) women who have recently been “touched” by a mysterious force that gives them all kinds of powers at a time when anyone perceived as different is feared and even reviled.
Thanks to the patronage of Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), Amalia invites various members of the “Touched”, gifted youngsters, if you will, to seek sanctuary at her Victorian orphanage while teaching them how to hone their powers…
So yep, The Nevers is exactly what you get when the X-Men and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are blended together in a show led by [insert any Joss Whedon protagonist here].
And that’s the real issue with The Nevers. The show itself is quite enjoyable at points and the (overwhelmingly large) cast is extremely likable, but this is first and foremost a Joss Whedon show with everything good and bad that this entails.
The “chosen” women, the quirky sidekick, the mentally unstable villain… throw in some steampunk DNA from Firefly and the formula Joss first perfected with Buffy is back again, except this time, his “unique” brand of “feminism” is starting to show its age.
Donnelly is intensely watchable, whether she’s throwing tables or bonding with her co-star Ann Skelly, who is just as charismatic in the role of Amalia’s best friend, Penance Adair. But the show sidelines women of color, reducing them to minor roles with minimal dialogue.
The way this show handles queerness is questionable too. James Norton’s portrayal of a pansexual aristocrat will likely be a fan-favorite, but aside from a few flamboyant gestures and some haphazard eyeliner, Hugo Swan’s queerness feels performative at best. It’s as if the writers thought introducing him in bed with a man and a woman would be enough to acknowledge this part of his identity before sweeping it under the rug.
Of course, that might change in the future… although, in the four episodes we’ve seen so far, The Nevers still feels somewhat dated in its approach to diversity on all accounts. Sure, the show is set in Victorian times, but that’s no excuse.
And then there’s a few plotting issues to consider as well. Each episode is stretched out longer than needed, but thanks to a lack of focus, various members of the cast still feel underserved at points. Although that will likely improve in future episodes, it’s still frustrating to see the potential of so many great characters squandered early on.
This all sounds rather harsh, so it’s worth noting here that The Nevers also has some positives going for it, particularly in terms of its imagination and scale. As previously mentioned, the cast is an absolute joy to watch too, so your enjoyment of these first few episodes will depend largely on how you feel about some of the show’s more derivative moments, and of course, Joss Whedon’s involvement.
The Nevers is a team effort, and Joss left the show back in November of last year, but given how much of his writing style is embedded in the script’s DNA, it’s impossible to ignore his involvement, at least in these early stages.
As much as some viewers might want to separate the art from the artist, it’s tough to do that when the creator’s own alleged behavior directly conflicts with the show’s central message. Accusations of “abusive and unprofessional conduct” on the Justice League set continue to pour in even now, and just recently, these allegations inspired reports of similarly toxic behavior from the cast of Buffy. However, Joss has yet to comment on the allegations.
How are we supposed to champion women like Amalia and Penance fighting back against toxic masculinity knowing that they’ve been written by someone like Whedon? If the allegations are true, then he’s exactly the kind of person they themselves would detest.
Saying that though, if you can get through the first two episodes with this in mind, know that David Semel takes over the director’s chair for episodes three and four. But more importantly than that, showrunner Philippa Goslett replaced Whedon entirely following his departure, which means that later episodes will hopefully deviate further and further away from his template in favor of a more authentic female gaze.
You don’t need Amalia’s gift of foresight to see how transformative this could be, transcending Whedon’s tired formula to create something bolder and more current, something less derivative of the many stories like this that have come before.
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