When The Nevers‘first footage released earlier this year, I clearly remember thinking, “Ooh, it’s steampunk Buffy with corsets! “Now that the drama, created by Buffy the Vampire SlayerJoss Whedon, has released his first four episodes to the press, I can confirm: it is, in fact, steampunk Buffy with corsets, and for various reasons, that is no longer an attractive concept.
Safely, The Nevers is a piece with Whedon’s work, which includes girl power Buffy and Doll’s House, as well as elements in Angel, Firefly and Agents of protection The period drama, which opens Sunday (HBO, 9 / 8c) focuses on a group (mainly female) of 19th century Londoners who have been mysteriously “touched” by a force that gave them various powers.
These abilities, or “twists,” in the language of the show, range from the strangely specific (one character can turn objects into glass with his breath) to almost superheroic (another can create fireballs with a swirl of his palms). Because society does not understand headdresses, it fears and vilifies them. Therefore, as the series begins, many of the headdresses have come to live in an orphanage run by Mrs. Amalia True (played by strangerLaura Donnelly).
At one point, True calls the orphanage assembly a “motley coven”, and that’s appropriate. The description should also be incredibly familiar to anyone who has seen Buffylast season, when the show’s central heroine became the de facto Miss Hannigan for a houseful of young women who might one day follow in her daring footsteps. If you allow me a little shorthand for my partner Buffy Fans: We’re basically watching the Potentials story unfold again, except this time, we know more of the girl’s names. And, of course, a nefarious and mysterious force is trying to end what has been touched for good.
But even if you are not a Buffy buff, there’s enough retread here to give viewers a déjà vu of Whedon’s other series. The heroine grimly continuing, despite the darkness looming within her? The clever sidekick with a talent for conjuring things to help the heroine do her job? The wacky villain spouting free verse between episodes of very gory violence? The fragments of visions that give the good a sharp edge as a knife? A glowing orb of unknown origin? Yes, everything is there. Sometimes it feels like all that’s missing is a bleached blonde bad boy screaming about his newly acquired glowing soul.
To be clear: none of the above does The Nevers a bad show, but nothing surprising. What sour the experience for me is the nature of it all, in light of recent allegations about his behind-the-scenes behavior over the years. How can an audience defend female characters created by someone former employees have claimed was “toxic,” “hostile,” and “inappropriate” during their time on their shows? (In November, Whedon announced that he had left The Nevers, calling the series a “joyous experience” but saying I was “genuinely exhausted” and “stepping back to march my energy into my own life, which is also on the brink of exciting change.” Whedon remains an executive producer on the show; Philippa Goslett took over as showrunner).
The bright lights in this murky situation are Donelly and her frequent scene partner Ann Skelly (Vikings), who plays the cheerful Miss Penance Adair. Skelly brings adorable warmth and a peculiar depth to Adair, an innovative thinker who can feel electricity and who serves as True’s right-hand man. And Donnelly is incredibly visible as True, who deviates with wry humor, simmers with anger, though at the end of Episode 4, we’re still not sure what exactly, and regrets that being a good general means not getting too close to your soldiers. The cast also includes Ben Chaplin (The truth about cats and dogs) as the tenacious police inspector Frank Mundi, Denis O’Hare (American horror story) as the depraved Dr. Edmund Hague and Pip Torrens (The crown) as the staunchly anti-headdress Lord Gilbert Massen.
Perhaps the show’s premium cable run will eventually allow the show to flourish in a different way than the other Whedon series, all of which aired on broadcast networks. Sadly, however, the most notable indicator so far of The NeversThe most permissive network standards are breast proliferation for the sake of the breast, courtesy of a parallel plot about an illicit gentlemen’s establishment. Do you know what makes it even more difficult to see this show through a feminist lens? When naked women in a sex club who are present solely for the pleasure of men walk around the screen … apparently only for the pleasure of men.
THE BOTTOM LINE OF TVLINE: With a Buffy-been-there, done-that feeling, The Nevers is a repeat of familiar tropes from a now controversial creator.