The Nevers Episode 1 Review: a Tonal Mishmash

HBO’s new Victorian-set fantasy The Nevers, from since-departed showrunner Joss Whedon, has its charms but can't mesh its fairy tale with the demands of an adult timeslot

The Nevers Laura Donnelly
Photo: HBO/Sky Atlantic

This The Nevers review contains spoilers.

The Nevers Episode 1

Who is The Nevers for? Not kids, clearly. The frolicsome humour, cartoony performances and grade school social commentary might suggest so, but the nudity, cursing and blood say no. It’s meant for adults then, those of us happy to go along with the essential YA-ness of its ‘Victorian orphanage for superpowered misfits’ premise.

Episode one opens with a flashback montage introducing the ensemble of – mostly but not all – women in 1890s London. One repairs a broken pump with a clothespin, another queues for an opera audition, another is led away to an asylum, while another drops willingly into the Thames. By the end of the hour we learn that this was the moment that three years earlier, a mysterious and possibly alien airship passed over London trailing glittering motes that entered some and left them with a unique special ability. 

The new powers, or ‘Turns’ appear related to natural predisposition. The doctor can magically heal wounds. The woman with a knack for engineering can suddenly see and guide electricity. The opera singer’s voice has a magical effect on those who hear it… These people are ‘The Touched’, a new feared and misunderstood subculture in Victorian society.  

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Mysteries are set up in fast succession. Who is kidnapping The Touched and conducting cruel live experiments on them? What drives Maladie (Amy Manson), the Touched asylum patient turned serial killer? What role will blackmail-based sex club The Ferryman’s, run by the debauched Lord Swann (James Norton) play? And why does nobody seem to remember the golden angelfish-shaped ship that dished out the powers?

Ass-kicking, future-seeing action widow Mrs Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) is another mystery. Along with inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), she’s part of the energising double act who go around London retrieving the Touched and bringing them back to an orphanage owned by philanthropist Lavinia Bidwell (Olivia Williams). Behind the orphanage’s utopian walls, the Touched are accepted for their differences and part of a chosen family.

Miss Adair and Mrs True are a fun pair; Penance brings the steampunk gadgets, Amalia brings the noise. A caustic voice for the voiceless, Mrs True also brings the curt dressing downs to bigots who see The Touched as inhuman. She’s the chief mouthpiece for the show’s social commentary, which is worn very much on its puffed sleeve. Wherein lies the problem.

A major weakness of The Nevers is that everything feels in service of theme and not character. That theme, in case you dodged it in episode one, is society’s treatment of the outsider. An otherwise charming cast is done a disservice by dialogue and characterisation that’s here to stage a debate rather than a human drama. Pip Torrens (Poldark) plays Lord Massen, for example, a walking symbol of the status quo who declaims against the Touched, women, immigrants and ‘deviants’. The Touched therefore become a catch-all stand-in for any marginalised group oppressed by power and seen to threaten the social hierarchy. 

Such unspecificity might work for a younger audience less likely to have seen it all before, but for adults, for fantasy fans well-versed in this kind of allegory, what’s being added? If you’ve ever wanted more corsetry and parasols in your X-Men, then you’re in luck, but if not, what The Nevers has to say is unlikely to blow your mind. 

Which brings us back the question of who The Nevers is for. When HBO gave it a straight-to-series order back in 2018, it was obvious: Joss Whedon fans. People who, like me, had grown up on Buffy and Firefly and tried our damnedest with Dollhouse. Here was our next iteration of the Whedonverse: an enclave of kickass women, witty one-liners, and an overarching message of weirdos-unite empowerment. 

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Even back then, it was becoming hard to square that message of empowerment with reports of Whedon’s personal behaviour, and actors being treated badly behind the scenes. Three years on, ‘Joss Whedon fan’ is a defunct brand. While it’s possible to still love the work, after several of Whedon’s previous cast members went public with allegations of the showrunner’s inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour, it’s impossible to love the man. 

All of which is an overlong way of saying that for the type of viewer tuned into this stuff –obviously not everybody – The Nevers comes preloaded with discomfort. It could be the greatest TV show in the world and, like a delicious dish made from an endangered species, would be hard to enjoy knowing what we know. 

The Nevers is not the greatest TV show in the world. It’s a tonal mishmash of comedic gaiety and Ripper-ish Victoriana. The combination of fairy tale imagination – where girls grow ten times their size Alice in Wonderland-style or float an inch off the floor – with louche sex and slit throats is an uncomfortable blend. Its brighter moments are dimmed by a need to fill a 9pm HBO timeslot. Who is The Nevers for? So far, not me.

The Nevers continues next Sunday the 18th of April at 9pm on HBO. It will air in the UK on Sky Atlantic from May the 17th