Spoilers for the first episode.
HBO used to be the top dog when it came to primetime television. Most of their best work (Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire, True Blood), brought us just a taste of what the “golden age of TV” could really mean. Spice that up with Mad Men and Breaking Bad from AMC and it seemed all too likely that those who cared for the deep richness of character drama could disembark from the spectacle that was movie making, and saunter over instead to binge watching their characters make mistake after mistake. What we did not count on as viewers was that spectacle would be arriving as well in the form of binge worthy, couch potato genre television, all with the density of black forest cake. Now, HBO is not the name it used to be, having been lowered from the horror show that was Game of Thrones, as well as following up with technically beautiful set pieces (Westworld) that did not take their viewers seriously. The latest of the bunch is The Nevers (2021) starring Laura Donnelly and Ann Skelly, in yet another beautiful show with nary a thought in its pretty head.
Directed by Joss Whedon, who has come under a lot of flack recently (I’ll spare you the trouble as the show is poor without all that drama), The Nevers is an X-Men for ladies at the turn of the 20th century.
It is actually shocking how much heavy lifting that one sentence does…
A pair of hooligan fighting independent young women Amalia True (Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Skelly) run an orphanage for the gifted, as both have been “touched,” the mutant equivalent for possessing special talents. While on the hunt to collect as many “touched” as possible, various other subgroups seek to disrupt their mission, including a broker of information for London, Declan Orrun (Nick Frost), a group of cloaked figures with evil faces (which ends in a carthorse chase) and the bigwigs at the very top, led by a loquacious Lord Massen (Pip Torrens). There are many scenes where the question of difference becomes an opportunity to derogate.
Like I said, X-Men.
And like said series, there are two sides to the mutant problem. In a melodramatic opera scene where the devil in Faust is murdered onstage, in walks Maladie (Amy Manson), an overacting villain equal parts Joker and extra from Sweeney Todd, to tell us all how silly we are for being normal. She’s “touched” too, but like Magneto, she has her own agenda for those who feel themselves running against society’s difference-destroying grain. The post-episode feature (a crutch HBO has treasured leaning on) is at pains to remind us that “maladie” is a French word for “illness” completely forgetting the homonymic obviousness of the whole enterprise.
Sadly, missing the obvious does not stop with words. The biggest critique to make about The Nevers is how it simultaneously shows too much and too little. At the end of the episode we see the arrival of a massive alien vessel (chemtrails anybody?) that would better have been tabled for the end of an entire season. Coupled with that, each scene overlaps too closely with information of the previous scene. We know that the “touched” in London have been maligned because of their difference, as we have been introduced to both Amalia and Penance as they discover a polyglot in the shackles of a religious and conservative family. Cut to a scene with the older white males processing said discovery of the “touched” since 1896. But we know that the touched have existed in 1896 since a prologue slow-motion montage introduced us all to the major players who would have interacted with the alien vessel. And yet there is Lord Massen expertly deploying the script to tell us why we should be worried about empowered women a full two decades before the vote. Cut to yet another scene with two men, this time the nervous Augie (Tom Riley) requesting his bohemian lady’s man compatriot Hugo Swan (James Norton) to help smooth the situation at the opera over for him because the “touched” are coming. They explain the orphanage, they explain what “touched” means, and they explain the societal stigma…again.
Another key element is how much action there is and how terrible it all plays out. The cuts between action scenes are so frequent and the environments so claustrophobic that they boggle the mind. Maladie has had no backstory. Unlike, say, The Dark Knight, where we encounter yet another mad person on a quest of chaotic discovery, madness in television and film is always latent with some purpose. Without anything of the sort, Maladie’s introductory murder and massacre at the opera is painful to watch. The “carthorse” chase which ignites the inciting action of the episode ends with Penance’s well-thought batman-like getaway vehicle that explodes out of the carthorse, and looks to be a tricycle going all of ten miles per hour. The hooded figures, so intent on chasing down a faster set of horses, is unexplainably flummoxed at this slower (yet cooler?) invention. We have not even mentioned the prospect of a serial killer on the loose! Just when you think there couldn’t be any more stuffed into the pilot, a detective lurks on the wings, just waiting for a second or third act intervention that helps to explain the madness that lies underfoot.
Again, like X-Men, the spurring on of both sides of this “touched” war concerns a young woman who has the capacity, through singing of attuning with other “touched” people, producing an unsubtle glow signifying their particular qualities. It is a tug of war we have seen before. And for the features we have not seen? Uninspired. Case in point, one of the orphans happens to be quite tall, which, when shot reveals some clever cinematography. This young lady happens to adore the dresses that Amalia and Penance wear when going to the opera. Rather than dress her up in rags stitched together, in order to add spice to the idea that such a tall woman would not have tailor made clothes for her, thus adding to the jealousy, instead she is wrapped in a pretty yellow costume. Many of the women who inhabit the orphanage continue to use their powers to…grow plants…domesticated labor, basically. Amalia’s insight into the future look similar to the kind of oversaturated and overexposed shots of That’s So Raven. Many of the cast are at pains to remind us of how beautiful and “normal” looking all the “touched” are. In two separate moments, the question of attractiveness and “normality” are conflated in ways that could have led to fascinating questions of feminism that are instead swept under the rug. It all breeds like a show that runs on its own influences, and yet cannot seem to come up with its own kernel to keep the viewer surprised.
The tone, like other Joss Whedon ventures, is an unmitigated disaster. If you identify with the typical audience of genre television, however, you will find yourselves snuggly settled into the equal parts horrifying and smarmy cocksure quips from our heroes that only leads to eye-rolling. Some of the dialogue scenes, when paired with the abundance of information mentioned above, are painfully awkward to watch, for the fact that many actors are having to provide “character development” that we know will not amount to anything, as well as the timings of jokes that are edited so poorly that they should not have occurred at all. One of the most embarrassing happens in a chase scene following the opera massacre where the hardness of our lady’s man is reaffirmed in a distressingly confident way, after an intense spat of violence: “How is that still hard!?”
That’s about the long (and the short) of what you need to know about the tone.
The Nevers hurts to watch for deigning to say more about the genre of mutant guerilla fighters without saying anything of substance…beyond what has …already been said. More grating, there already exists plenty of historical fiction about the real plight of women in the Victorian era without the need for special powers. Most damning is the realization that HBO Max did not have to succumb to the desires of genre fiction like Netflix has; on the contrary, HBO used to lead the way for dramatic television, with good writing, that did not require all the bells and whistles. What are we to make of a show like The Nevers other than to see it as desperate groveling? Worse, the show cannot hold a candle to the genre television that other streaming channels have provided up to this point.
Leave the magic for the masses, HBO, and stick to your script.
Originally published at https://theroyleline.blog on April 14, 2021.