In the world we know, nothing particularly momentous happened in London on August 3, 1896. The newspapers featured worrying articles about the crisis in Crete and accounts of some Swedish adventurers' attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon, but mentioned nothing of a mysterious world-changing event that could undo the fabric of Victorian society. That's not true of the world of The Nevers, where something remarkable happened, even if those who witnessed it can't remember exactly what. They can, however, see the changes it's already wrought. Largely set three years after that 1896 event, The Nevers depicts a London that's home to the Touched, a small but significant number of mostly (but not exclusively) female residents who've manifested strange, sometimes wondrous, sometimes horrific powers in the aftermath of that day in August.
This has, understandably, created a stir. Some see the Touched as entertaining curiosities. Others as fearsome threats. As for the Touched themselves, they mostly find themselves stuck in a world eager to subjugate them, exploit their gifts, or worse. The HBO series' early episodes -- the first four were provided to critics for review -- see various Touched attending a high society gathering where they're treated as entertainment, enlisted as sex workers in a private club for elites, and strapped to tables to serve as subjects of a mad doctor's experiments. In each they're never treated as worthy of the rights and considerations of the rest of the world. What makes them gifted also makes them outcasts.
That probably sounds a little familiar. There's a lot of X-Men DNA in The Nevers, a new HBO series created by Joss Whedon, a creator who's no stranger to Marvel's misfit heroes, having served as writer for a memorable run in the '00s. But there's too much going on in the series to reduce it to a pithy summary like "steampunk X-Men," as often as that description seems apt. The series' setting isn't just a chance to put new window dressing on a story of clashes between superpowered beings. Set on the cusp of the 20th century, it weaves issues of women's rights, immigration, colonialism, and organized labor into its narrative in ways that emphasize their continued relevance. Where X-Men stories are often vaguely political in their clashes between outcasts and those in authority, The Nevers leans into such issues without skimping on the fight scenes, twists, and shifting alliances expected of superhero stories.
It's an intriguing set-up for a show. Whether it's setting up the show The Nevers will eventually turn into remains to be seen. There's no need to recount the accusations of bad behavior (though none concerning The Nevers) that dogged Whedon for awhile now before erupting in a series of unflattering stories of abusive behavior this past January. By that point, Whedon had already, and unexpectedly, moved on from The Nevers, citing "the physical challenges of making such a huge show during a global pandemic" as his reason for leaving. Screenwriter Philippa Goslett subsequently assumed the showrunner reins.
We don't know where she'll take the show and there's every likelihood it will sound very different, given the prominence of Whedon's distinctive, banter-y dialogue and favorite devices. The show we have so far, however, feels promising, if a bit familiar however novel its setting. This is, at heart, another series about mostly female heroines struggling against a patriarchal system, making it very much a successor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse. Its core heroines are also very much in the mold of past Whedon characters. Laura Donnelly leads the cast as Amalia True, a hard-drinking brawler with the ability to see the near-future (but only in confusing flashes). Her tortured dourness, and the ways the series both acknowledges the gravity of her burden and turns her glumness into a kind of joke, recalls Angel, the vampiric Buffy character spun off into a series of his own. At her side, and balancing her out, is the chipper, intrepid Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), an upbeat eccentric in the mold of Buffy's Willow or Firefly's Kaylee.
Still, it's hard to argue with what works, especially when both Donnelly and Skelly deliver such winning performances and make for a fun team. Not that Amalia and Penance have much time for fun. Employees and residents of Saint Romaulda's Orphanage, they seek out Touched and bring them into the fold for protection. Amalia serves as headmistress. Penance, now an inventor with superhuman gifts, spends her time in the lab developing new tools, weapons, and vehicles that mostly work. They're able to do their jobs thanks to the generosity of the wealthy Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams), whose shy brother Augie (Tom Riley) takes a particular interest in Amalia (and has secret gifts of his own).
But where Lavinia seems happy to lend money and respectability to the Touched (albeit on her own terms and for reasons they don't quite understand), they face opposition in many forms, even beyond the general fear and prejudice of the public at large. Masked goons snatch the Touched off the streets or lure them into traps for reasons Amalia and Penance don't understand. A Touched serial killer named Maladie (Amy Manson) terrorizes the city. Leader of a group of elites among elites, Lord Massen (Pip Torrens) sees them not just as an immediate danger, but as a threat to the British Empire itself able of throwing the power structure out of balance.
Then there are those who might be friend or might be foe. Far removed from the comic work of his past, Nick Frost cuts a terrifying figure as the Beggar King, the pitiless head of a criminal gang that looks after only its own interests. James Norton plays a pansexual, aristocratic louche who mostly sees the Touched as sex objects he can exploit (but, then again, that's how he sees everyone).
There's a lot going on in the series, in other words, and it will probably take most viewers a couple of episodes to find their bearings. In many ways, it feels like the work of a creator finding his bearings within television again, and figuring out how his vision fits into the more permissive world of HBO beyond allowing for generous amounts of nudity (which it also features). It's been, after all, a decade since Whedon ran a show featuring characters he created, and he's mostly focused on films featuring others' creations since then. By the time a couple of this-changes-everything twists arrive, however, The Nevers seems to be on its way. But with Whedon's departure, who knows if it will be heading toward the same destination?
Still, this first run up of episodes offers plenty of reasons to be optimistic, from the talented cast to the richly realized world to a premise that takes it in many different directions. Abruptly taking over a series mid-run is, of course, an unenviable task, but Goslett's been given a lot of strong material with which to work. Whedon's name understandably may not generate a lot of good will these days and the unevenness of these early episodes -- which alternate between clever, exciting passages and overstuffed, drearily paced stretches -- might not inspire the kind of instant following of his past work, but there's a lot here that works and, in the right hands, might keep working for many seasons to come.
TV Guide rating: 3/5
The Nevers premieres Sunday, April 11 at 9/8c on HBO and HBO Max.