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HBO's The Nevers is overshadowed by its "Joss Whedon problem"

  • "These two things can both be true: 1. Director Joss Whedon should never be allowed near a set again; and 2. The Nevers might have been a better television show if Whedon had been more involved," says Jeva Lange. "Regrettably, that means the series — which premieres on HBO on Sunday — exists in the uncomfortable tension between those two facts. The Nevers is at once unpalatable due to Whedon's association, and also lacking, likely because of its creator's fleeting involvement. The cost of a better show, though, never would have been worth the price. There once was a time when 'Joss Whedon is directing Victorian-era show about magical misfit women for HBO' would have been the most exciting set of words in the world. Most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon hadn't made a TV show since he worked on the short-lived series Dollhouse, for Fox, back in 2009. Though Buffy was enormously influential, and Whedon went on to direct the first two Avengers films as well as take over the ill-fated Justice League, among the director's fans there'd long been a perception that he was never given the opportunity to see his best concepts through. Whedon's space-Western Firefly was famously canceled after a single season, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog never got its sequel, and hard-core Whedonites would argue that Dollhouse's two-season stint was among his best, and most prematurely canceled, work. For many people — including my younger self — Whedon's well-written, butt-kicking women offered a welcome alternative to the female stereotypes more commonly seen on TV at the time. He was lauded by feminist media groups and critics. But time has not been kind to Whedon's particular brand of feminism; even his staunchest fans have started to reconsider and see the flaws in his work....But Whedon's fingerprints are still all over The Nevers — which he's described as his 'most ambitious' narrative yet — from the show's punchy banter down to his favorite character tropes, including the show's Drusilla-like villain. Even a mysterious airship in the show's premiere looks like the steampunk version of a S.H.I.E.L.D. mobile base or Firefly-class spaceship. Still, despite so many Whedon hallmarks, the final result seems watered down — Whedon-lite, if you will. The vision never quite comes together in the four completed episodes made available to critics; the world still feels under construction and confused about what its purpose is, something that feels indicative of the lack of a consistent architect throughout."


    • The Nevers indulges in the laziest habits of TV's Dickens obsession: "There was a time, not so long ago, when to describe a television show as Dickensian was to pay it the highest possible compliment," says Judy Berman. "The Wire is the classic example, weaving dozens of vividly wrought characters into an intricate, socially astute epic of systemic rot in Baltimore. But peak TV, for all its individual highlights, tends to debase every marker of prestige it touches through infinite imitations. And so now we have an overabundance of bad-to-decent series—Penny Dreadful, Carnival Row, The Irregulars and even, perhaps inevitably, Dickensian—whose parallels to Dickens are thuddingly literal, from their late-19th-century London settings (or alternate-universe facsimiles of same) and huge casts of characters to their fascination with people living at the margins of society and fusion of gritty realism with elements of fantasy. I call this stuff Dickenscore. The latest and most anticipated iteration is HBO’s The Nevers, premiering on April 11. Created by Joss Whedon, who exited the show in November amid accusations of workplace harassment that have continued to escalate in the intervening months, it is—in its expensive, confusing mediocrity—Dickenscore to the max. (So far has the once-beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastermind and Marvel fixture’s stock fallen that he is credited as creator, director, writer and executive producer of the show’s pilot but is barely mentioned in recent press materials.)"
    • The Nevers is HBO's next great fantasy series: "The Nevers is a joy to watch and a thrill to follow," says Lorraine Ali. "Supernatural realism, complex storytelling, fantastical powers and topical realties meet in this smart, suspenseful and colorful production. A litany of nuanced characters keeps this otherworldly tale grounded. Suspenseful sleuthing and action-packed battles move the story along at a rapid clip. And all the lush scenery and ambitious wardrobe along the way — from London’s sewers to its high society — are a visual candy shop of period nostalgia."
    • The Nevers is a showcase for Whedon's creative flaws: "Many of Whedon’s familiar flaws are present here, but his strengths are largely absent," says Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. "With laborious scripts that lean more toward exposition than wit, the overall tone feels rather dated, from the girl-power feminism to the expensive steampunk aesthetic. In the four episodes made available to critics, there are two separate fight scenes where Amalia escapes death by stripping down to her corset and underskirt. The show also introduces far too many characters at once, some of whom are stock Whedon tropes: a cartoonishly perky scientist (Penance Adair, played by Ann Skelly), a victimized teenager who 'speaks in tongues' and therefore can’t communicate (Myrtle, played by Viola Prettejohn), and an unforgivably corny Victorian madwoman (Maladie, played by Amy Manson). Maladie is a sort of cut-price Helena Bonham Carter caricature; a disheveled cockney serial killer who rambles incoherently while dancing around to show how mad she is. Buffy fans will recall the waiflike vampire Drusilla, a far more sympathetic and entertaining example of this trope. Our protagonist Amalia is a likeably wry figure amid this array of overly broad performances. And in an ongoing trend for Whedon projects, characters of color only appear in limited secondary roles."
    • Joss Whedon abuse allegations mean that there isn't goodwill for him and The Nevers: "A darling of blockbuster cinema and cult TV less than a decade ago, Joss Whedon has faced enough recent accusations of unprofessional behavior that HBO can't even promote its new supernatural feminist empowerment drama as 'From the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the director of The Avengers," says Daniel Fienberg. "Responses to the show will be so thoroughly filtered through viewer perceptions of the allegations that it would be easier if The Nevers were brilliant and easiest if it were horrible. Instead, the first four episodes sent to critics are the exact sort of rough, unfocused opening that fans of Buffy and Dollhouse know to expect. Those shows benefited from goodwill toward Whedon, allowing audiences to concentrate on quippy dialogue, clever themes or the occasional bit of visual flair instead of the clumsy storytelling or misguided subplots. Based on the taxing duration of several of these new episodes, he hasn't lost his creative carte blanche. What's gone is that unlimited reservoir of viewer goodwill, which The Nevers probably could use."
    • Separating the artist from the art in this instance proves impossible: "Somewhat overshadowing the actual text of The Nevers... is the fraught fact that the series parted ways with creator Joss Whedon last fall, after Justice League actor Ray Fisher accused him of workplace misconduct and before Buffy the Vampire Slayer actor Charisma Carpenter alleged the same," says Caroline Framke. "(The second half of the new series’ first season, premiering at an undetermined later time, is produced entirely without him under new showrunner Philippa Goslett.) As someone who has alternately followed, admired, and been disappointed by Whedon and his work, I went into Nevers wanting to judge it separately from the controversies surrounding its creator. But after sampling the first episode, written and directed by Whedon, it was clear that separating the artist from the art in this instance would prove impossible. Despite distancing itself from Whedon in retrospect, Nevers bears so many of his narrative and stylistic hallmarks that it might as well be playing Whedon Bingo, for better and for worse."
    • The Nevers will be so much better when Joss Whedon has nothing to do with it: "I wanted to like The Nevers," says Kara Weisenstein. "It promised a lot of things I typically go for in a television series: kickass women with superpowers fighting for truth and justice in Victorian London. Sign me up. Unfortunately, the first four episodes made available to critics are a confusing, pseudo-feminist mess. The thing is, if they’d been brilliant, I would’ve had complicated feelings about that, too. You see, The Nevers was created, written, directed, and executive produced by Joss Whedon. Once celebrated as the visionary behind beloved TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly as well as Marvel films The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, lately he has been outed by numerous collaborators as 'casually cruel' and abusive." She adds that Whedon's "mitts are all over the series — or its early episodes, at least. It’s full of the cringey Whedon-isms that also pollute the rest of his canon. All the things that make revisiting Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse (by far the most cringeworthy, about women brainwashed and farmed out as assassins and escorts) a bummer by 2021 standards are on full display in The Nevers."
    • It's hard to avoid that The Nevers is absolutely a Whedon series: "Not only are the episodes screened all entries completed under his watch, but the earmarks of his work to date are all present in the story, tone, and characters," says Ben Travers. "Set in Victorian London one year before the turn of the 20th century, The Nevers follows a group of people who are all touched — meaning, over the past few years, each of them have discovered abnormal abilities (referred to as their 'turn'). Most of the 'touched' are women, none of them share the same powers (or 'turns'), and all of them are treated like the lowest of the low among England’s strict class system. Stocked with supernatural acts and plenty of action, The Nevers is also quite blunt in its symbolic war between rich white men and, well, everyone else."
    • The Nevers should be more fun: "There's a certain joyful energy that comes from combining genres in unexpected ways," says Emma Stefansky. "In HBO's new series The Nevers, Victorian England and steampunk science fiction collide, creating an entirely new world populated by downtrodden women (and some men) with supernatural gifts, and men in power (and some women) who want nothing more than to erase them from the planet. It's an electrifying setup that promises intricate plots and fun fight scenes and sci-fi eye candy at every turn, which makes The Nevers' general listlessness feel all the more bizarre."
    • The Nevers is just reheated Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 7: "When The Nevers‘ first footage dropped earlier this year, I distinctly remember thinking, 'Ooh, it’s steampunk Buffy with corsets!'" says Kimberly Roots. "Now that the drama, created by Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Joss Whedon, has released its first four episodes to the press, I can confirm: It is, indeed, steampunk Buffy with corsets — and for several reasons, that’s no longer an enticing concept." She adds: "f you’ll allow me a little shorthand for my fellow Buffy fans: We’re essentially watching the Potentials storyline play out all over again, except this time, we know more of the girls’ names. And of course, a nefarious and mysterious force is trying to take out the touched for good. But even if you’re not a Buffy buff, there’s enough retread here to give déjà vu to viewers of Whedon’s other series."
    • The Nevers is unfocused and overstuffed: "The world-building, at least, is extensive, and it's possible later episodes might benefit from having carved out so much narrative real estate, so many competing interests," says Glenn Weldon. "But these early episodes are crowded with various factions and alliances whose motivations remain unclear; to accommodate them all, the series keeps checking in on them in scenes too brief to land with the weight they need to, and the series' insistence on keeping its narrative cards so close to its vest means we often don't know what we're supposed to glean out of a given meeting or conversation. If you're willing to give The Nevers a chance, it contains the potential to reward your patience, given the introduction of a clear and direct narrative infrastructure to help focus its — and our — attention. Whether that'll happen, and if anyone will still be watching if it does, is anyone's guess."
    • The Nevers tries to be Buffy in period costume: "In Buffy Whedon worked out one of the best and most sustained metaphors American pop culture has seen: California teenage life as a constant battle against demons, aided by the small band of friends who really get you," says Mike Hale. "In The Nevers he tries something similar but in period costume, giving X-Men-like powers to women and other devalued members of Victorian society so that they can actually raise their voices against — and physically confront — the male, colonialist, capitalist hegemony. It sounds good in theory, as if it might have Buffy-like potential, with the added enjoyment of a gloss on sources like Frankenstein, Dracula and Alice in Wonderland — a league of extraordinary Victorian women. But in practice it doesn’t take off. It may be that Whedon and his collaborators, including the Buffy writer and producer Jane Espenson, just didn’t have the same feel for turn-of-the-20th-century London as they did for contemporary suburban California — there’s a slightly stilted and synthetic quality to The Nevers, despite (or maybe reinforced by) the occasional anachronistically modern dialogue. The humor feels arch, and the action, which combines 21st-century fluidity with a rollicking period style, is mostly flat."
    • The Nevers showcases all of Joss Whedon’s obsessions — again: "From the outset, The Nevers is a puzzling fit for HBO," says Joshua Rivera. "The premium network’s reputation as the standard-bearer for prestige television gives every one of its dramas a sense of occasion, the expectation of television that aspires to push boundaries. The Nevers, however, is astonishingly pedestrian. It’s a straightforward Whedon show with the addition of nudity and a few swear words, and fewer quips than his usual average. In the first four episodes made available to critics, the series slowly builds its mythology: Amalia True and Penance Adair (say their names out loud, you’ll get it) encounter a mysterious cabal of frightening masked men abducting the Touched just as public sentiment toward Touched is reaching its nadir, thanks to the work of Maladie, a serial killer with her own gang of Touched villains. The world is meticulously built, but it has very little spark. Unfortunately, it’s currently most interesting as a referendum on its creator."
    • There are two good insane twists and two bad insane twists: "The orgies look silly," says Darren Franich. "The romances are adolescent. By episode 4, multiple enemies have become friends (and vice versa). Ben Chaplin haunts the margins of the show as Frank Mundi, a gruff detective with a heart of gold. Amalia's power grants her premonitions of the future, which means she stands around waiting for the universe to suggest plot points to her. In episode 4, she tells her friends a certain villain can be found in 'The Narrows,' and I suddenly realized what TV show The Nevers reminds me of: Gotham, Fox's Bat-prequel, which turned its own city-of-super-weirdoes mythology into a deranged soap opera. As a crime lord who calls himself the Beggar King, Nick Frost is more or less playing a Gotham mobster, and Denis O'Hare's mad scientist is a Hugo Strange by any other name."
    • The general premise of The Nevers manages to be both simple and pretty baffling: "The baffling version is one most visible right on the surface of the show," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "It’s set in a late-Victorian-era London, in a world where some people (mostly women) have suddenly begun developing a range of strange abilities. They’re called 'The Touched,' and their powers are referred to as “turns.” There’s not much rhyme or reason to the “turns,” or much solid world-building foundation about what sorts of things are and are not possible in this world. Amalia sees brief flashes of the future, but her best friend Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) sees … electricity? … which she uses to invent all sorts of steampunk-y contraptions. One young woman can freeze things with her breath; another can shoot fire with her hands; one girl is just enormous, a looming cross between a Henry James character and Clifford the Big Red Dog, whose presence raises all kinds of basic logistical questions that The Nevers has no interest in answering. On top of that baseline provocative-but-iffy world-building, The Nevers layers buckets and buckets of other plot...All of it adds up to a snarl of story, and it’s not helped by character development that seems primarily based in odd, mannered names. There are promising elements, including Laura Donnelly’s strong performance as Amalia, and James Norton slurping up his role as a delighted, pansexual louche. But on a purely textual level, The Nevers is a mystifying, higgledy-piggledy jumble of things that only seems odder when you know the big twist from the end of the first episode."
    • Laura Donnelly address whether she's worried the Joss Whedon drama will overshadow The Nevers: "Of course that is a concern — that something that is not the show might overshadow The Nevers. We are so intensely proud of this show," says Donnelly. She adds: "It has been a hugely collaborative experience. And TV is always a very collaborative experience. I think more so with this, with the challenges that we’ve faced with COVID, with the scale, the size of this production and this story, and the fact that every cast member, every crew member is really at the top of their game, just makes me think that this is something intensely special."

    TOPICS: The Nevers, HBO, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon, Laura Donnelly, Philippa Goslett