Wednesday, 19 May 2021

The Nevers: Season 1 (Part 1)

London, 1899. The city has been changed by the advent of the "Touched," gifted people (predominantly women, but a few men) with unusual abilities. The government is conflicted over what to do with the Touched, but noblewoman Lavinia Bidlow hits on the idea of opening an "orphanage" where they can feel safe and protected. The combative and resourceful Amalia True, who has visions of the future, is placed in charge of the orphanage and is aided by her friend Penance Adair, whose "turn" allows her to see electrical connections and create wonderful new inventions. The reputation of the Touched is marred when one of their number, Maladie, becomes the worst serial killer since Jack the Ripper, forcing the Touched to try to track her down whilst protecting themselves...and finding out what happened three years earlier to suddenly awaken their powers.

The Nevers mixes science fiction with a period Victorian drama, an intriguing new direction for HBO as it looks for the next big-budget, cross-genre show with mass appeal that can continue in the vein from Game of Thrones and Watchmen. Based on this initial batch of six episodes - another six episodes, delayed by the COVID19 pandemic, follows next year - HBO's faith may have been rewarded: The Nevers is epic in scope with a relentless pace, an intriguing story and terrific actors. Indeed, if it were not for behind the scenes drama* revolving around now-departed showrunner Joss Whedon, the show would have likely been hailed as a success. Instead, its critical reception has been muted, with many reviews focusing more on the behind-the-scenes situation than on the show on its own merits.

In terms of the show itself, the first (half) season is a tightly-wound and intricately constructed narrative structure, working backwards and forwards in time. Rewatching the season immediately after completing the sixth episode will result in a somewhat different experience. The Nevers is both a story and an illusion obscuring what the story is really about. This isn't too astounding - it's only six episodes, not completely revamping what the entire series is about a full season or two into its run - but it shows the degree of narrative daring and experimentation that we used to expect from HBO. In some respects, the show feels like a warmer and more approachable version of the network's clever-but-cold masterpieces The Leftovers and Watchmen, which also experimented with storytelling ideas whilst telling an interesting story.

In other respects, this is Whedon: The Greatest Hits, which can be distracting if you have more than a passing familiarity with his body of work. Character archetypes, ideas and story arcs from his earlier series (from Buffy right through to Dollhouse) have been recycled with near glee, resulting sometimes in intriguing ideas emerging from mashing together old ones, but a few too many times in predictability. The series finale should be - and in some cases, has been - hailed as one of the most interesting and accomplished episodes of television of the year, a bold right-hand turn in storytelling that completely rewrites the show's backstory, mythology and future direction through a masterclass of suspense and acting (Laura Donnelly should be nominated for an Emmy for her performance in this episode alone). It's just that Whedon lifted a huge amount of the ideas and tropes for the episode from one of his earlier shows, almost wholesale. For those who have less familiarity with his work, it's much less of an issue, and will probably be far more impressive as a result.

The cast is uniformly excellent: Donnelly's MVP credentials are established early on and is ably supported by Ann Skelly's turn as genius engineer Penance Adair (one of the most enjoyable "womances" - if that's a thing - of recent years). Olivia Williams is one of Britain's best actresses and is hugely impressive in her role as the Touched's benefactor, Lavinia Bidlow (being a wheelchair user is probably a nod at Professor X, The Nevers never being afraid to lean into its occasionally X-Men-ish inspirations). Pip Torrens is outstanding as charismatic maybe-villain Lord Gilbert Massen, a British patriot filled with loathing for the Touched after his daughter was killed on the day they gained their powers. Amy Manson is outstanding as the unhinged (or is she?) Maladie, with Rochelle Neil being highly impressive as Bonfire Annie, a criminal with the ability to create and manipulate fire. Ben Chaplin is particularly excellent as gruff policeman Frank Mundi, whose investigation into the various strange goings-on in London proceeds in parallel to the Touched, making him at times a co-protagonist with True and Adair.

There's also some outstanding action sequences, the highlight being a fight scene in the third episode which involves combat both above and below water, and Amalia having to desperately come up with a way of defeating a Touched whose power seems to render him unstoppable in this particular environment; her finding a way of turning his power against him in a logical manner is a magic system delight that I can imagine Brandon Sanderson nodding approvingly over. As another plus, the musical score of the series is absolutely stellar, with both the first and third episodes ending with striking musical pieces.

The basic premise, though, is wholly unoriginal: the first episode reveals that the Touched's powers came from some kind of alien entity that appeared in the skies over the city, which is less "inspired by" and "directly lifted from" George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards anthology series. The X-Men parallels are too numerous to concisely list, and of course "badass women kicking backside whilst quipping quippily" is pretty much the defining through-line of Whedon's career, from Buffy and Faith through Zoe to Black Widow and Wonder Woman (whom Whedon penned a spectacularly bad script for before directing on Justice League). The Nevers never pretends to originality but does execute its at-times overly-familiar story with gusto and enthusiasm.

There are some other, odd negatives. The effects work is strangely variable, with at times flawless depictions of late 19th Century London standing alongside blatantly obvious greenscreens, and I'm not sure why they needed to build iffy 3D models of the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul's Cathedral for establishing shots, given both still exist. HBO has also failed to learn from its "direwolf" mistake on Game of Thrones, where the inability of the CG team to convincing scale up ordinary wolves to huge size eventually became so embarrassing that they were ejected from the story altogether; on The Nevers a recurring character is over ten feet tall, and CGI is obviously used to sell this illusion. But unfortunately the character never sits well in the frame and never convinces the audience that she's actually there. This feels both bafflingly amateur for a TV show airing in 2021 (twenty years after a whole battery of techniques were used to far more convincingly sell the similar size difference between humans and hobbits) and distracts from the actress's fine performance in a challenging role.

There's also some distinct underuse of accomplished actors: James Norton has little to do but drape himself caddishly over sets and utter swinish remarks whilst sleeping with everyone and everything in his debauched sight. Nick Frost has even less to do as the "Beggar King," a high-ranking member of London's criminal underground. With Frost seeking more dramatic and more challenging roles in recent years (in the likes of Into the Badlands and Truth Seekers), and generally nailing them, it's a shame to see him so underutilised here; hopefully he'll have a larger role in the second half of the season.

The Nevers' first half-season (***½) has a lot going on, good and mediocre, but emerges as a mostly-qualified success. The actors are outstanding, the action scenes are great, the worldbuilding accomplished, the soundtrack excellent and the story is interesting, with great pacing and an oddly endearing, almost 1990s approach of giving each episode its own storyline whilst also furthering the overall arc (a structure that more modern shows should use, rather than trying to make "twelve hour movies"). In the sixth episode, the series pulls off a major revision of everything you thought was going on with success. Balanced against that is a distinct lack of originality (worsened by familiarity with Whedon's earlier work), some ropey effects work and under-development of a few characters. And of course your enjoyment of the half-season will likely depend hugely on if you can separate the art from the artist (remembering that a lot more artists worked on this show than just one man, and he's since departed).

The Nevers has been afflicted by behind-the-scenes controversy that should be acknowledged; creator and showrunner Joss Whedon left the show after the first six episodes had been filmed, a presumed spill-over from his controversial period overseeing reshoots on Zack Snyder's 2017 movie Justice League (produced by HBO's parent company, Warner Brothers) which had resulted in claims of bullying and harassment being levelled against him by multiple castmembers on that film. Subsequent to that, numerous actors and crew from multiple previous Whedon projects had come forward with their own tales of inappropriate behaviour. The Whedon "brand," which had previously driven shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) to mass success and Firefly (2002) to immortal cultdom, has become toxic and it is highly questionable if he will ever work in Hollywood again.

With regards to The Nevers, Whedon wrote the first episode and directed the first and fifth; it is presumed, as showrunner and executive producer, he also had a hand in rewrites on the other episodes. Whedon also commissioned the scripts for the next four episodes of the series and may written one of them himself; HBO later expanded the order to twelve episodes in total after Whedon's departure, so the last two episodes will have no input from Whedon at all, and I suspect all six have been heavily rewritten. Philippa Goslett has taken over as showrunner for the second batch of episodes and any future seasons should they be commissioned. The show's other initial writers, including long-term Whedon collaborators Doug Petrie and Jane Espenson, remain involved in the project.

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