Pop culture lovers have spent a lot of time over the past few years discussing the dearth of original stories on our screens. Regurgitated content is bad. We want big! We want bold! We want a story that’s not a remake, reboot, prequel, sequel, or adaptation, damn it! The HBO series The Nevers, which was created by Joss Whedon before his exit as showrunner last November, is a flashy, wholly original failure that reminds us to be careful what we wish for.
In some ways, small-screen stories don’t get much bigger and bolder than this one. The Nevers is a steampunk sci-fi Victorian ensemble period piece. In its spare time, it’s also a crime drama, an X-Men-like superhero saga, and — with all the subtlety of a hammer over the head — a story about women. Every few scenes, someone in The Nevers talks with importance about women as a collective: the strong, the downtrodden, the underestimated, the dangerous.
Years before Whedon was accused of serious workplace misconduct by several actors, he made the ambitious and beloved woman-led series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though the series had its flaws, it was, at its best, an ass-kicking take on the evils of patriarchy. Any Buffy fans who held out hope that the creator would have a more evolved take on female empowerment more than twenty years later — or who would even settle for a rehashing of the classic series’ thematic greatest hits — will be sorely disappointed by The Nevers. The series is a crude caricature of a feminist work, if that. It’s the sort of cartoonish series in which a round table of white men appears in the very first episode to make their mustache-twirling, villainous opinions of powerful women abundantly clear.
With the exception of its ultra-basic ideology, The Nevers is overstuffed on every level. Aside from the veritable genre Mad Libs mentioned above, the series also includes a myriad of unremarkable and at times indistinguishable characters. Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) are introduced as our two heroes. Amalia is “touched,” meaning she suddenly developed superpowers three years ago, along with countless other women across England. Penance has a penchant for mechanics, while other touched women have abilities, ranging from the talent to sing magic songs to the admittedly rather useless power to tell anyone the time without a clock.
True and Adair live at a place called The Orphanage, where other touched women gather. They sometimes rescue touched women who are misunderstood by their families and hunted by others, but they also keep finding themselves face to face with a serial killer named Maladie (Amy Manson, sporting a look that hilariously calls to mind Sheila the She-Wolf from GLOW).
The Nevers is muddled, overcrowded, and less-than-engaging despite its complex lore and flashy special effects. Nearly every emotional beat in the first four episodes misses the mark, in part because characters aren’t given the scene-time needed for viewers to form any substantial opinion of them. As a long-time Buffy fan, I’ve often found myself rationalizing that classic series’ questionable sexual politics, but The Nevers makes Whedon’s narrative preoccupation with sex and punishment impossible to ignore.
Amalia is the series’ would-be protagonist and most fleshed-out character, yet her personality hinges on past trauma that’s led her down a specific self-destructive path. When she lists her unhealthy coping mechanisms, she adds sex with strangers, and she’s later seen trading “a kiss for a pint” at a local pub. Similarly, Maladie is described as a woman who mixes violence and pleasure and is quickly revealed as a trauma victim herself. Essentially, these are both underwritten depictions of PTSD, ones that attempt to tie together sexuality and emotional “brokenness” in a clumsy, unconvincing way.
“How are we ever going to see justice if we aren’t a part of justice?” a character says in a later episode, and it’s a line that would mean something if it weren’t thrown into a series that’s crammed with things like goofy-looking CGI laser guns and superpowered brothels. There is an effortless balance to some of Whedon’s earlier works, including Buffy, Firefly, and even Dr. Horrible’s-Sing-A-Long Blog, that made it possible for high-concept genre elements to coexist naturally with human stories. That balance has evaporated, leaving an insubstantial, silly story in its place.
Some of The Nevers’ first season was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Philippa Goslett was announced as Whedon’s replacement in January, two full months after he stepped down. Either of these behind-the-scenes interruptions could be responsible for the series’ choppier elements, but neither fully explains away its many confounding choices.
There’s always a unique disappointment that comes with realizing that an artist we once considered great is actually quite the opposite, but it’d be a mistake to dwell on this single narrative failure when the TV landscape is ripe with truly empowering and complex female stories in a way that it wasn’t when Whedon first came into power. Try Alena Smith’s Dickinson, or Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, or Noelle Stevenson’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, or Pamela Adlon’s Better Things. The list goes on and on, but The Nevers isn’t on it.