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Several potent modern phenomena have cross-pollinated to create this lavish, messy fantasy series. Few individuals have stamped their own style and taste on English-language pop culture so deeply as the creator and original showrunner of The Nevers, Joss Whedon, here once again dispensing the sort of clever-clever gags and cartoonified violence that helped to make his previous shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996-2003), Angel (1999-2004) and Firefly (2002-03) some of the most beloved, analysed and imitated television of all time.
The concept is also familiar, from Marvel’s X-Men franchise (to the comic-book manifestation of which Whedon contributed) and from recent similarly themed endeavours such as The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol (both 2019): a group of individuals with special gifts support one another while society spurns them as freaks.
The theme takes in young women being judged, underestimated and exploited (undeniably a hot topic, if an awkward one for Whedon given the fact that his own conduct over decades of working with young actresses has been extensively questioned by numerous former underlings and one ex-wife), and society failing to appreciate diversity of thought and ability.
The aesthetic, finally, is steampunk, the durable retro-futuristic genre that has found particular popularity among the online young in the last decade or so. The result is a show that feels at once focus-grouped for maximum cool points and coated in layers of familiarity.
The setting is London, the year 1896. Numerous people are possessed of mysterious gifts and powers, seemingly related to the unexplained passage of some sort of airship over London three years before. Those affected are known as ‘the Touched’, and their strange characteristics – from telekinesis to magical opera-singing to giant size – are called ‘turns’. They are oppressed and abused, but have one source of support: an ‘orphanage’ where their kind can live together and be protected, their powers respected.
Two of their number, Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), strive to round up stray Touched and bring them into the orphanage’s embrace. This process is becoming increasingly hazardous, however, due to a mounting number of foes. Amalia and Penance are on the wrong side of a crime boss and the monsters he uses as muscle; the Touched they seek to protect are being kidnapped and subjected to cruel experiments; and their own pasts haunt them, while happy futures seem ruled out by anti-Touched prejudice. Oh – and a religious-minded serial killer appears to be at work.
This is all just in the first couple of episodes. The Nevers has a huge cast of characters and a lot going on, all hurriedly introduced and hectically depicted. Donnelly and Skelly, who dominate the screen time, give vibrant, considered and contrasting performances – Donnelly’s Amalia a sad-eyed cynic with a past, Skelly’s Penance a ray of sunshine with impeccable comic timing.
Whedon has never lacked the ability to identify talented actresses and draw brilliant work out of them. And yet the extreme violence these characters both enact and suffer feels odd: crude in its bone-crunching, face-smashing extremity, and out of place in this fanciful context. It would surely be too grim to suggest that Whedon’s recent troubles have left him feeling punitive towards his own pert, pretty creations, but the preoccupation with girls getting hurt is troubling. There isn’t enough depth to script or story, meanwhile, to support any notion that he’s making a serious comment about women’s precarious lives, either in Victorian times or now. It feels like a whimsical kids’ show in which people keep saying ‘fuck’ and having their faces smashed in.
And there’s a key issue with this: at no point in what must have been a long and involved development process does anyone appear to have nailed down what age group the whole thing is for. Whedon (who quit the series during the shooting of its first season, reportedly because of the challenges of making it during the pandemic) has always spliced the conventionally childish with the more adult, right back to when he made a reportedly transformative contribution to the script for Toy Story (1995). In Whedon world, toys are secret wise-asses, superheroes are a serious business, you never have to put your schooldays behind you or give up your comic books, and no situation exists that cannot be joked about.
A fundamental respect for the considerations of childhood is at the heart not only of what Whedon does, but arguably of the entire ‘nerd culture’ that so dominates the current mainstream and of which he is a prime exponent. But The Nevers isn’t clashing childlike wonder with adult fretfulness, so much as garnishing a whimsical narrative with adult sex and violence. And whether or not one imputes much significance to Whedon’s personal behaviour, that’s a cocktail that leaves a distinctly peculiar taste in the mouth.
Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy