The Nevers is the latest genre-bending science fiction and fantasy series to come along after, it seems, a new super-powered group of heroes comes into focus each year. Premiering on HBO this Sunday at 9:00 PM eastern, the series blends Victorian England sensibilities with steampunk, science fiction peculiarities, and X-Men-style superpowers.
It has the makings of a series fans of The Magicians may love, but the spunk of previous shows Joss Whedon created like Firefly. In fact, it’s very much of the same vein as Firefly right down to the kick-ass women and often used jokes when danger is most present. For all of these reasons, The Nevers feels entirely new, but also very familiar, which for many will resonate since it’s not a huge leap to dive in and enjoy it.
Set in London in the late 1890s the first episode introduces us to a number of characters before something truly magical occurred and brought superpowers to those within the city. This opening is bookended with a final scene that adds context, but before we can understand where superpowers came from — those with powers are called “touched” in this universe — the narrative dives into the complicated lives of its main characters three years after the event that gave people powers.
The Touched, who are mostly women we later find out, are looked down upon with many of them living in an orphanage run by Lavinia Bidlow (Dollhouse alum Olivia Williams). Two of the heads of the orphanage are Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) who can see the future and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) who can see electricity and make fantastical gadgetry. These characters are first introduced when called upon to check in on a young girl whose parents think is Touched but also may be conversing with the devil.
Familiar themes of prejudice and even sexism towards the women are depicted before the episode dives into a lively fight scene that leads to a chase sequence. It’s here where the identity of the show becomes clear as it mixes in action, adventure, superpowers, and plenty of mystery as we the viewer navigate a world that’s unclear to nearly everyone. That includes True and she can see the future! It’s not quite the usual puzzle-box show, it’s not clear what the motivations are of nearly all of these characters, but it’s definitely a show you’ll want to discuss with friends every Monday morning.
This first episode sets up all the key players including rich socialite Hugo Swan (James Norton) who loves drugs, sex, and what appears to be exploiting the Touched, Declan Orrun (Nick Frost) who plays a vicious mobster straight from a Guy Ritchie film who has sway with the women of the Orphanage, Lord Massen (Pip Torrens) who seems to have a bone to pick with the Touched, and various characters with and without powers who are part of the narrative.
Admittedly it’s hard to not enjoy the various super-powered characters like Zackary Momoh’s Doctor Horatio Cousens who can heal or Rochelle Neil’s Bonfire and think about how their powers may play into the larger story. Villains like Denis O’Hare’s Edmund Hague is an insane scientist, clearly missing a few bolts, and it’s fun to see him chew up the scenery.
As a show that gives each character plenty to say and their own identity within the narrative, there’s plenty to enjoy. This is where the similarities to Firefly come into play, like the usual Whedon themes of ass-kicking heroines, or longer than normal dialogue-heavy scenes which are as much about the character as they are the joys of dialogue itself.
For this reason, the show may be too familiar for some, and may not supply enough purpose or meaning to it all. That’s where the mysteries of the show come into play and for many, it’ll be the kind of show you try to make sense of and understand as each new chapter is added once the show kicks off April 11th.
The fact that this review barely touches on those mysteries is good and in some way a bad thing. It’s hard to pin down what the show is about in this first episode beyond the strong characters. That’s likely going to be enough for most viewers, but for some, it’s going to be hard to assess if it’s worth investing time into without fully gathering who the villains even are.
Is The Nevers the kind of series you’ll dig? It’s hard to say, especially depending on your relationship to Joss Whedon’s previous work and for that matter Joss Whedon himself. Its similarities in tone and character type to previous projects of his is apparent though it is set in a different world under different parameters.
That said, the acting is superb and each character feels wholly unique and positioned to be as exciting as the next. Laura Donnelly and Ann Skelly steal the show in this opening episode and they are very easy to root for thanks to their powers, abilities, and great acting from both.
The fact is, there isn’t another fantasy series like The Nevers currently being released that is made for adults. Especially one that isn’t a direct adaptation of a comics series and for that reason I suspect most comic book fans will enjoy this and very much will enjoy its general vibe. With The Nevers, come for the superpowers and premise, but stay for the great characters and acting.
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