The Nevers, HBO

The first six episodes of HBO’s steampunk fantasy adventure story aired last year, with the second six of Season One scheduled tentatively for fall, 2022. Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s about people in London who mysteriously develop powers after an event takes place–an event, it seems, that almost no one remembers.

The Nevers is saddled with a bad reputation it didn’t earn. Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, could no longer cover up his bad behavior and that all came out last year, shortly before this show premiered. Many people have publicly said they won’t watch it because he is associated with it.

I watched the first six episodes, and basically, I’m in. It’s not a perfect show but it’s got plenty to recommend it. It would be impossible to discuss it without drawing the obvious comparisons to X-Men and Marvel’s Inhumans, both of which it borrows from heavily. It also resembles Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, although the storyline is more coherent than PD was in its first season. I’m in it for the characters and the relationships, although I do want the “touched,” as the powered people are called, to kick butt and take names. (More about that, and Episode 3, in a minute.)

On a spring day in 1896, something appeared in the sky over London (a scene that reminded me of several Doctor Who episodes), and glowing dots of light fell from the sky, landing on some people. Moments later, the object disappeared in a dramatic manner, and everyone went on as if nothing had happened. Those who were touched by the glowing dots began exhibiting abilities. Most but not all are female, some but not all are young. This is not a story about super-powered girls or super-powered kids. This is a story about super-powered people and the forces arrayed against them. You know, the Usual Oppresssors.

Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Willams), a wealthy aristocratic spinster, has created a charity for those who are “touched.” She hired touched widow Amalie True (Laura Donnelly) to manage it for her. Amalia sees the future. For a lower-middle-class widow who has clawed her way up to respectability, Amalia is also one hell of a fighter. Mrs. True’s second in command is Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), a brilliant inventor (whose “turn” or power is that she can see streams of energy). Other members of the household include Dr. Cousins, who can heal, Lucy, whose hands vibrate and who can break apart practically anything, Harriet, whose breath turns things to glass, and Primrose, who is ten feet tall. I guess her power is always being able to get something down from the top shelf. In Episode One, True and Penance rescue Myrtle from kidnappers. Myrtle’s power is languages–all the languages, all the time.

Other characters include Bonfire Annie, who controls fire, Kroos, a guy with a gun grafted to his arm (I think his blood turns into bullets or something, I didn’t really get it) and Odium, who can walk on water. Then there’s Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin), a police detective. As his name clues us, Frank is mundane but that doesn’t mean he has no secrets. The decadent, aristocratic Lord Hugo Swan is charismatic and enigmatic… and probably not a good guy. He’s exploiting the touched, but he is just so… entertaining. And a liar, etc.

The forces of oppression include the usual collection of lords with, so far, our main antagonist being Lord Massen. His not-so-secret secret is that his daughter is among the touched. One revelation of an antagonist was played as a surprise, but it wasn’t so surprising. The American, Dr. Hague, is a whimsical monster who tortures the touched, so we know not to like him.

I loved the characters of Amalie, Penance and most of the women at Lady Bidlow’s shelter. They are well-done and interesting. Fire-wielding Annie and the gun guy are conventional steampunk characters, but Rochelle Neil’s performance of Annie adds style and warmth that makes up for the lack of characterization. Once I got over my momentary disappointment that Hugo Swan was an original character and not some version of Oscar Wilde, I enjoyed the beguiling performance by James Norton.

There is a steampunk motorcar and several “gewgaws” from Penance in the opener. I mentioned action. Episode Three has one of the best action sequences I’ve seen on television, as Amalia fights Odium in the air and underwater. I can’t explain it better than that. The stunts and the visuals… amazing.

Where the show falls flat in the early episodes is with serial killer Maladie, who is touched and also insane. Amy Manson plays the part. My problem is mostly with the direction. Maladie is played as a cross between every TV Victorian “madwoman” and Fairuza Balk’s character in the 1996 film The Craft, jittering and pirouetting around like a wind-up doll, spewing incomplete sentences, giggling diabolically. In a crucial scene where she’s confronting Amalia, I would swear she’s auditioning to play the Joker. Later, we see that some of this is a facade, but it’s too late. Please consider making 19th century “madwomen” more realistic and more interesting.

The powers themselves lack background. By Episode Six we understand what happened and where the glowing dots came from. How they work seems inconsistent. Primrose got really big. Is that a power? Later, another woman develops sheeps’ ears. Okay. Penance says she can see energy, but she acts, in the show, like a really good inventor… and we’d seen her being inventive before the Event. In a conversation with Myrtle’s parents, it seems that speaking in tongues (all the tongues) is a relatively recent occurrence. Did some powers take longer to mature than others? Is it like having a dormant virus in your system? Or what? These are nagging questions, and again, not that much different from the questions I always had about the X-Men and the Inhumans. At least with the Inhumans, plausible or not, there was a rationale.

Anyway, if I can find a way to see it without a subscription to HBO, I am up for the next six episodes. Can the touched make a difference? Will anybody get to be happy? I hope so.

Dr. Cousins is played by Zackary Momoh
Lucy is played by Elizabeth Berrington
Harriet is played by Kiran Sonia Sawar
Lord Massen is played by Pip Torrens

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