Kicking butt in corsets and slaying with parasols, Victorian sci-fi drama “The Nevers” arrives under, or at least alongside, a cloud: Creator Joss Whedon, who left the series in November citing exhaustion, has been the subject of multiple allegations since last summer of creating an abusive work environment on other projects, including by “Justice League’s” Ray Fisher and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Charisma Carpenter and Michelle Trachtenberg.
But if this meant HBO faced an even taller order turning its ambitious new series, now helmed by showrunner Philippa Goslett, into a worthy successor to “True Blood,” “Game of Thrones” and “Watchmen,” it’s one the cable giant has surmounted. Premiering Sunday, “The Nevers” ably continues the network’s tradition of making fantasy and sci-fi a prestigious television pursuit, this time in the splendor and grit of 1899 London.
Split into two parts consisting of six and four episodes apiece due to production delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (the second installment‘s premiere date has yet to be announced), “The Nevers” is a joy to watch and a thrill to follow. Supernatural realism, complex storytelling, fantastical powers and topical realties meet in this smart, suspenseful and colorful production. A litany of nuanced characters keep this otherworldly tale grounded. Suspenseful sleuthing and action-packed battles move the story along at a rapid clip. And all the lush scenery and ambitious wardrobe along the way — from London’s sewers to its high society — are a visual candy shop of period nostalgia.
The city is abustle, still reeling from an inexplicable event three years earlier that imbued a portion of the female population, and a handful of men, with paranormal abilities. “The Touched,” as they’re so delicately called, inspire some curiosity and plenty of fear among their fellow citizens, and a campaign to rid England of this “feminine plague” is building steam.
Touched widow Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) offers a safe haven for these human “oddities” in an old orphanage. She possesses extraordinary fighting skills, sees snippets of the future and drinks like a sailor. Her bestie, inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), sees all forms of energy — which comes in handy during the dawn of electricity — and devises machines, weapons and more to defend against those who wish her cohabitants harm. Each has a different power: one makes gardens grow by simply touching the soil; another compels people to spill their deepest secrets in her presence.
Women’s power, and the fear of it, propels “The Nevers.” Divisive politicians have declared the Touched a direct threat against the empire. No one appears to know who or what is behind the mysterious phenomenon of 1896, when “not one man of stature” was afflicted, as Lord Massen (Pip Torrens) says to his governmental cohorts. “That’s the genius of it: They came at us through our women. ... The heart of our empire brought to a shuddering halt by the caprice and ambitions of those for whom ambition was never meant.” Watching women seize equal power, and the patriarchy panic over such abrupt change, is beyond entertaining.
But the angry old boys club isn’t the only opposing force in this tale where pious religiosity meets the scourge of modernity. A terrorist faction of the Touched led by the madwoman Maladie (Amy Manson) is thought to be responsible for a string of murders and disappearances. She and her gang of gifted thugs, which includes fireball Annie (guess how she kills), are being tracked by police investigator Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin). Their reign of terror has put a target on the backs of those known to possess abilities.
Disabled philanthropist Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams) cautions against maligning the Touched, immigrants and other “deviations” from the norm. “It is the end of a century,” she proclaims. “These ancient prejudices have no use.” She funds the orphanage while using her younger brother, Augie (Tom Riley), as a de facto footman. They interact with a cast of diverse and engaging characters, from Hugo Swann (James Norton), a pansexual aristocrat and master extortionist who runs a private sex club, to doctor Horatio Cousens (Zackary Momoh), a West Indian immigrant who literally heals with his hands, and deranged American surgeon Edmund Hague (Denis O’Hare), who relishes the ghoulish delights of Victorian surgical procedure.
“The Nevers” is for anyone who loved “Penny Dreadful” or “Harlots,” “WandaVision” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” This period drama about the persecution — and power — of the marginalized goes wide on genre appeal, while homing in on painfully contemporary themes. And it’s full of riddles designed to keep us hooked.
The scheming Lord Massen says it best when he sounds the alarm to his fellow one-percenters: “What women are appalled by today, they will accept tomorrow and demand the day after that. And the immigrant and the deviant. That is the power being wielded and not by us. The blade is in, gentlemen. We need to know whose hand is on the [sheath].”
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