The Nevers is good and you should watch it.
The premise has always been fairly bite-sized: “an epic science fiction drama about a gang of Victorian women who find themselves with unusual abilities, relentless enemies, and a mission that might change the world.”
For the most part, they had many of us at “science fiction” & “gang of Victorian women” and I suspect that’s how this particular pitch was sold. It’s the old Hollywood trick of taking something infinitely familiar and pairing it with a new element or, in this case, a new era. It’s Santa Claus, but he has a brother! It’s Abraham Lincoln, but he hunts vampires! It’s Star Wars, but the rebels lost. What differentiates The Nevers from other shows of this ilk is that most pitches like this don’t end up on HBO.
Joss Whedon knows these reindeer games and knows how to package them. As the creator, writer, and director, his brand is all over The Nevers. From the standpoint of someone who wants a good story, it’s a good thing, because Whedon knows how to bring a ship into port. If you’re like me and have trouble sometimes separating the art from the artist, The Nevers might be a show you don’t want to root for because of the laundry list of allegations against Whedon.
The thing is, The Nevers is basically Steampunk X-Men and damned if it isn’t fun. Call them mutants or not, some folks have power and some don’t. It’s everywhere from the MCU and DCU to Amazon’s The Boys and a number of other places. Whedon’s habit of putting oddballs together on interesting teams has worked for a long time. I knew very little about The Nevers going in and I really enjoyed the first episode. It’s not groundbreaking. It uses every narrative trick in the book, but it does so tightly and professionally and it looks great. The production design is suitably fantastic for fans of the period and the messaging about women’s empowerment, human rights, and the importance of diversity are palpable, even if, ahem, the real-world behavior of the creator allegedly doesn’t march in lock-step with those particular notes. That said, Whedon and HBO parted ways a while back, with HBO releasing this very unspectacular message: “We have parted ways with Joss Whedon. We remain excited about the future of The Nevers and look forward to its premiere in […] 2021.”
So, yeah. That’s that, I guess.
The show. We open over black, in London on, a chyron tells us, August 3rd, 1896. Mournful string music is playing as we fade in and open on an iconic locked shot of a stairway and a put-upon wash maid descending them. Is this meant to be foreshadowing of some kind? Not sure. It’s a mood though, right away.
I’m looking at the woman and thinking, “damn that looks a lot like Jenny Fraser in Outlander” and lo and behold! It’s the same actor, the talented Laura Donnelly. Already, I’m about 50% more invested by that particular casting choice. Donnelly is great.
But she doesn’t look all that happy and that music has a real Red Wedding vibe to it.
She walks down a brick hallway. The lighting suggests a dour feel.
Then we cut to a different woman (Ann Skelly), who’s using a pitcher pump when the cotter pin unceremoniously snaps off. No worries! She grabs a nearby clothespin which luckily has the exact same outside diameter of the contraption and pumps away. This one’s ingenious, we’re meant to have learned.
Now we cut to a stuffy bastard (Pip Torrens). No idea who he is but he’s clipped out of central casting under the descriptors “curmudgeon” and “patrician” and out of the urban dictionary under “cock” and “pole up his arse. He’s so rigid that he can’t even bother to turn his head to accept a dossier from the terrified underling trailing him. He sighs as he heads to his carriage, the burden of wealth and power is such a chore. It’s all very stereotypically, comicbook British.
So we have a wash maid, pump girl, and stuffy bastard so far. Two of the three, at least, seem to be accomplishing something.
How many people can the audience keep track of with any certainty? We’re just shy of the two minute mark and we’ve got three. But oh! The Nevers means to really intro the viewer in a more complete way.
The next shot is of a woman (Amy Manson) with a shawl being led to a waiting wagon. The full name is obscured but we see it’s from an “asylum for the psychologically deranged.” That’s not good. I don’t know about you but there are very few places that would be as terrifying as being committed to the confines of a 19th century asylum. Let’s call this woman asylum woman.
Asylum woman barely gets five seconds of screen time before we’re on to the next intro. Editors on this show really taking all the air out of the cold open. Next intro is a tall red-haired woman being escorted to a stairway by her… husband? Father? Uncle? We’re not sure. The words on the door say “Stage,” but blink and you miss it. We’ll call her actress. The director tries to give us a hint as to their relationship as he smiles and she offers him a peck on the cheek. Sooooo… uncle? Dad? We’re not sure.
We’re also not sure if she was the mark, because the very next shot is us on the man as he walks away, donning his hat in a very “let’s get to work” kind of way. I notice that it’s Ben Chaplin, whom I’ve always liked. So far, very excited by the casting.
So we have a wash maid, pump girl, stuffy bastard, asylum woman, actress (maybe?), and business Ben Chaplin. We’re two minutes in. That’s a lot of folk. Surely we’re done.
The placard of one Dr. Horatio Cousens fills the screen…
…followed by what appears to be the man himself (Zackary Momoh) with his wife and child, we presume.
Now the camera pans up from the wheels of a Victorian-era high-end, leather, and filigree wheelchair with what looks to be Olivia Williams in it. God I love Olivia Williams. In the last few years Olivia Colman’s jaw dropping talent has really cornered the Olivia market, but Williams was so good in the now-cancelled Counterpart.
But the camera continues upward, the the young chap (Tom Riley) pushing the chair. Is he a servant? He’s pretty well-suited, but then again, that may just be a sign of his station. He looks about as well dressed as Peepers in Another Period, and he was a butler. Anyway, unclear.
The next shot is back to Stuffy Bastard, so that possibly ends the intro of the ensemble, thankfully, because I’ve already forgotten half of them.
Business Ben Chaplin
Dr. Horatio Cousens (& fam)
Luxury wheelchair Olivia Williams
There’s sort of a rumble of soft thunder and one by one, we cut back to all of the characters as they raise their eyes to the skies. Something is happening.
Everyone looks up, I should say, except for Wash Maid, who doesn’t have a view of the sky from her brick walkway. She reaches a T and takes a left, but then thinks again, looking back to the right.
A moment of decision, then resolve as she changes course, walks to the right, drops her wash basket and her shawl, and with nary a look skyward, throws herself into the Thames.
And then wakes up, in another time, lying on the floor in her nightgown, and we get a chyron that says “Three Years Later.”
Okay then! Now we’re getting somewhere.
It seems Wash Maid’s first position in the intro wasn’t an accident. We’re central on her as answers start to come to light. She gets up and walks through a beautiful home, ready to dress for the day. Then we cut to Pump Girl doing some metallurgy.
And now Wash Maid is dressed and she’s very clearly not a wash maid anymore. Still not a word spoken and we’re nearly five minutes in, until a woman passes her on the stairs and says “Morning Mrs. True.”
So Wash Maid is Mrs. True. Missus True. I’m guessing that’s our protagonist, folks! R.I.P. Naming Subtlety. Looking forward to meeting the bad guy, whom I presume will be named Lucifer Blacksadist or Victor Deathnought.
Mrs. True is off to somewhere looking smart. Pump Girl realizes the time, smells her pits and does a quick spot wash before she, too, is off to somewhere. We get copious shots of her lab and she’s basically Nicola Tesla. Typical man of me to have been reductive of these women on first blush. Mrs. True looks like a wealthy homeowner of no small import and Pump Girl is pretty clearly a genius inventor.
I want that bust. This house is why set dressers become set dressers.
Finally, they meet in a courtyard, exiting the same brick complex of buildings, and we hear their voices for the first time.
“Mrs. True,” says Pump Girl.
“Miss Adair,” says Mrs. True.
“You look very fine,” compliments Ms. Adair.
“I think so, too,” agrees Mrs. True.
And with that and a knowing smirk, they’re off to their coach and two.
To this point, we have no real idea what’s going on except that something happened in the sky three years earlier and it apparently didn’t kill Mrs. True.
We get a few shots of the coach riding through Londontown, including a cheesy but effective shot of a newspaper-hawking artful dodger who claims that someone named Maladie has claimed her fifth victim.
Maladie. Malady. From the latin Mal, meaning bad. I actually overshot it. Jesus.
But we get some clarity in the next scene. A series of girls across London have been “Touched” in some way, meaning they’re not quite right. True and Adair visit the family, which features a particularly convincing portrayal of a real Aunt Lydia-type mother played by Phillipa Dunne. She’s certain that Satan himself has her daughter’s tongue, but upon further review, the girl is just speaking other languages. Chinese, Turkish, and Russian, to name a few. Good show by Dan Mersh here, too, playing the father out of his depth. There are no small roles, only small actors, and these two make the most of their screen time. Bravo.
As True and Adair explain this to the disbelieving parents, some bad guys show up to kidnap the girl.
Now the shit is on.
From here the show goes from Downton to Kingsman in short order as True uses a series of cool-ass steampunk contraptions made by Adair to spring the “Touched” girl. Some critics will no doubt grouse about the varying tones but I enjoyed it. Happy to go from tea time to pound town at any given moment, especially in these costumes. Yeah there’s a YA feel to it. So what? People love YA and there’s a damn good reason for it.
I’d be lying if I said that this part of the show didn’t feel very heavily influenced by Evie and Jacob Frye in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, but the more references to that series the better. True absolutely has some Evie Frye in her.
Everyone likes a good stagecoach chase and The Nevers delivers, with the resolution indicating that the other shoe has proverbially dropped. True and Adair are pioneers. Crime fighters. True believers. Visionaries. Scions of a better world at the turn of the century in London, surrounded on all sides by enemies and obstacles, and the question is, can they possibly prevail in a world where so many people view the “Touched” as either an affront or a bona fide threat?
The pilot did enough to hook me. I’ll be tuning in on Sunday nights for 12 weeks to find the answer.