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'The Nevers': When Steampunk Gets Foggy

Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) leads a rag-tag team of women imbued with mysterious powers in <em>The Nevers</em>.
Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) leads a rag-tag team of women imbued with mysterious powers in The Nevers.

Unfocused and overstuffed, the first four episodes of HBO's The Nevers provided to critics lack a sufficiently strong narrative backbone to support the surfeit of characters, subplots, themes and familiar storytelling tics thrown at the viewer. The series pairs all this tumult with a frustratingly incremental approach to disclosing What Is Really Going On; as a result, allegiances shift, plots twist and characters take actions for reasons we can only guess at — provided we're willing to bother.

Those sudden reveals and reversals are meant to surprise and delight, of course. And maybe they would, if the show spent more energy attempting to get us invested in these characters and what happens to them.

By the end of the fourth episode, viewers who've paid close attention will have developed a working theory about Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), the leader of a rag-tag group of women in Victorian London who've been granted weird powers by a mysterious event. Amalia's got the power to experience sudden ripples of the future, see. She's also fond of the occasional donnybrook, and is an uncannily exceptional hand-to-hand fighter in way that doesn't seem connected to her particular power (her "turn," in the show's parlance). She's also got a complicated past she doesn't like to talk about, including a connection to another one of the "Touched" (others who acquired powers in the same event) — a murderous madwoman named Maladie (Amy Manson). Amalia's taciturn about pretty much everything, in fact, except for her stated mission, which is to gather together the "Touched" (mostly women of lower station) at the orphanage she runs, so as to offer them protection from a populace growing increasingly hostile to them.

There's more to it, and to her, and the conclusion of the fourth episode suggests that we'll get to know Amalia's whole deal in the two episodes that follow (HBO is dividing up The Nevers' season into two six-episode chunks — the second of which has yet to be filmed, and does not yet have an air date). Potential viewers will have to make their own personal calculations to gauge their willingness to invest their time into a show so devoted to cultivating and perpetuating inessential mystery in lieu of clear storytelling.

That's not the only calculation they'll have to make for themselves, either. The Nevers was created by Joss Whedon; he wrote and directed the pilot, and directed the second episode as well. Actor Ray Fisher raised allegations about Whedon's abusive behavior on the set of Justice League; Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Charisma Carpenter and othershave since added their voices to the mix. Whedon officially exited The Nevers in November of last year; Philippa Goslett took over post-production and was named the series' new showrunner.

It will be interesting to see if the back half of this first season, which won't involve Whedon, will be able to shake off the thick coating of familiar Whedony writerly tics weighing down these early episodes. To be clear, Whedon doesn't own the patents on badass women, quippy dialogue, misogynistic villains, sudden character deaths, moony-yet-vicious serial killers or any of the other tropes that recur in his work. But as executed in The Nevers, these factors slot too neatly into the well-worn grooves we've seen from him before. Easily the series' most familiar, and most tiresome, component is Manson's Maladie, who swings from giddy, throat-slicing malice to a childlike woundedness in precisely the way — using snippets of the same dialogue — that so many Whedon villains have done before her.

The world-building, at least, is extensive, and it's possible later episodes might benefit from having carved out so much narrative real estate, so many competing interests. But these early episodes are crowded with various factions and alliances whose motivations remain unclear; to accommodate them all, the series keeps checking in on them in scenes too brief to land with the weight they need to, and the series' insistence on keeping its narrative cards so close to its vest means we often don't know what we're supposed to glean out of a given meeting or conversation.

If you're willing to give The Nevers a chance, it contains the potential to reward your patience, given the introduction of a clear and direct narrative infrastructure to help focus its — and our — attention. Whether that'll happen, and if anyone will still be watching if it does, is anyone's guess.

The Nevers debuts on HBO at 9pmET on April 11.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.