The first batch of reviews are out for The Nevers, HBO’s latest sci-fi fantasy series about a group of Victorian Era female superheroes (think steampunk X-Men), and the critical consensus thus far is that it remains to be seen if it has enough magic to break free from creator Joss Whedon’s shadow. But for now, the first few episodes seem to resemble a compilation of the creator’s greatest hits, for good or for bad.
Whedon, the former Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly showrunner, left the HBO series around the time actors who’ve previously worked with him including Charisma Carpenter and Ray Fisher accused him of abusive and inappropriate behavior (though for what it’s worth, Whedon himself cited exhaustion as the reason he left the show, and cast members of the new HBO series say he was a delight to work with).
Regardless, in the wake of Whedon's exit, Philippa Goslett (screenwriter of How to Talk to Girls at Parties) has stepped in to take over showrunning duties.
Many critics say Whedon’s authorial fingerprints are all over the first batch of episodes they’ve been able to view, so it remains to be seen how the series will evolve once it fully becomes Goslett’s show.
Here's what critics had to say:
“Despite distancing itself from Whedon in retrospect, Nevers bears so many of his narrative and stylistic hallmarks that it might as well be playing Whedon Bingo, for better and for worse,” writes Caroline Framke in her review for Variety, describing the series as “fun and twisty enough to be an engaging page-turner of a show that should grow its own fanbase without much trouble.”
“For now, though, the show is unmistakably a Joss Whedon production, with all the quippy banter, elaborate world-building, supernatural strangeness and Badass women that his trademark implies,” writes Framke, adding that it was interesting “to watch a show so obviously borne of its creator and know that it will soon be forging ahead without him.”
Another recurring theme critics are noting is that the show is a bit bloated and unfocused. Over at The Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Fienberg writes: “The Nevers is a show in desperate need of focus, and as episodes progress, more and more characters are added and the connection to the richest thematic throughline becomes increasingly tenuous.”
Fienberg adds: “A generous take on The Nevers is that it's a fin de siècle X-Men, or maybe a Victorian Watchmen. A less generous take is that it's a more expensive version of Fox's The Gifted, one made without any clear understanding of hour-long cable narrative rhythm, structure or momentum. After four episodes, there's little indication of where this six-episode half-season is heading other than, ‘Somebody wants to wipe out all of the touched and... that's about it.’ The second half of the season (yet to be shot and not involving Whedon) will be worth checking in on to take its post-Whedon creative temperature. But perhaps not for any other reason.”
According to Alan Sepinwall at Rolling Stone, “even if Whedon still had the pristine cult-icon image from the turn of the century, The Nevers would still be a disappointment. It has many of the elements you would expect from a Whedon show, and on a greater scale than any of the older ones, but some pieces only occasionally come into focus. Others leave you wondering why they’re around at all.”
Sepinwall added that “it’ll be Goslett’s job to peer through this kaleidoscope of ideas and see if something beautiful falls into place.”
Over at Polygon, Joshua Rivera is far less kind, describing The Nevers under Whedon’s control as “astonishingly pedestrian.”
“It’s a straightforward Whedon show with the addition of nudity and a few swear words, and fewer quips than his usual average,” writes Rivera. “The world is meticulously built, but it has very little spark. Unfortunately, it’s currently most interesting as a referendum on its creator.”
Now, it’s not all mixed-to-negative with an air of “wait and see.” Lorraine Ali of the Los Angeles Times describes The Nevers as “a joy to watch and a thrill to follow,” in her rave review. “Supernatural realism, complex storytelling, fantastical powers and topical realties meet in this smart, suspenseful and colorful production,” she writes, adding: “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 Nevers premieres April 11 on HBO.