One of the puzzlements of “The Nevers,” the new alt-superhero show beginning Sunday on HBO, is the title. The peculiarly gifted late-Victorian Londoners, mostly women, who serve as the show’s heroes (and some of its villains) are never called “nevers”; they’re most often referred to as the Touched. In the first four of the series’s 12 episodes, nothing is called the Nevers. You can understand not calling a show “The Touched,” but it’s still a little confusing.
And the confusion doesn’t end there. “The Nevers,” while handsomely produced and, from moment to moment, reasonably diverting, doesn’t catch fire in those early episodes in part because we — along with the characters — are still trying to figure out what the heck is going on.
Before this goes any further, it’s time to mention that “The Nevers” — a rare case these days of a genre series not based on an existing property — was created for the screen by Joss Whedon. There are things to be explained about Whedon’s involvement with the show, but for now let’s stick to the synergism between the new series and his great creation, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
In “Buffy” Whedon worked out one of the best and most sustained metaphors American pop culture has seen: California teenage life as a constant battle against demons, aided by the small band of friends who really get you. In “The Nevers” he tries something similar but in period costume, giving X-Men-like powers to women and other devalued members of Victorian society so that they can actually raise their voices against — and physically confront — the male, colonialist, capitalist hegemony.
It sounds good in theory, as if it might have “Buffy”-like potential, with the added enjoyment of a gloss on sources like “Frankenstein,” “Dracula” and “Alice in Wonderland” — a league of extraordinary Victorian women.
But in practice it doesn’t take off. It may be that Whedon and his collaborators, including the “Buffy” writer and producer Jane Espenson, just didn’t have the same feel for turn-of-the-20th-century London as they did for contemporary suburban California — there’s a slightly stilted and synthetic quality to “The Nevers,” despite (or maybe reinforced by) the occasional anachronistically modern dialogue. The humor feels arch, and the action, which combines 21st-century fluidity with a rollicking period style, is mostly flat.
But there’s also a problem with the overall conception. The allegory in “Buffy” felt universally human and, despite its 1990s suburban specificity, timeless; the framework of “The Nevers” feels narrower, a more self-conscious attempt to tweak a historical situation to make it relevant to the current social and political moment, with suggestions of human trafficking and medical experimentation and a literal, highly graphic depiction of the silencing of women’s voices. (The series was announced in the summer of 2018, about nine months after the first major #MeToo revelations.)
And that need for the show to resonate with our present priorities ties into the frustrating vagueness, so far, of the storytelling. The main action of “The Nevers” takes place three years after an “event” whose details won’t be spoiled here. The event led to the disparate abilities, referred to as “turns,” that some Londoners now possess, from typical mutant stuff like seeing the future and physical strength to more unusual afflictions like speaking only in non-English languages or an “Alice in Wonderland”-like propensity to grow in height.
But it seems — and here it gets unclear — that either everyone has forgotten what the event was, or they have for some reason chosen not to talk about it. You can see a practical reason for this: It tilts the show away from science fiction and puts the emphasis on a mix of fantasy, mystery and period crime drama. Another, less charitable, observation is that it allowed Whedon to indulge in big-conspiracy plotting and delayed narrative gratification in ways that are, so far, more irritating than intriguing.
None of this might matter if there were characters that we really cared about and performances that drew us in, but “The Nevers” is also lacking in those departments. The main characters — the action-oriented, prescient Amalia (Laura Donnelly) and the gadget-maker Penance (Ann Skelly), who lead a community of the Touched — are thinly drawn and at best moderately engaging. There are performers around the edges who generate more interest, including Ben Chaplin as a sympathetic policeman, Pip Torrens as an antagonistic aristocrat and Eleanor Tomlinson as a Touched woman gifted with a supernatural singing ability.
In considering the future course of “The Nevers,” of course, it’s necessary to point out that Whedon is no longer involved with the show — he left it late last year, coincidentally or not following a round of public accusations of tyrannical and misogynistic behavior on the sets of previous projects. HBO is releasing the series in two blocks of six episodes each, and recent promotional materials have specified that Whedon’s name is attached only to the first block. (Philippa Goslett is now the showrunner; Whedon directed three of the first six episodes and wrote the pilot.)
So to a far greater extent than usual, the progress of “The Nevers” through its first season is anyone’s guess, though Amalia probably knows how it all turns out.