In August 1896, something very strange happened. From alleyways to asylums, the people of Victorian London turned their faces to a gathering rumble of thunder — and you’ll never guess what happened next in The Nevers, a new show from Joss Whedon and HBO.
The historical fantasy series streams on HBO Max from April 11. It begins with a wordless opening scene in which people wander about in old-timey frocks for several minutes, but hang in there: The fun soon starts as our Victorian-era heroines seek out a child who may be cursed by the devil. That leads to an acrobatic fight scene packed with luminescent hand grenades and weaponized parasols, setting the tone for an adventure full of kick-ass women taking on sinister baddies. Well, I never!
The strange storm over London has gifted young women (and a few men) with a variety of superpowers. From alleyway to high society, regular people are afraid of these mysterious “turns,” not least because of a supernatural serial killer stalking the land. And so the stage is set for this charming cast of magical misfits to band together and protect one another through fun misadventures in an atmospheric Victorian setting, like a steampunk X-Men.
Whedonto be replaced by Philippa Goslett, but The Nevers is filled with motifs familiar from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other work by Whedon, co-writer Jane Espenson and the show’s other creators. Women armed with supernatural powers and killer quips deliver knockout blows to both villains and social attitudes, the bad guys are a mix of glib psychos and childlike villainesses, and the goodies form a found family of misfits. Call them Buffy the corset-slayers.
The cast is anchored by winning turns from a relatively unknown cast, led by award-winning theatre actor Laura Donnelly as the capable Amalia True. She’s joined by Ann Skelly as the luminous Penance, facing Amy Manson as scene-stealing murderess Maladie. Among the more senior members of the cast, Olivia Williams is a suitably ambivalent version of Professor X, Ben Chaplin is a gravel-voiced copper and James Norton is a decadent aristocrat — all of whom have their own designs on the turns, creating a suitably shifting web of secrets and lies.
Slick as it is, this isn’t the first series to update the Victorian period. Victorian London is the British version of the Wild West, a setting that can be endlessly revisited to tell stories relevant to contemporary concerns. In a new era of electricity and beguilingly shifting power, with even language evolving in ways that unsettle the men in charge, this period is endlessly beguiling thanks to its straining hierarchies and collision of filth and authority at the height of the British Empire.
Or maybe it’s the frocks.
Of course that means the usual Victoriana tropes are present in The Nevers. Cobbled streets and country houses are populated by sadistic surgeons, louche lords and guttural coppers discovering dead bodies amid the coal-blackened bricks. And of course, behind the scenes, a shadowy cabal of mutton-chopped men harrumph at these newly empowered women and the threat they pose to the imperial status quo. By the by, references to fascinating real history like the Forty Elephants gang of women criminals are also peppered amid the fantasy.
The Victorian setting, inextricably linked to Gothic literature, has also held a lingering whiff of brimstone. With its deliciously macabre atmosphere, smoldering sex appeal and occasional touch of gore, The Nevers will appeal to fans of recent Victorian fantasies like Penny Dreadful,and The Irregulars.
We may’ve been down this Victorian alleyway before, but the show’s characters and fantastical elements are slickly realized. And it’s refreshing to focus on the lives of Victorian women as more than twittering toffs or streetwalking victims of the Ripper.
The steampunky setting and misfits-against-the-world theme may not be revolutionary, but the infectious storytelling and absorbing world-building could make The Nevers a hit. You never know.
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