Movies and shows about people gifted (or cursed) with having supernatural abilities are a dime a dozen, even if that’s generally a rather valuable dime.
Thus, how you dress up one of these offerings goes a long way toward how much it will stand apart from the superhuman crowd.
That “The Nevers” — a fantastical drama series debuting today on HBO and streaming service HBO Max — is set in Victorian England gives it a welcome bit of personality.
Plus, the series from Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Marvel’s The Avengers”) — about myriad persecuted Londoners, most of them women, with one otherworldly gift or curse — is clever both with its invention of some of the abilities as well as with how some may be used in tandem.
That all is reason enough to give the series a shot.
That said, the storytelling falls well short of engrossing. Based on a viewing of the first four episodes, which HBO parent WarnerMedia made available for review, the large ensemble show has difficulty juggling its insanely heavy character load, which makes it difficult to become all that invested in many of these people.
To the credit of Whedon, who wrote and directed the pilot, the first hour is the best of the four despite all it must do in terms of character introduction and exposition.
It does ask the audience to focus immediately, as it gives us glimpses of a few of its key characters — on what proves to be one very important day in 1896, three years before the main storyline takes place — that offer insight into what’s to come for them.
Whedon then transports us to the present, when two of the women, Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), work together at St. Romaulda’s Orphanage. This is no ordinary orphanage, however, as its orphans are young women deemed by society to be “touched.” Each has a unique ability, referred to as a “turn.”
The same goes for Amalia, who receives glimpses of the future, and Penance, whose gift for seeing where electricity wants to go aids greatly in her work as an inventor.
While society is somewhat fearful of the touched, the vast majority of whom are women, something more nefarious is afoot. When we are formally introduced to Amalia and Penance, they are going to visit a young woman, Myrtle Haplisch (Viola Prettejohn), who seemingly is speaking every language on the planet other than English, and they must thwart an attempt by a few strange, hooded figures to kidnap her.
Among the many other characters introduced to us in the pilot are Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams, “The Ghost Writer”), the wealthy, wheelchair-bound funding the orphanage; Hugo Swann (James Norton, “Little Women”), the rich, pansexual proprietor of a den of iniquity; Augustus “Augie” Bidlow (Tom Riley, “Da Vinci’s Demons”), the kind, secret-keeping brother of Lavinia and friend of Hugo; Lord Gilbert Massen (Pip Torrens, “The Crown”), a powerful government official leading the crusade against the touched; Maladie (Amy Manson, “Once Upon a Time”), a murderous and tortured woman who draws power from pain; Inspector Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin, “The Dig”), a lawman charged with bringing Maladie to justice; and Mary Brighton (Eleanor Tomlinson, “The Illusionist”), a theater performer whose true singing gift soon will come to be known.
At the end of the pilot, we travel back to that fateful night there years ago, before which no one had these powers. It is then we learn more about what in the London sky is creating a thunderous sound and drawing the attention of the folks below.
As the next few episodes unfold, we are shown how certain characters connect to one another, often in ways not known to others. (We also meet even more characters, which doesn’t help matters.)
Although she does some nice things in the lead role, Donnelly (“Tolkien,” “Britannia”) falls a bit flat in some key moments. Amalia — often referred to as “Mrs. True” — likely would have benefited from a bit more star power than Donnelly brings. At the very least, a more dynamic performer would have served the character, who, like Augustus, keeps secrets and who possesses some self-destructive qualities and the self-loathing to go with them.
While no cast member truly wows in “The Nevers,” Skelly (“Death and Nightingales”) helps to make Penance quite an endearing figure, one who worries about her friend Amalia — with her useful inventions, Penance at times is the Q to Amalia’s 007 — and who takes an interest in Augustus.
Plus, Mundi is a more complex character than he first seems, much to Chaplin’s credit.
Whedon — who has since left the series following accusations from actors on other projects that he was abusive, with British screenwriter Philippa Goslett taking over as showrunner — also wrote and directed the solid second installment, “Exposure,” as well as the fifth episode, “Hanged,” set to debut May 9.
The first half of the season will conclude the following week with “True,” with the second batch of episodes due at a yet-to-be-announced time.
We should have a clearer picture of “The Nevers” at that midpoint, and we’ll hope the story becomes more compelling as it continues to unfold. While providing answers to some questions, the series is still unveiling mysteries in the fourth hour, “Undertaking.”
For now, we’ll be content to enjoy this pleasantly odd version of late-19th-century London and the strange collection of powerful women making its citizens fearful.