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The Nevers: Touched

On paper, HBO’s The Nevers – a steampunk drama about quippy brunettes doing kung fu in their finest Victoriana – should feel like a lazy retread of well-worn sci-fi tropes; Buffy and the X-Men all strapped together into the same skintight bodice. And yet, despite all this, it’s pretty okay. More than okay, actually: it’s the overstuffed, thrilling, glorious apotheosis of the newly unshackled creative vision of…

(HBO exec coughs, glares)

Of… no one, apparently?

New Show, Who Dis?

I kid, I kid. Despite HBO’s hasty scrub of his name from all the promotional materials, this is first and foremost a Joss Whedon show. Ten years ago, when The Avengers had elevated its creator to household namedom, a legion of fans would welcome The Nevers with open arms as the latest jewel in the Whedonverse crown. In 2021… not so much, for reasons you can read about literally anywhere else on the Internet (including this very site). Which makes it all the more frustrating to admit that, based off its pilot, The Nevers could very well be a career-best for America’s foremost televisual auteur/abuser.

You can actually pinpoint the exact moment in "Touched" where a creative vision, hindered for decades by network TV budgets and by the velvet glove of Mickey Mouse, begins to blossom. Our heroes are in a speeding car(riage), trying and failing to shake a throng of faceless pursuants. It is an incoherent maelstrom of action, somehow simultaneously hyperkinetic and claustrophobic. There is no hope for our heroes, and little hope for this scene. Our antagonists rip off the carriage driver’s head… only to find that our man is in fact a mechanical decoy, a dismal automaton, and that our heroines have hit the eject button and absconded in a sleek, badass motorcar. It is a glorious about-face, a stand-up-and-cheer moment coming just when it looks like the show would devolve into a sub-Marvel blob of indeterminate action-ish setpieces. Oh, and most importantly, it looks goddamn cool.

The Gang’s All Here

Most of “Touched” is not cool, though, or at least, not as cool as it could be. This pilot is not so much X-Men as it is X-Position Men. Here is the show’s premise, in a nutshell: three years ago, an alien thingamabob showed up in the skies of Victorian London and made it rain dandruff, and a bunch of (mostly) women “touched” by this alien dandruff got superpowers. There is a commune where these superwomen congregate and hone their powers. Also, there is also a serial killer on the loose, a mental asylum escapee who may or may not have superpowers herself. All of this is made obvious before what would be the first commercial break – and yet the show laboriously explains this premise over and over, in scene after scene of exposition.

The most compelling of these expository scenes happens 40 minutes into the episode(!), when our players have all, through contrived coincidence, met in the lobby of an opera house and have a lively debate about the term “the employed” versus the neologism “employee.” Let’s meet our cast of characters:

Lord Gilbert Massen (Pip Torrens): He’s got fearsome mutton chops and even more fearsome political views. He hates the word “employee” because it is a French word, and French people are subhuman foreigners whose linguistic tics are polluting the well of Anglo-Saxon language. You get three guesses where he stands on women’s empowerment, and the first two don’t count.

Lavinia Bidley (Olivia Williams – the only actor here from the Whedon stable, AFAIK): Remember the bald guy in the wheelchair from the X-Men movies who ran a halfway house or whatever for superheroes? (Full disclosure: I have not seen an X-Men film since the first one came out when I was in grade school.) He is now Adelle DeWitt from Dollhouse. She counters Gilbert Muttonchops’ prescriptivism by pointing out that they’re using the word “employee” now, so what’s the big deal, maaan? But more posh than that, of course.

Amalia True (Laura Donnelly): She is the aforementioned “touched” quippy brunette that knows kung fu. Actually, her shtick is that she gets visions of future events. (See: Chase, Cordelia.) She argues that “employee” is not merely good but a superior term, in that it grants the individual worker humanity and agency beyond being a cog in the industrial-era machine. Oh, and I think she has, like, a drinking problem or something?

The Inventress (Ann Skelly):” She has a name, which is Penance Adair, I just couldn’t make out what it was because I didn’t have the subtitles on. She’s Amalia’s partner, but like, professionally and not in a gay way. (Although there’s sufficient subtext for the femslashers among us.) There is a long nonsensical explanation of her power to “see potential energy” or whatever, which is a long pseudoscientific justification for why a twenty-something woman in the year A.D. 18XX can singlehandedly make and design a motorcar by her lonesome.

Frenchie La Roue (James Norton):” His name is actually Hugo Swann. He’s, um, Lavinia’s grandson or something, and he’s a serial philanderer who runs what is either a personal brothel or a NXIVM-style sex cult with Greco-Roman branding. He is also bisexual, which would be cool if not for the sexaholic thing. He has a… butler…? named… Oggie…? …who is Lavinia’s grandson or something…? And who may also have been touched by his noodly appendage or whatever? (OK, I checked the wiki and his name is Augustus Bidley, and he apparently has the power to talk to birds or something.)

…and I could go on, except that we would be here all day if I just listed all the characters in this episode, because there are literally dozens of them, and, as they said in Victorian England, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” And because if I kept listing all these characters with increasingly loopy descriptions, you might get the wrong impression that I didn’t like this pilot. I did like it, honest. It’s just a lot to take in.

It’s Not TV, It’s HBO

It’s a lot to take in visually as well. This is a very pretty looking show, as you might expect from something at the intersection of Victorian costume porn and steampunk mechanism. Perhaps surprisingly, given its creator’s gift of gab, the pilot is bookended by long, slow swaths of scene sans dialogue, which would fall flat without the HBO budget. The obvious question here is how much credit the creative team here deserves for the lushness. HBO clearly funneled millions into this show in the hopes of creating the next Game of Thrones, after all.

Well, in one key regard this ain’t GOT: this pilot is surprisingly tame in terms of explicit content. There’s one exposed breast and a “shit” or three (even an, er, “see you next Tuesday” – spicy!), but otherwise this probably could have aired on basic cable with very, very minor edits. Hell, The Nevers is arguably less sexed-up than the Dollhouse pilot (what with its network-mandated topless shower scenes).

The other question is whether the CGI spectacle ends up becoming the story here, rather than the engine powering it. Well, there are moments where that comes close to happening, particularly with Penance’s phony-looking whizz-whizz steampunk gadgets. But for the most part the CGI here is non-intrusive, and mostly serves to bolster a pre-existing aesthetic rather than monopolize it. This aesthetic peaks during the episode’s climax, which takes place during a production of Faust. Our villainess, Maladie (Amy Manson), makes her much-awaited dramatic entrance by literally slitting Satan’s throat. I’ve seen some criticism of this scene as overwrought, with Manson not so much chewing the scenery as throwing it in a woodchipper… but I suspect that’s sort of the point, with Maladie playing up her insanity for the bourgeois operagoing crowd. The ensuing fight implements a soprano aria, some genuinely thrilling chase choreography, and a gorgeous scene in which the billows of a red dress flood the screen with crimson. It’s all very exciting – the camp of Buffy exploding into technicolor melodrama.

“Explosion” is the right word here, really. As far as pilots go “Touched” is sort of a mess, desperately in need of a polish pass or twelve… but there is a sprawling world being built here, animated with lofty ambitions. We’ll see whether that ambition pays off in due time. One thing’s for sure, though: whether this show succeeds or fails, it will do so spectacularly.



Side Notes

- If you’re curious, at no point is the title dropped – no one in this show is ever called a “Never,” and no one ever will be, by the looks of it. Maybe they should have called the Touched “Nevers,” to avoid the obvious Buffy comparisons, and because it is really awkward writing about this show at length without using the phrase “Touched girls.” ("Touched girls" is maybe the only allegation that hasn't been made against Whedon.)

- The show apparently takes place in 1899, right on the verge of a new century. How fitting.

- If the Ray Fisher debacle had you wondering how this show handles race, there are two black characters – Herbert Cousens (Zackary Momoh) the hot doctor / love interest for Amalia, and a currently nameless woman with fire powers in Maladie’s employ. Naturally, they are displayed far more prominently in the promotional material for the show than they are in the actual episode – time will tell whether this is a cynical marketing ploy on HBO’s part or if they’ll be fleshed out more in further episodes. (Episode three is titled “Ignition,” so I suspect a little of both.)

- Also present in this episode is Denis O’Hare, playing an American neurosurgeon who wants to get to the bottom of the Touched’s powers. By “neurosurgeon,” you must understand, I mean “stabby stab with a power drill.” He is busy kidnapping young girls to poke around their brains.

- One of these girls with powers is Myrtle, who can speak seemingly every language but English. In an episode where prescriptivism is presented as a patriarchal means of control, it is perhaps appropriate that one of the Touched is an untamed polyglot.

- Completing the sub-plot roundup, there’s a Javert-type homicide detective investigating Maladie who may or may not be in bed with Hugo. The most interesting thing about this character, whose name I have looked up and promptly forgotten five times now, is that he is the spitting image of the late Lemmy Kilmister.

- The costume design here is pretty on point – I mentioned Amalia’s gorgeous red dress, but fans of the aesthetics of Victorian garb will be very happy. The sound design here, on the other hand, is a little disappointing.

- The biggest disappointment of the episode? The "grr argh" zombie in the Mutant Enemy logo is gone! Boo, hiss!!

Four... three... three-and-a-half out of five steampunk gizmos.

Quiara Vasquez is an on-again off-again writer and journalist who has seen a Star War. She got into sci-fi reading her mom's old dog-eared Asimov paperbacks as a kid, and also from the novelization of the 1996 film Space Jam. Mostly Space Jam, actually. Her main "jobby" (hybrid job/hobby) is designing crossword puzzles, both for various major market outlets and on her personal blog, QVXwordz.

5 comments:

Nate said...

I thought this was way more awesome than other people did. What seemed kind of confusing at first all came together by the end. I didn't notice until the 2nd viewing, but everyone's "powers" seem to be an enhancement of their natural abilities (doctor = magic doctor, singer = magic singer, mechanically inclined = magic inventor, etc.). This eliminated the usual randomness of special powers.

Billie Doux said...

I'm not sure how I feel about this show. I wanted to love it because of Joss Whedon and because it stars one of my favorites from Outlander, but I spent the entire pilot feeling removed, not buying in.

But then again, I've noticed that I tend not to buy in to some fantasy. It may just be me.

I very much enjoyed your review, Quiara. :)

Mikey Heinrich said...

"This pilot is not so much X-Men as it is X-Position Men."

I really enjoyed that sentence :)

Denis O'Hare is a freaking treasure. He just had a run on American Gods as the Norse God Tyr, who had settled into a nice dental practice.

TJ said...

I finally started watching this show. And so far I like it, but I don't love it.

Unfortunately for 'The Nevers', I also started watching 'Shadow and bone'. The shows have some things in common, girls with powers (and an occasional man too), the 1800s vibe...

For me, 'Shadow and Bone' wins this battle hands down. And checking imdb it seems that that is the general opinion. Maybe 'The Nevers' is a slow burner, but I can't help but feel a little disappointed while comparing the two shows.

Josie Kafka said...

TJ, I agree. The Nevers feels more "prestige" and like it wants to be more grown-up, but Shadow and Bone hooked me a lot more.

I am going to stick with it. Maybe it acquires critical mass. Or maybe if I binge it I'll get sucked in, like trying to chug a beer.