TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
Joss Whedon, who created "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly" for TV and wrote and directed the film "The Avengers," recently created a new series for HBO called "The Nevers." But after writing and directing several of the initial episodes, Whedon became embroiled in controversy, accused of inappropriate and abusive on-set behavior as far back as "Buffy" and as recently as this reshoots for the movie "Justice League." He left "The Nevers" after the completion of principal photography for the first six episodes in London, and the series is now in the hands of a new showrunner. Those first six episodes are now completed and begin rolling out this Sunday. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Basically, this new Joss Whedon series, "The Nevers," is a period superhero story, a sort of X-Men team of mutants fighting for good and for dignity but at the very end of the Victorian era. And these outcasts with paranormal abilities aren't X-Men so much as X-Women. In 1896, a mysterious event causes everyday people, most of them female, to suddenly develop various traits or abilities. Some grow very strong or just grow. Others generate fire with their hands or see the future or conjure up fantastic new inventions.
It's a steampunk sci-fi series with petticoats and parasols instead of spandex costumes. And there's a gender war taking shape in this Victorian adventure story, too. It's mostly the women who were endowed with these mysterious gifts, and it's mostly the men who are afraid of them. As in the X-Men, that includes the men in government who are clearly threatened by these people with odd powers. In "The Nevers," They call them The Touched. Here's Pip Torrens as Lord Massen warning his male colleagues about these literally empowered females.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NEVERS")
PIP TORRENS: (As Lord Massen) We are the first generation accustomed to the impossible. What women are appalled by today they would accept tomorrow and demand the day after that - and the immigrant and the deviant. That is the power being wielded and not by us. The blade is in, gentlemen. We need to know whose hand is on the hilt.
BIANCULLI: The leader of this persecuted but persistent female group, this band of sisters is Amalia True, played with flair and fire by Laura Donnelly. She sees snippets of visions from the future and is supernaturally adept at hand-to-hand combat. Her chief ally is Penance Adair, played by Anne Skelly, who has a gift for concocting fantastic futuristic inventions. They help run an orphanage in which similarly touched women of all ages can hide and cohabit in scheme against the evil forces that seem to be taking over London. Amalia and Penance are confident enough to mingle in all levels of British society, as when they attend an opera and are introduced to their government enemy Lord Massen, who is informed of Amalia's paranormal power. The verbal duel between them establishes them instantly as very worthy adversaries.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NEVERS")
TORRENS: (As Lord Massen) You see the future?
ANN SKELLY: (As Penance Adair) Snippets. It's as confusing as it is useful. You were a soldier. You've seen men who suddenly feel themselves back in battle. Well, sometimes I go forward.
TORRENS: (As Lord Massen) I never said I was a soldier.
LAURA DONNELLY: (As Amalia True) You're probably going to.
SKELLY: (As Penance Adair) No, it's the eyes, assessing every threat. Lord Massen is the last line of defense against the scourge of modernity.
TORRENS: (As Lord Massen) I'm old. And I've seen too much change to fight against the tide. But chaos is not change. Shouting for recognition does not make a people worthy of it. There's a harmony to our world. It's worth preserving.
SKELLY: (As Penance Adair) As I understand it, a harmony is made up of different voices sounding different notes.
TORRENS: (As Lord Massen) Yes. And one is always above the other. Ladies.
BIANCULLI: Joss Whedon wrote that first episode of "The Nevers." Jane Espenson, a producing partner from as far back as "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," wrote some others. And of the episode shown to critics, either Whedon or David Semel served as director. The four hours I previewed are full of colorful characters and slowly revealed plots and subplots with villains just as colorful as the heroes, always a Joss Whedon trademark. In "The Nevers," Keep your eye on Amy Manson's as Maladie, a seemingly insane mass murderer, and the always delightful Denis O'Hare as this show's version of Dr. Frankenstein. Many lengthy sequences are dialogue-free and visually beautiful, and all of "The Nevers" is intriguing enough to watch with enough weird and wild characters to hold your interest. The most intriguing part of this new HBO series, however, may well come when it returns eventually with the second half of its first season with Joss Whedon no longer involved.
GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. "The Nevers" begins this Sunday on HBO. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with singer and songwriter Brandi Carlile, who has a new memoir, or with Reem Kassis, whose new cookbook about Arab cuisine is a follow up to her book about Palestinian cooking, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.