Step right up, step right up. Ladies and gentlemen, or whatever you call yourselves, you are invited to witness a glorious mess, a mash-up of fantasy, Victorian flim-flammery, fabulous supernatural afflictions and much style, all baked into a witty tale of gifted women battling crusty old men.
The Nevers (starts Sunday, 9 p.m., HBO/Crave) is it and arrives with an asterisk. The asterisk is needed to note that the new series is the work of Joss Whedon, but HBO doesn’t want to say that aloud. See Whedon, generally considered a genius, the mind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse and The Avengers movie, is certainly responsible for the show’s creation, and first batch of episodes, but departed the series. Allegations of “toxic behaviour” were made and Whedon himself cited “personal reasons.”
Leave all that aside, because The Nevers is a marvellous topsy-turvy thing to behold. Events kick off in London in 1896. An eclipse, or something, briefly darkens the city and immediately after, it is clear that a group of women have emerged with strange new talents or powers. Three years later (take note that’s 1899, the cusp of the 20th century), these women are feared as dangerous freaks. Mostly they’re not fearsome. Yes, they have powers, but you don’t need a fervent search for sub-themes to realize they simply have strength, stamina, brains and inventiveness. Thus, men fear them.
In keeping with the convention of such tales, a bunch of them – they’re called “the Touched” – live together in an orphanage-type place run by Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), a tough, sardonic woman, and her sidekick, the inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly). Their mission is to locate and protect the Touched, and fight off the nogoodnik men who see them as evil or want to use them for sexual exploitation. One hitch is the police, who are deeply suspicious of these women, mainly because one of the Touched, a certain Maladie (Amy Manson) is on the loose and is an unhinged murderer who likes bloody, spectacular carnage.
Got that? Never mind the slightly overstuffed storylines because the series has a formidably gorgeous opening episode; it’s vivid, funny, erotically charged and violent in a comic-book way. It’s pure exuberant fantasy, bristling with clever dialogue and reaches a climax at the opera where Maladie makes an appearance and appears to kidnap a gloriously gifted singer, one Mary Brighton (Eleanor Tomlinson). Visually, it is all quite stunning.
But for all its crowded story and loose ends being dangled, The Nevers is never less than clever and more than eye-popping. It’s about power and control over women. “We’re of a mind there’s a Satanic element,” says one male toff about the Touched. “They came at us through our women,” says Conservative politician Lord Massen (Pip Torrens), and “they” could be the Germans, the French, or just the looming 20th century and its modernity. In case you’ve missed the point, he refers to the Touched as “Our feminine plague” in a later episode. Meanwhile, there’s the rich, louche but extremely well-read Hugo Swann (James Norton), who runs an underground sex club and sees the Touched as money-spinning sex workers for his enterprise. It might all be too much of a hot mess were it not for the anchoring performances by Donnelly and Skelly as Amalia and Penance; they are both wonderful, and there’s wit in the script. There is just an undeniable sparkle to this entire production – six episodes coming now and more later – and the first episode is highly recommended as a taster for a cracked, cockeyed excursion into Victoriana.
Also airing this weekend
My Grandparents’ War (Sunday, 8 p.m., PBS) has a particularly strong episode this week, as distinguished actor and director Mark Rylance learns about the details of how his grandfather survived years during the Second World War in a notorious POW camp in Hong Kong. The entire four-part series is already available to stream on CBC Gem and features well-known British actors discovering how their ancestors were involved in wartime events and drama. One of the most compelling involves Helena Bonham Carter, whose lineage includes very eminent figures, including provocateur Lady Violet Bonham Carter, and her maternal grandfather, who was a Spanish diplomat based in Paris. The other subjects in the series are Kristin Scott Thomas and Carey Mulligan. It shouldn’t work, this celebrity version of Finding Your Roots, but it does.
Finally, note that there’s a marathon of Avenue 5 (starts Saturday, 8 p.m., HBO). From Veep creator Armando Iannucci this satiric romp has Hugh Laurie as the captain of a space tourism ship. Set 40 years in the future, it lampoons all manner of pretensions.
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