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HBO’s ‘The Nevers’ is subtle not ever

Laura Donnelly as Amalia True in HBO's "The Nevers."
Laura Donnelly as Amalia True in HBO's "The Nevers."Keith Bernstein/HBO

Sorta kinda like “The Leftovers,” HBO’s new supernatural drama “The Nevers” begins with a mysterious event that alters a seemingly random number of Londoners. It’s 1896, and in one moment a small population of people, mostly women, receive strange powers and undergo physical changes; suddenly, one lady can fling firebombs, another is as tall as a street lamp, and yet another is only able to speak in foreign languages. They become collectively known as “the Touched,” and they’re scorned as monsters and criminals by the dominant white, male Victorian culture, so much so that many of them try to stay “in the closet.”

Very much unlike “The Leftovers,” however, “The Nevers” succumbs quickly to the obviousness of its central metaphor — insecure men against empowered and mostly poor women — and it turns to special effects and whiz-bam audio stylings for narrative sustenance. It’s overloaded with characters and subplots — not confusingly so, but to the point of frustratingly unnecessary busyness — as well as some terribly hammy performances, most notably by the usually precise James Norton as a sex-obsessed aristocrat set on exploiting the Touched and by Denis O’Hare as a gruesomely invasive doctor.


Certainly the show, which premieres Sunday night at 9, is entertaining enough in its crowded way, as a beautifully designed and moody set piece featuring a broad variety of magical “Geek Love”-ly freaks. If you enjoy trick-filled action sequences, there are many clever ones in the four episodes made available for review, including a fierce fight involving a man who can walk on water thank you very much. But still, it’s an awful lot of sound and fury, and, when you think about it, it signifies nothing particularly fresh.

“The Nevers” was created by Joss Whedon, a Hollywood power whose reputation as a genius is based largely on his TV work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly” and his “Avengers” movies. I’m not a huge fan of any of those titles except “Buffy,” so I may be missing the intrinsic brilliance here — but I don’t think so. A show like “The Umbrella Academy,” similarly fitted up with a variety of super-charged vulnerables, seems a lot more solid in its conceit and much more willing to deepen its characters. Whedon, who faces a number of accusations of abusive on-set behavior, much of it misogynistic, left the series in November after the first six episodes were filmed, leaving a whole lot of chaos and a bit of potential for incoming showrunner Philippa Goslett. After this current run of six Whedon episodes, HBO is going to premiere the second six episodes of the first season, all by Goslett, later this year.


The bulk of “The Nevers” story line revolves around Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), Touched women who run an orphanage where other Touched women can find refuge and safety. The hard-fighting Amalia, who receives random images from the future, and Penance, who can effortlessly engineer high-tech gadgets, try to round up those Touched folks in need of protection, thanks to the funding of the wealthy Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams). But their work is made harder by a Touched serial killer on the loose named Maladie (Amy Manson, also irritatingly hammy), who makes the citizens of London even more frightened and enables the scowling and threatened Lord Massen (Pip Torrens) to build a public case against them. Can our butt-kicking Touched heroines put the kibosh on Maladie? Can they keep the annihilation of all the Touched at bay?


Ultimately, I didn’t much care. None of the Touched characters are given significant inner lives to match their external powers, although Amalia gestures toward some shadowy motivations that might equal a personality. She and Penance share a warm friendship, but it remains just so much more unexplored potential. When I finished watching, there were no characters I felt drawn to, or provoked by. I took in all the excess and atmosphere, all the flippant banter and brutal fighting, and I was left untouched.


Starring: Laura Donnelly, Olivia Williams, Tom Riley, Ann Skelly, James Norton, Ben Chaplin, Pip Torrens, Zackary Momoh, Nick Frost, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denis O’Hare, Amy Manson

On: HBO. Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.