Gal Gadot-baiting Joss Whedon Isn’t the Only Problem in HBO’s ‘The Nevers’

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Laura Donnelly in "The Nevers," on HBO.
Laura Donnelly in "The Nevers," on HBO.Credit: Keith Bernstein/HBO / yes
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

You really know your kids have grown up when they stop asking you unanswerable questions. You know, queries like “Where do Jews go when they die?” (Don’t know, but for many it involves going via Florida.) And “Why does God let bad things like earthquakes and the Netanyahu family happen?” (Nope, got me there.)

Those questions become far more prosaic as children mature, but not necessarily any more answerable. After all, what do you say to your teenage girls when they ask, “What’s the story with Woody Allen?” – other than “Why, has he asked you to babysit?”

My favorite questions these days tend to come when they ask me something while we’re watching a film or television show, mainly because it’s the only time I feel confident I might be able to answer them (“You probably remember him from that episode of ‘Friends’ when Rachel…”).

But I was genuinely stumped the other day when the eldest asked me a question that, in fairness, has probably baffled the great sages of the age too: “What is HBO Max?”

Griffin Matthews, left, and Kaley Cuoco in a scene from the series "The Flight Attendant," on HBO Max.Credit: Phil Caruso/AP

She asked as we were watching and thoroughly enjoying the smart dark comedy-thriller “The Flight Attendant” starring Kaley Cuoco, which debuted on the U.S. streaming platform when it launched last fall but has yet to make its way to Israel (by legitimate means, anyway).

It’s blackly comic, peopled with great characters and powered by the simplest of plots that’s like a Hitchcock thriller mixed with elements of “Killing Eve” and a large bottle of vodka.

It’s hugely entertaining and has great roles for “Big Bang Theory” alumnus Cuoco in the title role and Zosia “Girls” Mamet as her hotshot lawyer friend Ani. It’s also the kind of show that seemed a perfect fit for HBO in these COVID-constrained times when few shows are being made, so it was quite the gift to bequeath it to the sister site – a new revenue stream for the cable company’s behemoth owner, AT&T.

A global HBO Max rollout is planned for some 60 countries by the end of the year, in the hope that it will eventually compete with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and the gazillion other streaming services currently vying for your attention and shekels.

Yet while HBO Max has been largely ensnaring subscribers via its high-profile day-and-date releases of Warner Bros. movies – most recently “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which I personally have as much interest in as a remake of “Police Academy: Mission to Moscow,” but others are clearly keener – HBO itself has been relying on high-profile documentaries to generate some interest through the winter months (Exhibit A: “Allen v. Farrow”).

Indeed, the Nicole Kidman-Hugh Grant starrer “The Undoing” was its last buzzworthy show, way back in November. Thankfully, that glut ends this month with the glossy, star-studded Kate Winslet thriller “Mare of Easttown” (more on that next week).

Tom Riley, left, and James Norton in a scene from "The Nevers," on HBO.Credit: /AP

Before that, though, we have Joss Whedon’s “The Nevers,” which to me feels exactly like the kind of show that should have been debuting on HBO Max while HBO took “The Flight Attendant.”

Heady days

I’m also guessing that HBO executives wish “The Nevers” weren’t such a big release right now, given the controversy that has engulfed its creator, Joss Whedon, in recent times. In fact, it’s hard to know who’s faced more criticism recently: Whedon or that guy who complained about the shrimp tails in his box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and then found his own life coming under the microscope.

If you prefer sitting in a nest of vipers to reading Twitter, you may have missed the whole Whedon scandal, which seemingly boils down to him being an alpha male – or, as it is more correctly termed these days, an allegedly abusive moron – on various film and TV sets over the years, with women particularly at risk of his vituperative methods.

Whedon appears to be the only person in the world who has managed to annoy Gal Gadot, after he reportedly told her he could destroy her career while they were doing reshoots for “Justice League” a few years ago. Trust me, if 2016’s laugh-free comedy “Keeping Up with the Joneses” couldn’t destroy her career, I’m pretty sure a jumped-up director with anger issues isn’t going to do much.

Whedon left “The Nevers” last November, citing the overwhelming pressure of working on the visual effects-heavy show during the pandemic. But HBO hasn’t exactly been keen to push his involvement in recent months – for obvious reasons.

So while it’s not entirely fair to judge the series solely through the lens of it being a “Joss Whedon show,” he did create it, write and direct the first episode, and enjoys an executive producer credit. And yes, while there are cats in LA that probably have executive producer credits, it does mean his fingerprints are all over this show, whether HBO likes it or not.

It’s also impossible to watch “The Nevers” and not see it as a Whedon show – it’s basically a combination of the whip-smart female leads of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and ordinary folks being gifted special talents a la “Heroes,” all transposed to Victorian London.

I’ve seen half of the first season (three of six episodes) and the show failed to grab my attention, despite the fun and feisty female leads who are engaging despite the convoluted plot that revolves very slowly around them.

Still, these are heady days for Victorian England: The British government led by Boris Johnson seems determined to drag the country back to that time, and it’s provided the backdrop for a number of recent series based around the basic formula of adding contemporary-feeling young characters to pea-soupers and East End alleyways.

Netflix recently gave us “The Irregulars,” dredging up Sherlock Holmes as you’ve never seen him before for the umpteenth time. And now “The Nevers” gives us another supernatural tale in which hundreds of people, mainly women, have developed special powers after an unexplained phenomenon on August 3, 1896, has left them “touched.”

Laura Donnelly, left, and Ann Skelly in "The Nevers."Credit: Keith Bernstein/HBO / yes

Fast-forward three years to St. Romaulda’s Orphanage, where Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) and Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) are collecting as many touched young women as they can, for fear they will be discriminated against (or worse) by society. Think of it as the Xavier Institute of its day, complete with giant-size girls, polymaths and Bendy Wendy, whose nickname speaks for itself.

Penance and Amalia’s respective talents include being able to “see” energy and being able to see brief snippets of the future (“It’s as confusing as it is useful,” Amalia accurately sums up), and we see these employed in a series of set-pieces that showcase their fighting skills and a hefty special-effects budget.

Their foes include a touched killer called Maladie (Amy Manson, seemingly channeling namesake Charles), who spouts a lot of guff I had zero interest in following; a heavy played by Nick Frost, who seems to think he’s a Victorian Kray brother; and various subplots involving ne’er-do-well politicians and a couple of toffs involved in a – no, really – pagan sex dungeon called the Ferryman’s Club.

It’s all a bit of an underwhelming mess, which is a shame as there’s so much great talent being underutilized here: Skelly and Donnelly get the best-written parts and are charismatic performers, but the likes of Olivia Williams, Ben Chaplin and James Norton are given paper-thin characters to work with.

There are plenty of snappy one-liners (“When I see someone, the first thing I think of is how to kill them. I do have some good qualities – I genuinely like horses,” natural born killer Amalia explains at one point). But the whole thing never quite meshes and it’s hard to work out who the potential audience is for all of this – it seems a little too old-school to appeal to youngsters, and a little too vacuous to appeal to older audiences.

Sometimes, I too am blessed with the power of seeing into the future – and I don’t foresee a long life for this show. I’d say the same for Whedon’s career prospects, but this is the entertainment industry we’re talking about here, and any business that can continually find roles for the likes of Mel Gibson clearly thrives by not having a very good memory.

“The Nevers” is on Hot HBO on Mondays at 10 P.M., and Yes and Hot VOD, Sting TV and Cellcom TV every Monday. And someone really should air “The Flight Attendant” in Israel.

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