The Joss Whedon problem haunting The Nevers
The new HBO series might've been better if its creator had stayed on board. That doesn't mean he should have.
These two things can both be true:
1. Director Joss Whedon should never be allowed near a set again; and
2. The Nevers might have been a better television show if Whedon had been more involved.
Regrettably, that means the series — which premieres on HBO on Sunday — exists in the uncomfortable tension between those two facts. The Nevers is at once unpalatable due to Whedon's association, and also lacking, likely because of its creator's fleeting involvement. The cost of a better show, though, never would have been worth the price.
There once was a time when "Joss Whedon is directing Victorian-era show about magical misfit women for HBO" would have been the most exciting set of words in the world. Most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon hadn't made a TV show since he worked on the short-lived series Dollhouse, for Fox, back in 2009. Though Buffy was enormously influential, and Whedon went on to direct the first two Avengers films as well as take over the ill-fated Justice League, among the director's fans there'd long been a perception that he was never given the opportunity to see his best concepts through. Whedon's space-Western Firefly was famously canceled after a single season, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog never got its sequel, and hard-core Whedonites would argue that Dollhouse's two-season stint was among his best, and most prematurely canceled, work. For many people — including my younger self — Whedon's well-written, butt-kicking women offered a welcome alternative to the female stereotypes more commonly seen on TV at the time. He was lauded by feminist media groups and critics.
But time has not been kind to Whedon's particular brand of feminism; even his staunchest fans have started to reconsider and see the flaws in his work. "I've slowly realized that Whedon's visions of on-screen feminism often amounted to a reductive, masculinized conception of what it means to be a forceful woman," wrote critic Robyn Bahr recently, noting that Whedon's version of "female 'empowerment' is really a convenient supplement to male desire." The dominos also started to fall: In 2017, Whedon's ex-wife, Kai Cole, accused him of philandering on set while "being out in the world preaching feminist ideals"; later, Whedon's script for Wonder Woman leaked, revealing some atrociously sexist writing. Then came the allegations of casual cruelty toward actors on set: Last year, Cyborg actor Ray Fisher accused Whedon of "gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable" behavior on set of Justice League (he elaborated further this week). In February, actress Charisma Carpenter described being emotionally abused by Whedon on the set of Angel, alleging that he retaliated against her for being pregnant and then abruptly fired her after she gave birth.
According to reports, Whedon was involved in The Nevers through principal photography in London; he reportedly left the show of his own volition last November — after the initial allegations by Fisher, but before Carpenter's — writing in a statement that "the level of commitment required moving forward, combined with the physical challenges of making such a huge show during a global pandemic, is more than I can handle without the work beginning to suffer." He is credited as the director of three of the show's six episodes, though Rolling Stone's Alan Sepinwall points out that "a lot can happen in the post-production process to change what was initially filmed." It's a gray area that HBO seems relieved to occupy; the removal of Whedon from the project allows otherwise conflicted viewers to enjoy the show, the same way the release of the Zack Snyder cut offered a way into a post-Whedon Justice League.
But Whedon's fingerprints are still all over The Nevers — which he's described as his "most ambitious" narrative yet — from the show's punchy banter down to his favorite character tropes, including the show's Drusilla-like villain. Even a mysterious airship in the show's premiere looks like the steampunk version of a S.H.I.E.L.D. mobile base or Firefly-class spaceship. Still, despite so many Whedon hallmarks, the final result seems watered down — Whedon-lite, if you will. The vision never quite comes together in the four completed episodes made available to critics; the world still feels under construction and confused about what its purpose is, something that feels indicative of the lack of a consistent architect throughout.
It's entirely possible, of course, that The Nevers, as it exists now, is close to what Whedon would have done with it himself, had he remained the showrunner (Philippa Goslett took over for him after he left the project). Whedon is certainly far from an unimpeachable director, and some of his worst tendencies still made it into the final project, including his white, nimble protagonists whose powerful magical abilities are "complicated" by their more vulnerable emotional states. There's also oddly gratuitous nudity throughout, to the point that it made me wonder if his other shows hadn't included so many undressed women only because he was working with broadcast networks. But The Nevers also feels generally unwieldy and lacking in a firm grasp of its own identity, something that, for all you can critique them, Whedon's other works have rarely shared. Yes, Whedon could have slipped; it's also possible, though, that if he'd been involved through the post-production process, the result would have been a tighter, snappier, more focused, more confident, more classically Whedonesque work.
That doesn't mean he should have been involved. While the cast of The Nevers has so far enthusiastically defended Whedon, the allegations of his past abuse of his position means he never should have been extended the privilege of leadership at all. "Good TV" is never worth such a cost, and arguments to the contrary have allowed abusers to work in the film and TV industry for decades, where their bad behavior is so often excused as the eccentric quality of a "genius."
You can still enjoy The Nevers for what it is, though: a showcase of other talents. Outlander actress Laura Donnelly anchors the show as the mysterious and troubled Amalia True; The Crown's costume designer, Jane Petrie, gives steampunk London its billowing and whimsical character; former Game of Thrones production designer Gemma Jackson probably deserves another Emmy for her thorough eye.
Maybe it's "not as good" as it might have been if Whedon were involved through the whole process. But it's all the better.