Here there be spoilers for the first six episodes of The Nevers, as well as highly likely guesses for the story arc of the next six episodes. Proceed at your own risk.
I wanted to like this show. I really did.
I know Joss was involved and that meant a certain level of grossness both in front of and behind the cameras (no matter how much the cast and crew insists it wasn't happening). But I also knew that Joss was leaving and that the second half of the twelve episode season would be as free of his influence as something could be when it started out as his idea.
Plus one of the things I enjoy about watching tv shows is figuring out how they are put together, particularly when it comes to the personal touch of the writers and directors. As I mentioned before, my own super power is being able to tell how a Joss show was formed even if the credits don't match. (My personal best was knowing when Mere Smith had an uncredited scene in an episode of Angel the Series, which was confirmed by later interviews.) (Yes I'm aware this is the world's most useless super power. They say the first step is admitting the problem so here we are. My name is TBQ and I am a nobody-cares-about-this-except-me-oholic.)
Anyway, point being that for my nerdy self it was interesting to watch the show from the perspective of wanting to see how it started out as a 100% Joss property and then his fingers were pried off of it and others took over. My assumption was that it would be a clear evolution with each episode bringing us on a journey from a racist caterpillar with a foot fetish into the beautiful butterfly of - something else. Not the racist foot thing at bare minimum.
But that's not what we got.
Granted some of that is on me. I assumed it would be a linear progression and it wasn't. Episode 4 in particular stands out both in terms of actually being sorta kinda good (more on this in a bit) which makes me with my super power suspect that it was either not the 4th filmed episode or it was an episode they went back to and did some reshoots. But then episode 5 backslides and episode 6, though not credited to Joss, is wholesale stolen from things he's done before so.... yeah.
I realize that I've already talked too much for this to count as tl;dr but the short answer to the question of "Is the show going to be any good without Joss?" is "Fuck knows." I assumed we would know that, and we don't. Insert shrug emoji here, as it were.
The Joss of it All
If somebody asked me if it was worth watching the first six episodes my answer would vary depending on how familiar they are with Joss's work. I've been watching how people reacted as the show aired and there seems to be a divide between people who immediately twig to how much this is Joss's unfettered Id being allowed to splooge all over the screen vs those who are blissfully oblivious to why there are a surprising number of people walking around barefoot in Victorian London.
Of the latter group, the vibe seems to be that the costumes and fight scenes are great (which they are) and that the concept is interesting (which it could be). Thus if somebody was looking for a show that delivered great costumes and fights and didn't care too much about whether anything makes a lick of sense or the fact that characters deliver lines as though they're alone in a room even if someone is standing right next to them then sure! Go for it! Don't shell out money for the HBO Max subscription but if you've already got one and need to have something playing in the background while you're vacuuming go nuts.
However, if someone was of the former group my response would be NO NO GOD NO SAVE YOURSELF.
Because the thing is that the episodes which Joss was most involved with are impossible to watch without feeling a layer of slime cover you that not even the harshest of Silkwood showers will remove.
Let me give an example: A female character who sleeps with a married man and who isn't at all shy about trying to resume the affair even though he says he wants to be faithful to his wife is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. I mean it's not a trait which makes this character admirable but it's interesting so that's fine.
However, when you know that Joss cheated on his wife repeatedly and one of his excuses was that he was "surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women" who he was powerless to resist... it's gross. It's REALLY gross.
Now imagine an entire show of nothing but Joss's warped viewpoint of the world.
Minor adult content warning but if The Nevers teaches us anything it's to get on our knees and thank every possible deity in existence that Fox had a standards and practices division because apparently the only thing Joss felt was missing from River's characterization on Firefly is the fact that she didn't flash and rub her cooch on camera. Because that's the kind of thing Maladie does. CONSTANTLY. Because if there's one thing us mentally ill women love to do more than talk in badly constructed magnetic poetry attempting to be Shakespeare, it's be overly sexualized towards any man who is vaguely around us. Thank goodness we also have breasts that we can force men to touch as well, just in case the crotch flashing got a little too repetitive!
(And yes, I'm aware thanks to interviews with the actress that Maladie's backstory may include sexual assault and that victims of sexual assault can sometimes react by being hypersexualized. However this has yet to be established in the text of the show and there is a HUGE difference between respectfully showing someone's reaction to trauma and treating it like the opening of a porno. The Nevers is firmly in the latter camp.)
Likewise you have a ton of slurs. Which hey, I loved Deadwood. I'm not saying you can never have swearing and even the worst of racist slurs in a piece of media. But there's a difference between making a conscious choice about language and how it will play to the audience versus throwing in racist and sexist slurs at every opportunity simply because you can. The Nevers is, again, the latter.
Now the plus side is that in the parts where Joss isn't as involved this stuff goes away. And it's very obvious in how it goes away. More on this in a second but point being that the slime factor is very much the Joss factor so him leaving means the slime goes too. But that leaves us with the actual story of the show and if the characters are worth watching, which is a harder nut to crack.
Joss Being Gone But Sadly Not Forgotten
Look, there's no way around it: episode 6 of The Nevers reveals that the big twist of the show is that it's not a Victorian Fantasy Steampunk but rather a futuristic scifi show about people attempting to go back in time to either start or avert the apocalypse depending on which side of the war they're on. Which is a great idea, and certainly was a great twist back in 2009 when Joss ALREADY WROTE THAT and called it Epitaph One.
I know, I know. I should've warned you to sit down before giving you the shock that Joss "I will literally reuse scenes, dialogue, and blocking from my Avengers movies in Justice League up to and including the one where a nerdy guy falls on a beautiful woman's boobs and I'm allowed to get away with this repeatedly because as a mediocre white man I can only fail up" Whedon stole from himself wholesale when making a new TV show. I apologize.
But yeah. The Nevers is Dollhouse. Sure we're dealing with superpowers instead of dolls and there's aliens but beyond these few cosmetic changes the entire setup is the same. Including the part where you don't know who is secretly in someone else's body and there's also a young child with no reason to be in every scene who turns out to be not so much a young child as a vessel for someone older who knows what's really going on.
Which also means - spoiler alert for the remaining plot if they keep to Joss's notes - Alpha cough I mean Maladie will be the character that starts out as a crazy serial killer but then turns out to be the one who saves them after all. Sorry to ruin the surprise but again Joss ruined it himself over 10 years ago so yanno.
And look, I'm not saying tropes are bad. I mean what are superhero movies these days if not basically the same story about a person or people with powers figuring out how to stop a bad guy in a third act battle which involves a giant beam of light pointing towards the sky? The familiarity is the point. It's not evil in and of itself.
But there's a difference between reusing concepts and cutting and pasting former stuff into a new format. And if nothing else I think we have to acknowledge how fucked up it is that Hollywood lets a man who creates such a hostile working environment and has done so for years not only keep getting work environments but also letting him do no actual work. This isn't even something you could call a self-homage, it's straight up reusing the stuff from before. People have been kicked out of college for less.
And the fact that this is so wholesale what Joss did before and that episode 6 does nothing to alter or change it suggests that they're leaning in to the concept for the rest of the series. Which... I mean fine? You certainly can. But unfortunately there's not enough information to go on to know if they're going to change up Joss's ideas to make them new, noteworthy, or interesting. So we're back to shrug emoji on if it's going to be worth it to keep watching when it comes back from hiatus. (If it comes back from hiatus. I have no inside scoop here but let's face it, this show could easily just never be spoken about again and few people would miss it other than to remember it as an answer to a Joss Whedon related trivia question.)
Was There Anything Good?
The show did do some stuff right. The sets and costumes are amazing, and given that the costume designer is Michele Clapton from Game of Thrones it's no wonder the clothes are as good as they are. There are details on the sets too which are phenomenal. Like there was one detail in episode 6 where history nerd me noticed the stove in the True household stood out as not being the kind you'd think they'd use and then it turned out it was a hint that Molly's husband was in debt. I loved that. Likewise there was a character who stood out due to her very obvious wig and clothes which didn't seem truly natural for the setting and then it was revealed that the outfit was a disguise. Again: great detail.
The actors, for the most part, are also good. It's frustrating because when Joss directs it's all about them saying lines and showing off his dialogue rather than actually being human beings doing things actual humans would do. A lot of reviewers put this under Joss making them "quippy" but it's not even about his quips. To be honest there aren't that many of those. Instead it stands out more by contrast in things like episode 4 where Mundi's casual dialogue with a co-worker actually feels like two men who have been working in the same building for a while and not two men who could've just as easily been talking directly to the camera or a wall.
Episode 4 is, in fact, a highlight and after seeing it my hope was that it was the hallmark of where the show was going without Joss. In addition to characters actually feeling like real people you had things like Maladie talking like a real person - a person with mental illness but now a believable version of a person with a mental illness.
You also had things like the powers finally feeling like part of the show instead of plot convenience delivery devices. People used them in their day to day life, they had fun with them, it felt like a world where people had had these powers for three years and thus had time to adapt and enjoy them if enjoyment was possible.
Episode 4 also showed greater thought into worldbuilding. Myrtle's power of speaking every language but English finally worked in a clever way both in that it explained why she could understand Mary's song and in how they had to figure out how to understand what Myrtle was saying.
(Though it is worth noting that at no point is it ever noted that Myrtle's power is only a problem because England had no issue claiming one quarter of the globe but never spent any time encouraging its citizens to learn how to speak another language. It's just taken as a given that of course only immigrants are going to know how. Which is another one for the "sure you can do that but maybe examine what message this is sending?" pile.)
Episode 4 is also when Nimble Jack is introduced. Who, in addition to actually being an interesting character with the cleverness and charisma that Hugo "Did we mention I'm a hedonist? I'm not sure if we made that screamingly obvious in every smarmy thing I do" Swann's character was probably supposed to have, is a transgender character to boot. It's not mentioned in the show (obliquely hinted, but not said outright). But Jack's actor, Vinnie Heaven, is nonbinary and confirmed that Jack is as well.
It's also worth noting that Jack and Bonfire Annie have more chemistry in their scenes together than damn near anybody else on the show with anyone else and frankly if they dumped the entire show concept to make it the Nimble Jack and Bonfire Annie hour my opinion of the show and whether it was worth watching would go WAY up.
In the interest of fairness I should also mention that some things which stood out as making no sense either do get explained or have possible explanations thanks to the twist. For example, the tiring running gag of Amalia giving the proper name of Penance's inventions makes sense when you know she's from the future and thus would of course know what they were called. Likewise Primrose's strange line about her parents saying cars are everywhere could be a hint that her parents are also from the future.
The episodes without Joss also give glimpses of how bad characters and plotlines might be going away? Not to keep harping on episode 4 but a large part of that episode is knocking down ongoing plotlines one after another with remarkably natural and in character ways of saying "We're not doing that anymore."
There's even hope that characters like Hugo could be redeemed by having, yanno, layers. Him showing signs of vulnerability and possibly pining after Mundi and frankly doing anything but smarming smarmily is a vast improvement. Which is another one for the "damning with faint praise" pile but still.
So yeah. Throw all that in with the kick ass fight scenes (pun slightly intended) and there's scraps of potential here. If Episode 4 had set the standard for the post-Joss world of the show I'd give it a... well not strong recommendation but I would rank hopes for the second half of the season at a B- grade.
It's just that we can't say for sure if that's where the show is going.
In the end I come back to where I was after episode 1: there's just not enough going on with this show to make it stand out from the crowd.
I mean look: if you watched it and loved it mazel tov. The world sucks hardcore right now. If you can get pleasure from something that distracts you from the dumpster fire of our reality I'm happy for you.
But if people are asking me if I recommend watching the show right now the answer is no. Not based on what we've been given so far. It's six hours of your time you could be spending with properties that are known quantities from the get go. Maybe at some point in the future we'll be able to look back on the show and give it the "Legends of Tomorrow Has No Season One What Are You Talking About?" treatment and if so, great! But is it worth making yourself slog through the slime and mediocrity in the hopes the show will get there?
Meh. In comic book terms wait to see if it's worth it to buy the trade paperback. You don't need to go through the issues as they come.
- According to the actress the character of Primrose is supposed to be sixteen which... what? Not with that behavior and not with those clothes and hair. I can only assume she misspoke and/or is accidentally revealing that there's a time skip in the next six episodes.
- Costubers Bernadette Banner and Abby Cox both did videos about the clothes on the show. Bernadette's focuses on how the show puts lie to myths that women could neither breathe nor fight in corsets while Abby demonstrates the breathtaking amount of research that went into the historic accuracy of the costume design. Both are worth a watch if you're into that sort of thing.