‘The Nevers’ assembles an X-Men-esque series in Joss Whedon’s Victorian England

Setting aside the backstage drama involving series creator Joss Whedon, “The Nevers” begins with an intriguing premise and develops it in such a plodding way that interest progressively fades with each successive hour. The idea of an X-Men-like group in turn-of-the-19th-century London surely has potential, but “The Nevers” needs to get better, sooner rather than later.

The show does have a splendid lead in the form of Irish actor Laura Donnelly, whose character, Amalia True, oversees an orphanage for “the Touched,” people who acquired a variety of bizarre powers during an inexplicable event in 1896.

Three years later, strange doings are afoot, in a seamy side of England that sees the entrenched upper class feeling threatened by this influx of the extraordinary among them, creating a series of unlikely bedfellows and uneasy alliances.

Amalia, meanwhile, manages what those well-versed in Marvel lore might be inclined to refer to as a school (or perhaps more accurately, haven) for gifted youngsters, while harboring secrets about her own past, when she isn’t brawling with those who deserve a good thrashing.

The class and gender component of the show initially seems the most fertile, with a snooty aristocrat noting that the abilities gained by the Touched — who he refers to as being “afflicted,” and mostly consist of women — have created greater possibilities among “those for whom ambition was never meant.”

Still, the series bogs down in the character interactions, including a cop (Ben Chaplin) and a wealthy woman (Olivia Williams) who become interested in the Touched for disparate reasons that, especially in the latter case, remain murky and suspect.

Although dressed up with plenty of pay-cable-worthy sex and violence — mixing decadence with pomp and finery — “The Nevers” doesn’t feel as if it’s going anywhere fast through four episodes, getting detoured by too many dark alleyways and side plots. Shifting the aim more directly to Ms. True would probably help — Donnelly somehow manages to strike a perfect superhero pose in an elegant, corseted Victorian gown — as would a clearer sense of the broader stakes and mysterious forces at work.

Granted, Netflix has enjoyed its own buzzworthy success with “Bridgerton,” another lush show set in England’s past. The supernatural/superhero element also offers the potential to tap into those appetites, although that’s a pretty crowded playing field.

The other X factor, separate but unavoidable, involves Whedon, who chose to leave the series before its premiere, and who has been the subject of coverage and controversy regarding allegations by actors that he created a toxic environment on earlier projects.

HBO stated its unabated commitment to the show –slated to run in two six-episode flights — when Whedon departed, and this is hardly a small-scale endeavor. But such behind-the-scenes changes this early on seldom bode well.

Given the premise “The Nevers” still has the potential to regain its momentum, and as they say, never say never. But watching beyond the premiere, it’s hard not to conclude that the series simply lacks the right touch.

“The Nevers” premieres April 11 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.


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