'Taboo': TV Review

Tom Hardy in FX's 'Taboo'
Solid if slow in the early going.
1/10/2017

FX is hoping that Tom Hardy's period drama ignites and gives the already stocked channel the one genre hit it lacks.

When FX looks at its stable of series — and make no mistake, it has been the best curated cable or streaming outlet for some time now — the one glaring hole it sees is the lack of an epic historical drama.

The network tried and failed with Kurt Sutter's The Bastard Executioner, and while everybody wants a Game of Thrones, there's also no harm in a Downton Abbey or even an Outlander, as there's a vast and devoted fan base for the kind of historical dramas that have propped the BBC up for generations. If you're trying to tell stories in multiple genres, historical fiction is key.

The trouble is that it's often a slow build and a tricky mix. Game of Thrones had a built-in book audience for its faux history tales of a fantastical nature, and shows like Downton Abbey and Outlander wouldn't be a good fit for FX's harder edges. A production that mixes sex and violence while hitting all the writing and acting notes of an upper-echelon drama is rare, indeed.

Taboo, co-created by and starring Tom Hardy, is FX's next gambit, a dark and brooding story set in 1814 London. Judging by the series' first three episodes, it definitely has enough intrigue for the long haul — thanks in large part to Hardy — but the show isn't particularly action-oriented and is, in fact, overtly unsexy, save for Hardy's tattoo-laced body seen in various states of undress.

That's not to say a costume drama needs loads of violence and sex in some amped-up combination to succeed. But launching a series in the "Peak TV" era is no easy feat, and the number of people who think, "These first three hours have tickled that BBC part of my brain, and I will watch in hopes that the next five evolve into a rip-roaring yarn" is probably less than, say, the number of people who watch HBO's Thrones.

That said, Hardy is always an intriguing actor to watch, and his collaboration with creator Steven Knight already yielded the wonderful (and mostly secret) gem that is Peaky Blinders. (You can find it on Netflix.)

Hell, if FX gets a Peaky Blinders type series to satiate the historical fiction fans, it will be welcomed by TV lovers in general (if not in the droves the channel may have wished).

As to what Taboo might become, we shall see, and I say that fully intending to watch the entire run. Despite coming out of the gates slower than is ideal in a crowded landscape, the series shows signs in the early going of blossoming into something much bigger and better.

Before committing, however, you should be all in on Hardy. If not, look elsewhere, because this is absolutely his show; the camera almost never strays from him. He plays James Keziah Delaney, the son of a despised and deceased shipping tycoon. Considered crazy and, more important, dead, James surprises everyone by returning to England after being gone for a decade in Africa. Especially startled to see him are his half sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), and her husband, Thorne (Jefferson Hall), who have designs on the old tycoon's leftovers — namely, a very dangerous island near the West Coast of Canada called Nootka Sound, for which the East India Company is eager to pay Zilpha and her husband handsomely.

Taboo efficiently spells out the intrigue and conveys the danger and mystery surrounding both the remote outpost of Nootka Sound and the connection James has with Zilpha. But the series soon settles more slowly into the story of James' surprise return and his unwillingness to part with the deed, which, of course, annoys the bejesus out of the head of the mighty East India Company, Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce).

If this series were a straightforward story of an heir crazily refusing to sell an island to the greedy global trade company down the block, it might be tedious. Instead, what Taboo hints at is that James Keziah Delaney is no mere heir. He might be dead — or half-dead, perhaps possessed by spirits. He can certainly see the dead and has visions of his haunted, deceased mother (who came from a tribe out in Nootka Sound), but her role in all this remains very unclear three hours into the series. So does the full extent of what baggage or powers James has. All kinds of stories have been told or whispered about him — mostly that he's a very, very dangerous man, likely crazy and perhaps a ghost of some sort. We know he's killed people before. We know he was on a slave ship that sank somewhere near Africa, though his association with it is unclear. And he might be a cannibal — or have a wolf's penchant for tearing your heart out if you cross him (and maybe eating it).

This is where Taboo is a bit of a mixed bag in the first three episodes: The otherworldly aspects of the narrative are simultaneously intriguing and distracting. As compelling as Hardy can be, even he has a hard time selling the show's supernatural side. James has business to accomplish in London, and in 1814, London is a very dicey place to do business. When we watch him slowly building up the forces of his resistance against the East India Company, particularly when he's interacting with Brace (David Hayman), his father's servant and confidante, the plot seems to track toward what might be a more action-packed payoff. It's harder to tell whether the mystical and tribal aspects of the story will pay off effectively or even interestingly.

In the meantime, we get a lot of Hardy, and Taboo is pretty lucky that he's one of the few actors who can grunt and be entertaining doing so; he also leans close and threatens more convincingly than pretty much any performer out there.

In fairness, fans of most BBC-styled historical dramas are used to leisurely pacing — it's the British way and has a proven track record of being worth it in the end. Taboo could very well be cranking the heavy turbines on something that will pay off richly in the near future — and FX is no doubt hoping it will.

Cast: Tom Hardy, Jonathan Pryce, Jessie Buckley, Oona Chaplin, Jefferson Hall, David Hayman, Franka Potente, Michael Kelly, Mark Gatiss
Creators: Steven Knight, Tom Hardy
Writer: Steven Knight
Directors: Kristoffer Nyholm, Anders Engstrom

Premieres: Tuesday, Jan. 10, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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