The FX network launches one of the first new TV series of 2017 with ‘Taboo’, an ambitious historical drama starring (and co-created by) Tom Hardy. With last year’s expensive flop ‘The Bastard Executioner‘, FX’s track record isn’t as spotless as it used to be. While certainly not as bad as that, the new show is decidedly lacking in excitement.
A co-production with the BBC, ‘Taboo’ was created by star Tom Hardy, his father “Chips” Hardy, and ‘Peaky Blinders’ creator Steven Knight. Ridley Scott is listed as Executive Producer, but I doubt he had much direct involvement. (Scott produces dozens of TV shows.)
Set in 1814 London, Hardy plays James Delaney, the son of a powerful shipping magnate (Edward Fox, seen only as a corpse) who recently died. By all accounts, the father was a right bastard little loved by anyone, and had gone completely mad in the months before his death, frequently babbling nonsense into the wind. James’ sudden return to London in time for the funeral is met with shock by everyone who knows him. He’d disappeared years earlier on an expedition to Africa and was long presumed dead. James is a gruff man of few words, disinclined to explain to anyone where he’d been or what he did while he was away.
Delaney is told by the slimeball family lawyer, a man named Thoyt, that he has inherited his father’s entire estate, but that it doesn’t amount to much except a failing company and a worthless strip of land in Vancouver called the Nootka Sound. Delaney knows better. In fact, he seems to know everything about everything, including deeply guarded secrets he had no way of ever learning. He suggests that his father told him when he spoke into the wind, which James supernaturally heard from thousands of miles away.
The Nootka Sound is in fact a very valuable piece of property hotly desired by the British East India Company, whose chairman, Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), plans to use it as a gateway to trade with China. Strange and his cronies make Delaney what they say is a generous offer, but he won’t even look at it. He knows what he has and isn’t giving it up. Strange is determined to claim the land by any means necessary, legal or otherwise.
Also pissed at Delaney is his dickish brother-in-law, whose wife (Delaney’s half-sister) would have inherited everything if he hadn’t shown up. The sister (Oona Chaplin from ‘Game of Thrones’) has complicated feelings about her brother’s return for other reasons. The only true friend or confidante Delaney has is the family butler, who was loyal to the father until the end.
Delaney has his father’s body dug up by a “resurrectionist” (a body snatcher), who runs tests on the corpse’s blood and determines that the man was poisoned by arsenic, which would explain not just his death but also his madness.
In another side story, we learn that James has a son who’s never met him. He left the boy in the care of strangers that he pays off to raise him. He checks in on his condition, but has no intention of introducing himself.
The pilot episode has a very lengthy exposition scene where Sir Strange and the other members of the East India Company board dig up dirt to use against Delaney. Rumors abound that, during his time in Africa, he’d gone native and committed atrocities so unspeakable that we aren’t allowed to hear them yet. Nonetheless, the episode ends with the suggestion that the taboo of the title is actually incest. James tells his sister that he loves her (seemingly in more than a sibling way), with an implication that they’d had an affair before he left.
The series has a good cast and convincing period production values, but the whole thing is very gray and dingy, and doesn’t have a single likeable character. Hardy, who obviously conceived this as a star vehicle, mumbles most of his dialogue, what little of it there is. He spends much of the episode strutting from one location to the next with an imposing gait, glowering at the other characters and intimidating everyone he meets. It’s a good technical performance, but the character is left so enigmatic that there’s nothing for an audience to latch onto. Jonathan Pryce, meanwhile, is a little more delightfully hammy, but the contrast between them creates a tonal imbalance.
I can’t cite much in the episode that I’d call “bad,” but nor did I find it very gripping. I’m not sure that I feel a need to watch again.
FX is calling this a miniseries, but that almost feels to me like the network is just hedging its bets. Should it turn out to be a big ratings hit, no doubt further seasons would follow. Honestly, however, I don’t expect that to happen.