[Warning: Some itty-bitty possible visual possible text spoilers here. Nothing major but if you’re a spoiler hawk, proceed with caution]
How’s this for a murderer’s row of awesome?
Here’s a show on FX, which knows how to do television.
It takes place in London.
It strives to be accurate to the period with regard to dress, teeth, relative levels of filth, etc.
The plot is that one man is going to take on the English Crown.
Aaaaaand the East India Company.
At the same time.
Sold? I was by this point. By this point I was frothing at the mouth to see it. But there’s more.
The East India Company —The Company— as it’s referred to, is run by one Sir Stuart Strange. Played by Jonathan Pryce. He is astoundingly good on the show.
If a show that features the East India Company doesn’t already get your Don’t-Tread-On-Me to half mast, I just don’t know. But let’s continue. Because there’s more.
The lead character of the show returns to London after being presumed dead on the Dark Continent. He shows up just in the nick of time to hear his father’s will and take over what’s left of his family’s nearly defunct shipping empire.
His name is James Keziah Delaney, which I think is an absolute kick-ass name.
He’s played by Tom Hardy.
Now you may not like Tom Hardy, but the boy has chops. He has talent oozing from every pore. Like him or not, he’s a pro.
And he has a van dyke.
And a shitload of body ink.
And he’s still jacked.
Done? Sold yet? No? Okay I’ll continue.
James Keziah Delaney is half Native American. His father ‘purchased’ a plot of island land with beads a la Peter Minuit and in the bargain, the tribe threw in James Keziah Delaney’s mother. The actress who plays Delaney’s mother, Salish, is a guarded show secret, but the rumor is that it’s Hardy’s friend Noomi Rapace.
So Delaney, who speaks either her native language or an African language, is really tied in spiritually to his mother’s people. So much so that he experiences premonitions and visions.
It helps him stay alive, but, if he needs it, he carries a cool curved dagger on him at all times.
And he’s a cannibal. Did I mention that he was a cannibal? Yep. He tears out the hearts of his enemies and eats them. Or sometimes he just bites them in the neck and shit.
Buuuuuuuut there’s more.
He has a sister. She’s lovely and interesting, and is played by Oona Chaplin. You might remember her from such parties as Robb Stark’s Secret Tryst and The Red Wedding. She’s Delaney’s sister, ‘Zilpha.’
Aaaaaaand she’s his lover.
Because honestly, you can’t go all-in these days without at least one juicy incest plot scaffold.
Also, Delaney can sometimes sit in front of the fireplace in his house and use the ash as war paint and make her orgasm across town like Catherine the Great on coke. Orgasmic dream visits are a pretty sweet arrow to have in your wooing quiver, I’ll bet. It’s a hell of a third date.
The cast, in general is amazing. Why? Because Nina Gold did the casting. When you see her name on anything you just know immediately that it’s top notch, and will have a mix of people you know and people she knows are amazing but you don’t necessarily know yet. There are several of these on Taboo.
For example, if you ever watched HBO’s Rome, you have a special place in your heart for Nicholas Woodeson who played ‘Posca.’ He plays Delaney’s duplicitous barrister ‘Robert Thoyt’ on the show and he’s note perfect, as usual.
Do you know Michael Kelly from House of Cards? He plays an American Spy on Taboo. Oh, yeah I forgot to mention that. Delaney also takes on the Americans and is a sometime pal, sometime disembowling, murdering aggressor to them. Frenemies, really.
Did I mention there’s a naval blockade element on the show? And a cholera outbreak? And ship auctions? And body snatching gravediggers? And unscrupulous medical procedures? And poison? And a crew of street-smart prostitutes led by Franka Potente? And chemistry? And Ocean’s Eleven style heists? And an organized crime element led by a whip-smart thug called ‘Atticus,’ played by Stephen Graham? I don’t like Stephen Graham’s face…I love Stephen Graham’s face. Here’s another actor who isn’t widely known by an American audience who just kills it in every scene he’s in.
That’s probably enough.
But there’s also black magic. And Malay hit men. And burlesque shows and creepy dukes trolling for group sex. And tea and fur negotiations. And trade routes. And war. And cross dressing. And parties. And stuffy British fops. And slave ships. And a kick-ass former slave turned legal crusader named George Chichester, played by the magnetic Lucian Msamati.
That’s enough. Seriously.
But let’s just also throw Tom Fucking Hollander in for good measure and have him play a drug using magician/chemist. And let’s have him secretly run a gunpowder factory during a gunpowder shortage.
And to put a bow on it, let’s have the series be created by Tom Hardy and….oh…say Steven Knight of Peaky Blinders fame. And let’s set the whole thing up at Ridley Scott’s production company and roll it out on FX.
That, friends, is a fucking stellar lineup.
But the show doesn’t quiiiiiiiiite work yet. Is it too much? I don’t think so. There’s a lot going on, yes, but they do an outstanding job of leading you so you can keep track of the various subplots and they’re all handled with remarkable deftness. Just about every character is interesting, from the drunks in Wapping to the hypocritical stuffed-shirt prick junior assholes at the Company. They definitely went too far over the top making the Prince Regent visually displeasing to look at…
…but his aide-de-camp, played by Jason Watkins, is a snuff-snorting shark.
The show looks awesome and noir-y and the world feels full and rich and frankly pretty disgusting. Which all works.
What doesn’t work right now is Hardy. That realization kind of knocks my socks off. It’s not his performance as much as it is the way the character is drawn. It’s a pleasure to root for a good antihero. Especially when he’s giving two fingers to the House of Lords set. But James Keziah Delaney never smiles. Never. He grunts. That’s his thing, ostensibly because he’s kind of a savage. Don’t believe me? This amazing fan-made video of all his grunts will knock your dick in the dirt.
That’s some grunt-tastic acting right there. And honestly, the grunts never bother me. It’s the joylessness of it. The emotional torment. Even when Delaney experiences true love, with his eherm…sister, there’s no joy in it. It’s like a war dance. And he’s not a forgiver. He treats EVERYONE like dog shit. Even the people who are most loyal to him. He’s mean as fuck and kind of nuts and always tormented and dressed like the Artful Dodger on steroids. If you meet him for any reason, the odds are like 3 to 1 that he’ll stick a blade in you and 5 to 2 that he’ll grab you by the throat in a vice grip and scare tiny rabbit poops out of you. He’s a fucking mean-spirited shithead. And that’s why it’s tough to root for him. He’s not an avenging angel. They actively refer to him as the devil on the show and he likes it. Tough to get behind that much wanton malice.
And all his enemies are always trying to kill him and can never find him and he’s always walking around in the open.
But he is crafty. And he does have a good story. And he’s always a step ahead of some pretty daunting competition. And he gets to say things like “I need to get a message to Thomas Jefferson, who is meeting secretly in Ghent.”
That’s kind of tough to pass up. But then we get scenes of him chanting in his native language and when it’s not kind of distracting it can be downright offputting and show-ruiny. Like in certain cases it’s pulled me out of the suspension of disbelief entirely and I find myself sitting in my living room watching Tom Hardy making certain tribal sounds and I think, “Oh no. Don’t do that.”
In general though, this really is a show that feels kind of like a sneaky cult hit. Not only does it have all the elements it needs to be great, it has pretty much every element in television history baked right into the plot. While there are some questionable choices here and there, overall the show repays your loyalty with some great scenes and home-run performances. It’s currently performing just below Legion in the all important 18-49 demo, and I expect it to be renewed for a second season. Sure, you may huff and groan through the first half hour of the confusing pilot, but after it gets its decidedly grim hooks into you, you may just find yourself looking forward to the next filthy, twisted, joyless abomination.
Taboo premiered on FX on January 10th, 2017. Episode 7 (of 8 total) airs tonight on FX, or catch up on the FXNow app.