FX’s new series, Taboo (premiering tonight) is a tough nut to crack. Set in 1814, it stars Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney. Hardy is in full-on scowl mode here, as a man thought to be dead after spending 12 years in Africa, who returns to London to collect on his father’s inheritance, specifically a piece of land in Vancouver that is crucial to both American and British shipping interests (Britain and America were at war at the time). This presents a challenge to the East India Company — and its menacing president, Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce in Swearengen mode) — who had worked out a deal with Delaney’s half-sister Ziphy (Oona Chaplin) and her priggish husband (Thorne Geary) to purchase the land after the death of the senior Delaney.
On that level, it’s a fairly straightforward story about ownership of a valuable piece of land. Sir Stuart Strange and the East India Company will stop at nothing to get it — including bribery, fraud or assassination — and Delaney is intent upon keeping it. This piece of land is ostensibly meant to be the series’ Iron Throne: He who owns it wields all the power.
Beyond that, it gets considerably more complicated. Delaney has an illegitimate son who doesn’t know about him; Delaney is also in love with his half-sister, who seems to reciprocate those lustful feelings; Franke Potente plays a brothel owner whose role in the series remains unclear beyond the necessity of a period drama needing a brothel owner; Delaney’s father died under suspicious circumstances; and Delaney’s time in Africa is shrouded in mystery. He may or may not have died on a slave ship; he may be insane; or he may have developed some ability to commune with the dead. It’s unclear.
To gain this information, however, is an ordeal. I’m a television-watching professional, and I nodded off four times during the pilot, twice in the middle of an afternoon. It is a bleak, slow-moving drama, often more interested in grim establishing shots than it is in telling its story. Hardy is an imposing presence, but he barely speaks, choosing instead to communicate mostly through grunts, stare-downs, and indecipherably Hardy mumbling. Moreover, by the third episode, little more information is provided than what is incrementally doled out in the pilot — the show seems intent to hang these opaque mysteries over our head in the hopes we’ll stick around to see them resolved on the strength of Hardy’s presence.
Taboo requires more effort than it seems to be worth. We don’t need a character to be likable to find him compelling, but there’s nothing here. We’re meant to care about Delaney by virtue of the fact he’s played by Hardy, but Hardy gives us nothing aside from a formidable physical presence to lean into. Oona Chaplin, meanwhile, functions only as an icky plot device, while Jonathan Pryce’s function is more practical: His occasional profanity-laced outbursts are there to wake us from our slumbers. Only Mark Gattis — who plays Prince Regent — seems to be having any fun whatsoever, although he seems out of place in his brief appearances.
The series comes from Hardy himself, who co-wrote it with his father, Chips Hardy, and brought it to Steven Knight, with whom Hardy worked on the far superior Peaky Blinders, to turn it into a television series. Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm does a fine job, if you’re into darkly lit sets and brooding performances.
Nevertheless, I’m sure there’s an audience out there for Taboo — it might appeal to those who liked Penny Dreadful but thought it was too campy and quick-moving — but it’s going to be a small one. The draw of Hardy and the track-record of FX may pull in a decent-sized audience for the premiere, but there’s little in the pilot to bring viewers back for another installment. It’s the kind of show that could easily get backed up on a DVR and eventually deleted because it feels like homework, only Taboo has yet to give us much indication there’s much to learn from the lesson.