Please don’t talk to me of sense, Brace, because if it is you, I might believe it, and I have sworn to do very foolish things. – James Keziah Delaney
I’m not certain I have a definitive final verdict on FX’s new drama, Taboo, but I feel relatively secure in the fact that if you’re reading this review, you’re probably planning to watch it. Tom Hardy has serious name recognition and star power, and considering he co-created the series with Steven Knight and also serves as its lead character, the initial interest factor should be high. Also, the network has thrown no less than 1800 advertising spots for the series at us over the past six weeks. If you’re on social media or you watch the NFL, it’s almost impossible NOT to know Taboo is a television show, that it’s on FX, and that it premieres this week.
But is it any good?
It’s a difficult question to answer, because there’s two ways to approach a show like Taboo, which tells the story of James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), a man many believed to be dead, reemerging in 1814 London to take over the shipping empire his now deceased father owned. Delaney spent a decade in Africa, and through very vague, almost horror movie style flashbacks and visions, we realize he’s seen some shit, to be blunt. Hardy, whether in Taboo, as a double cross artist in The Revenant, or a rebellious, rage-filled prisoner in Mad Max: Fury Road, nails that grizzled, tortured man role every single time.
The East India Company desperately desires a stretch of land, Nootka Island, which is a gateway to China and has major value to both the British and American governments. Delaney’s father owned it, originally purchasing it with gunpowder. As expected, the financial offer is made and refused, and it’s clear the younger Delaney’s goal is to hit the reset button on his life. He’s a hardened brute of a man who speaks in almost villainous tones, exacerbated and enhanced by Hardy’s natural voice and expression.
Nobody plays this kind of character like Tom Hardy. He’s a perfect fit for it, and he often takes over a screen in a way virtually no one else in Hollywood can. The intrigue and mystery with which me speaks, moves, and thinks makes Delaney a fascinating protagonist.
Three episodes into Taboo, one thing stands out above all else, and it’s my lasting impression of the series thus far. As gorgeous as it is, as high-budget as it is, and as strong as the performances are, it’s not all that much fun to watch. Visually stunning with a powerful score, it absolutely does envelop the viewer in its world. I suggest watching it in a dark room, with no secondary screen distractions of any kind. Wrap yourself in it and see if you come out as a convert to its bleak, harsh palette.
It’s just not an easy experience, because there’s very little to latch onto early. You’re on Delaney’s side, but you’re aware of his penchant for violence or selfishness. He moves with his own moral code, something that isn’t unfamiliar in serialized drama. Dexter Morgan might be the best example, but he’s far from the only one. Motivations and a warped sense of self-interest and superior enlightenment is a story that works almost every time. James is yet another antihero in a century filled with them.
Hardy commands and demands your attention whenever he’s on screen, which thankfully is rather frequently. The supporting cast is strong, and the side story involving Delaney’s half-sister (Oona Chaplin) quickly becomes almost a 1 and 1A situation. It’s more inviting to follow the relationship between the two of them and the predictably overbearing, selfish husband than it is the shipping business. That said, I’m a sucker for a corruption and betrayal money story, so my favorite part of the opener was Delaney’s meeting with the EIC over the land parcel.
With the East India Company and its leader, Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) playing the real antagonist, at least in the early stages of the series, much of the pilot’s dialogue focuses on the business side and the deception that comes from information. As the organization attempts to get what it wants, they have no idea that James Delaney knows the secrets and understands the money, the power, and the history associated with his father’s empire. It leads him down the obvious path to find out the circumstances of his dad’s death, and I’ll leave it to you to find out the results.
As odd as both the premise and execution of Taboo are, the baseline principles are in no way unique or particularly profound. That’s not a slight, however, as we see the same stories recycled in every form of entertainment known to man. How many David and Goliath variations have you seen in your lifetime? How many times has love triumphed over all? How many times has a lead character taken the easy way out and ended up over his or head in a life of crime or excess?
Delaney constantly reminds us through multiple conversations that he’s a man who acts in a reckless manner. He talks of being a risk-taker, and one that acknowledges he’s prone to mistakes in judgment. It makes him a deeper character, but again, it’s put right in the face of the viewer. More subtlety would have helped, as we can tell he’s dangerous to himself and others without him beating it into our skulls as he would someone who lied to him. Even the whores aren’t safe, as you’ll soon find out for yourself.
Taboo does tell a love story, but it also tells the familiar tale of the outsider, the interloper, who returns after a long exodus to wreck the plans of powerful men. In 1814, it means James Delaney is in immediate danger, and will have to fend for his life until his luck runs out. The enemies are everywhere, and the presentation lends itself to a monstrous, nearly supernatural sensation. Taboo is a weird series.
I don’t dislike the show, and I’m going to stick with it, but I don’t love the exhaustion that comes with finishing an episode and feeling an immediate dullness in the pit of my stomach. It can work for a time, but at some point, a series has to be entertaining to keep an audience in the long term. When each of the three Taboo episodes FX provided to critics ended, I thought to myself, I’d rather just watch Black Sails, Game of Thrones, or Sherlock’s “The Abominable Bride.” In some form or fashion, I’ve gotten vibes of each of them while watching the trials and tribulations of James Delaney.
Taboo is filled with ominous one-liners and all-star work from Tom Hardy, Jonathan Pryce (who is, as always, excellent), Oona Chaplin, David Hayman, and many others. It sets a mood from the very first frame, and the spooky nature of the proceedings are worth your time. I have incomplete opinions as of right now, but I’m interested in seeing more and watching the story unspool itself from the shadows.
Hardy will bring the viewers. The story will be what keeps them there. Right now, it’s a toss-up whether there’s enough narrative in the introductory stages to avoid a drop off. Television is so packed with content that the competition is continually fierce. If people are bored or remain free from a series’ hook early, they depart and even a good show is dead in the water.
I’d give the debut a B- on a curve, or more accurately a solid C, but I need to see more before I can fairly judge it. Sadly, in a tough time to be this kind of show, it needs time to develop. Even with Ridley Scott and the vision of Hardy and Knight, you can see the emptiness in the first few episodes. There are flashes of real potential, Tom Hardy is outstanding, and it’s an unbelievable visual marvel, but there are holes and then there are obscure, but visible black holes inside those holes.
It’s not on the level of the highest end FX dramas (Fargo, People v. OJ, Justified, etc) in terms of watchability, but if the plot and the narrative pan out, we could be singing a different ditty in two months. It’s an acquired taste, which may actually be absinthe.
I’m @JMartOutkick on the Tweets and email@example.com on the Letters. People who do not know me soon come to understand that I do not have any sense.