When we first meet James Keziah Delaney, the hero of the new FX drama Taboo, he’s on a tall ship. Then he’s on a rowboat, then on a white horse, then strutting bow-legged through the streets of 1814 London. He is, the opening sequence wants to tell us, a man with drive and purpose. He has places to be, people to threaten, an agenda to pursue rapidly.
Would that Taboo itself was as motivated as its main character. The series (a BBC co-production, it debuts in the U.K. this weekend, and in the U.S. on Tuesday night at 10) is slow, dark (visually as well as tonally) and unrelentingly humorless. Any of those three qualities on its own would be fine, but put together in service of what’s ultimately a trashy, if pretentious, revenge story, it’s an utter slog, and the biggest creative misstep FX has made in a while.
Delaney is played by Tom Hardy, who created Taboo with his father Chips and Steven Knight, who’s previously worked with Hardy on Locke and another violent period British drama, Peaky Blinders.(*) As a partnership with the BBC, and one co-created by a movie star looking to dabble in TV, the usually reliable FX braintrust may not have been able to make many suggestions — or they were simply ignored — but, boy could Taboo have used some.
(*) To answer your question: no, I have not watched Peaky Blinders, other than the first episode (which moves more and is significantly more fun than this). It’s on a long list of shows I’d like to catch up on if Peak TV ever goes away somehow.
The three episodes sent out for review give some sense of the plot, with Delaney returning from an infamous and potentially mystical African sojourn in the wake of his father’s death. He has designs on a piece of property near Vancouver that his father left him, but the East India Company — led by the arrogant Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce, the only actor in the production enjoying himself even slightly) — has plans for it, as do several other parties, including the royal family, a woman claiming to be Delaney’s stepmother, and the husband of Delaney’s sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin). And it’s Delaney’s feelings for Zilpha — and, perhaps, vice versa? — that provide the eponymous taboo, and perhaps the reason why the show comes across as so pleased with itself.
There’s raw material here for an unabashedly campy potboiler, but Taboo and its star both take themselves far too seriously for the story, and for the pace at which it’s being told. Hardy swaggers around, growling in his latest weird voice (imagine if Bane from The Dark Knight Rises had gargled asphalt all morning) as he makes intense pronouncements — at different points in the premiere, he intones, “Forgive me, father, for I have indeed sinned” and “People who do not know me soon come to understand that I do not have any sense” — but the plot itself meanders far too much for any of it to be of interest, particularly when everything is lit so darkly (and with five layers of 19th century grime covering most surfaces) that you sometimes have to squint with your face pressed against the screen just to make out what’s happening, let alone why. There are occasional references to the supernatural — rituals Delaney picked up in Africa, which gives other characters license to use the N-word to describe him — but presented in such muddy fashion that it’s not clear if we’re meant to believe them, think that Delaney is using this stuff to confuse his enemies, or if he’s just a crazy man who believes it himself.
When Tom Hardy comes to you and says he wants to make a TV show, you not only take that meeting, but you probably smile and nod at his many suggestions. That’s just the way the business works sometimes. But even if the idea came from Hardy and his dad, it might have done better with a less intense — even if he was also less famous — man at the center of the project.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org