At a pivotal moment of FX’s new dark miniseries Taboo, a lawyer relentlessly paces about a courtroom, flustered. He tugs at his collar, red-faced, perspiration beading up on his forehead.
From the galley, Tom Hardy leans forward, a magnificent sneer on his face. He’s poised to strike.
“The island in question…” begins the lawyer. Hardy emits a mighty bark of a laugh, slamming his hand down onto an object in front of him, filling the courtroom with a loud buzzing sound.
“You can’t say ‘island’!” shouts Hardy, full with self-righteousness. He pulls out, with a great flourish, a little piece of cardboard. “It’s right there on the card.”
Okay, okay, okay. None of that happens; I made all of it up. But an actual dramatization of the board game Taboo might turn out to be more interesting than the new FX series Taboo, because at least I would know what the board game adaptation was supposed to be about. After watching three episodes of the actual Taboo, I’m struggling.
One thing I know for sure: Tom Hardy is terrific
There’s a very good reason Taboo is on the air, and it’s because Hardy, one of the best actors of his generation, wanted to make it. If you’re FX (which co-produced the show with the BBC), that means you roll the dice on the actor’s passion project and hope it makes sense to somebody other than him.
As a Hardy delivery vehicle, Taboo is solid stuff. He plays James Delaney, a man who spent several years having some sort of poorly explicated mystical adventures in Africa in the early 1800s. (Everybody else apparently assumed he was dead.) Years later — in 1814, to be specific — he turns up in London, having come to see his father, only to learn his father died under mysterious circumstances.
Hoping both to ascertain what happened to his father and to gain his inheritance, James quickly embarks on a mission of revenge and so on and so forth. Among those upon whom he’ll presumably have his vengeance is a trading company head played by Jonathan Pryce, best known for playing the High Sparrow on Game of Thrones, and I’m always up for Pryce as a Big Bad. Basically, Taboo is a period revenge story like The Revenant, the film for which Hardy received an Oscar nomination (except in that case, he was the object, not the subject, of revenge).
Because I like Hardy as much as I do, I was more than willing to watch him hang out in a 19th century potboiler. And Taboo takes stabs at profundity; James is grappling with the morality of the slave trade, for one thing. But for the most part, this is a dark, grimy story about a man who wants to spill dark, grimy blood in a dark, grimy revenge plot. Cannibalism and murder are invoked, the n-word is tossed around (to refer to Hardy!), and the dark humorlessness of it all might feel claustrophobic, were it not for the show’s star.
Indeed, Taboo is the sort of story in which Hardy can shine. He glowers. He growls. He lurks in the shadows and steps into the light at only the most opportune of moments. He occasionally seems to have the supernatural power to show up wherever he’s needed to make the plot move forward. And when he shares the screen with Oona Chaplin as James’s estranged sister, Zilpha, the two exhibit the kind of creepy, strange chemistry that suggests why the show has its title in the first place.
But Taboo’s story is slow as molasses
All of the stuff I’ve outlined above? The show is really only starting to get to it by the end of its third hour-long episode (and since this was produced for the BBC as well as FX, every episode really does run a full hour). For the most part, Taboo’s first three episodes center on a small island in the Pacific Northwest that is a hotspot in the War of 1812 — which is to say that both British and Americans covet it. And who owns that island? James!
On a conceptual level, this setup is sort of audacious. Everybody’s fighting over a tiny speck of land that none of them is likely to ever see, but that they know is important because of its position on a map. In our age of Google Earth, this is a great way to underline just how big and hazy the planet seemed to our ancestors.
But on the level of, like, creating an interesting story, it causes the show to flounder. Hardy actually co-created Taboo with both his father, Chips Hardy, and Steven Knight, the man behind the solid British gangster drama Peaky Blinders, and the three can’t seem to find a compelling way into their material. This is often true with Knight — his works are technically proficient and beautifully opulent, but when you go digging around for a hint of soul, you’re in for a long search. It’s always there, but it rarely reveals itself. His shows don’t want to be pinned down.
And as it turns out, “conceptually audacious, but not actually that interesting” is an apt description of Taboo as a whole, because it’s crammed full of ideas and scenes where you can see what everyone involved is going for and how they fall short. The show frequently sacrifices narrative momentum in pursuit of a meticulous recreation of 1814 London, to its detriment. (Though its sets and costumes, I should say, are phenomenal, and I hope the DVD case comes with a sticker that says, “Now with extra grime!”)
Director Kristoffer Nyholm (responsible for the first four episodes out of eight in the season) is very interested in the interplay of light and shadow, in ways that are both historically accurate (no artificial light!) and thematically apt. But the frequent darkness also creates literal confusion about what’s going on — as if verisimilitude got in the way of storytelling.
Similarly, Taboo exoticizes almost every nonwhite person in its tale, in a way that makes very clear it’s doing so because that’s what people did in 1814 London. But while that approach in itself is also pretty conceptually audacious, the show still, uh, exoticizes a bunch of nonwhite people, which leaves a bad taste.
Yet I’m hesitant to write off Taboo so quickly, or even to deem it “bad.” Some of my tolerance is thanks to Hardy and his capable co-stars. Some of it thanks to Taboo’s sumptuous period detail. And a little bit is thanks to the momentum the show builds by the end of episode three. There’s enough intriguing stuff here to keep me watching.
But there’s also very little to orient the show specifically as a TV show, as opposed to an extended vanity project or something that should have been a movie — and consequently much, much shorter. Taboo is essentially like its title. It teases and teases and teases something envelope-shattering and a little bit disturbing, but then it settles for the same old tropes you’ve seen before, albeit more handsomely delivered than usual. At least if Tom Hardy were starring in an 1814-set version of the board game, the show would be weird. As it is, it’s not much of anything at all.
Taboo debuts tonight on FX at 10 pm Eastern.