STORY WRITTEN BY ROB LOWMAN
Southern California News Group
“Taboo,” which begins tonight on FX, starts out so ominously that it’s impossible to tell what ambitions the eight–part series has. One minute it suggests it may be working on some grand dark theatrical level and other places it plays out as a 19th-century melodrama.
By the third episode it seems to have settled into its true nature, a bit of an overwrought graphic novel set in 1814 and brought to vivid life, bad teeth and all. (Cannibalism is mentioned.) It stars Tom Hardy, who created the show with his father, Chips Hardy, and the writer and producer Steven Knight, who worked with Hardy on “Peaky Blinders” and “Locke.”
Hardy plays James Keziah Delaney, a mysterious figure who suddenly reappears in London in 1814 just in time for his father’s funeral and to collect his inheritance. It is implied early on that James, who folks think has “gone native,” may have psychic powers or he may be “touched” like his mother who ended up in Bedlam, the notorious insane asylum.
His father had been mad at the end off his life, too, but left everything to James and nothing to his half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), angering her lout of a husband. James wastes no time telling his distraught sibling at the burial that his lust for her still burns. It seems they had a thing once.
Hey, this is called “Taboo.”
It’s a mistake, though, to take the series too seriously. While it struts and frets and boasts some top-notch actors, I’m not sure it has anything in mind other than being weirdly entertaining.
There is an obvious leering quality about it. Those bad teeth aren’t there merely to remind us of the bad hygiene of the era. In one scene, an American spy played by Michael Kelly grins maniacally over a wounded James and it is impossible not to focus on those yellow — radioactive-looking — teeth. It’s like something you’d see in a comic book.
So before you want to go down some rabbit hole about what might be haunting James or whether there is some great meaning in this, remember that Hardy’s character may be a nutter. There is madness in the rest of the story. Mad King George III, the guy our founding fathers rebelled against, was still reigning in Britain during the War of 1812, although his son, the gout-ridden future King George VI was handling most of the politics.
While James’ father had left him with a shipping business in shambles, he also left him Nootka Sound, a real place on Vancouver Island and at the time a key element in the negotiations between the U.S. and Britain to end the war and establish a boundary along Canada.
So James finds himself in a deadly game of power between the East India Co., the monarchy and the young United States of America, but of course he knew he would. At that point the series becomes more of a thriller despite some of the mumbo-jumbo and unanswered questions about where James had been and what he did. Had he been a slaver? Had he lived with an African tribe? Who exactly was his mother?
“Taboo” is slow at first. You keep waiting for it to reveal itself, but if you let that go, you can enjoy the acting, the atmosphere and mystery. Hardy has an unpredictable edge to James. Chaplin pulses as Zilpha, who must keep her emotions pent up. (The passions between her and James seem intentionally over the top.) And Jonathan Pryce’s character wonderfully epitomizes evil as a representative of the East India Co.
“Taboo” doesn’t have the hidden depths of Showtime’s late “Penny Dreadful,” but once it lightens up — and hopefully it stays that way — it might turn out to be fun.