“Taboo” is Prestige Television at its Worst

Tom Hardy is not enough to make the period drama bearable.

| March 3, 2017

Photo courtesy of FX.

It became clear about midway through the eight episode run of “Taboo” that things were not going to improve. The prestige drama series, airing here in the U.S. on FX and in the U.K. on BBC, was met with much anticipation roughly two months ago, in large part due to the attachment of actor Tom Hardy. The series is set in the murky streets of London during the war of 1812. Hardy plays James Delaney, a man believed to have been long dead after disappearing somewhere in Africa. Yet, to the shock of all London, he returns, appearing almost like a ghost out of thin air.

News has traveled of his father’s death, and now Delaney is seeking to claim his inheritance, which includes a small piece of land on the American border with Canada that is much coveted due to its strategic location and access to trade routs with China. In particular, the land known at Nootka Sound, has caught the eye of the East India Trading Company, lead by a devilish Jonathan Pryce. The company attempts to strike a bargain with Delaney, throwing out every incentive from gold to patriotic duty, but Delaney doesn’t budge. The rest of the series might best be explained as a game of chess between the company and Delaney as he attempts to set in motion a plan to sail off to his newly inherited land.

However, even chess games are more exciting than the scheming that takes place on “Taboo.”  Delaney’s plan seems to be somewhat unclear at times to the audience. At one point Delaney realizes that he will need gun powder to trade one in Nootka but must illegally manufacture his own considering the crown holds control over the substance during times of war. This plot point is hugely important; yet, it was so wistfully thrown into the plot that it wasn’t always clear why we were spending so much time on it.

The show is completely built around Hardy and his performance. It’s a role that is specifically tailored to every one of the actor’s quirks. Hardy himself developed “Taboo” along with his father, Chips (Easily the best name in the Hardy household) and “Peaky Blinders” show-runner Steve Knight (Hardy previously worked with him on both “Blinders” and the movie “Locke”).

Allegedly, it was the character Delaney that came first. Hardy envisioned him as a mix of Bill Sikes from “Oliver Twist,” Marlow from “Heart of Darkness,” Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector, Oedipus and Klaus Kinski’s character from “Aguirre: The Wrath of God.” It was Knight and Hardy’s father who were brought along to develop a series around this fictional creation that Hardy wanted so much to play.

And therein lies the show’s greatest fault. The series surrounding Delaney never seems to be as fully realized and developed as the character himself. Hardy no doubt gives an impressive performance, but your milage may vary depending on how captivated you are by the actor’s brooding nature. However, as fascinatingly bizarre as the character may be, lurking around in a trench coat and top hat, he never once becomes someone the viewer can connect with.

Delaney is, for one thing, completely unstoppable; he is able to outsmart nearly everyone around him and always stay one step ahead of his enemies. At multiple times per episode, Delaney is approached about a particular bit of information, usually a hiccup in his convoluted grand scheme, only to murmur in an almost incomprehensible grumble that he has known all along. This might be effective once, such as in an ending reveal, but to have this notion carried across the whole series felt detrimental to any kind of suspense the show had.

Photo courtesy of FX.

This is also the kind of show where the lead character and those around him are constantly reminding viewers that he is a bad man who has seen and done bad things. But how have these things really effected Delaney? He talks of doing unspeakable things and is clearly haunted by his involvement with slave trading in Africa but is never forced to recon with his actions. The slave trade in particular comes up toward the end as an investigation into the East India Company reveals illegal association with such barbaric acts. However, the plot line is largely tossed aside in place of Delaney’s own interest. He uses his knowledge of the association as leverage to get his way.

The tone of the series is almost unanimously grim and deathly serious. Occasionally, that seriousness breaks into moments of pulpy exploitation, but even those range from being unintentionally funny to shockingly repulsive. Such moments include Delaney performing gruesome acts of violence, such as cutting a man in half and pulling out his organs or having telepathic black-magic sex with his own sister (I’m not making this up).

The problem with these moments is their salaciousness is they never really seem to add anything to either Delaney as a character or the story as a whole. We learn next to nothing about the relationship between Delaney and his sister from their incest other than one simply lusts over the other. In fact, Oona Chaplin, who plays Delaney’s sister, is given nothing to do aside from being sexually assaulted by multiple characters, not just her brother.

The only supporting player who barely gets to shine is Tom Hollander, who plays a sleazy chemist Delaney enlists to make gun powder. His entrance is one of the more unintentionally hilarious moments in the show, as Delaney walks in on him mid-coitus, to which Hollander gives an anecdote about semen turning to poison within the body if not released during sex (I’m really not making this up). Yet, even if Hollander manages to get a couple humorously strange (intended or not) scenes to shine in, his character is treated as nothing more than a cog in Delaney’s grand plan.

What the show’s greatest problem boils down to is a lack of characters viewers can engage with. Watching Hardy have the time of his life is entertaining enough for a couple of episodes, but by the end it appears he is having more fun playing the character than we are watching.

Another take that might come as a surprise; the show is not that great visually ether. Yes, in today’s age where TV looks more and more like the movies in terms of grand visuals, this one drops the ball. It’s certainly possible to make a program with a dark color palette visually interesting but everything on “Taboo” feels dark and muddled to the point of just being ugly.

There are numerous scenes of characters lurking in the dark with only a candle flame to light the frame. Think the scene in “Apocalypse Now” where Marlon Brando is first introduced but spread out over an entire TV series. What results are images almost totally eclipsed in darkness, providing little for the eye to latch onto. The scenes in the street are overcast, filled in dark blacks and browns. Characters walk knee deep in mud that appears to have been thrown on everything around them. Yet, the most egregious visual choice might be to throw in disorienting visions from Delaney’s subconscious that make the scenes they’re in incomprehensible on a fundamental level.

All things considered, a perfect portion of eight episodes felt like an endless nightmare. Hardy has expressed definite interest in returning as the character for a second season. While it may be the role of a lifetime for him, I will be hard-pressed to spend another second with Delaney or the world he lives in.

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Television

Jesse Nussman is a senior at UNCC majoring in Communications and minoring in film. He is an avid film lover and writes about various pop-culture subjects within film, television, and music.

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Comments (4)

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  1. The critic sounds like an envious, frustrated actor. The show is built around TH, and that is a thing of beauty according to the outrageously, fanatically high reviews it has received. All of the points you have written about that were meant to be a slight, were in fact, the most entertaining aspects of the show and characters.
    Thank you for summarizing the plots for me again, so that I could enjoy another viewing without having to turn on the show! I’m obsessed all over again…

  2. Rorybore says:

    They have already confirmed that there is no magic sex — so that means it’s Zilpha all on her own in her bedroom fantasizing about James (and animals) and it also means he never told her to to kill her husband. So she’s crazy also. Also, a lot of what is said about James is basically mythology that he uses to further that idea that he is a “dangerous man.” But when he says that to Lorna and she reacts with an extreme eye roll – you can see how self mocking he is being. James at home is an entirely different man, it’s where the most telling scenes into his damaged psyche occur. His true vulnerability and tenuous grip on reality. There is no magic or supernatural in the show and that changes things greatly. It’s all how his troubled mind deals with things that have happened in the past. In the present, he is very rational and focused on his big plan. That’s the dichotomy of the character. Rational and mental illness. Darkness and Light. James purpose is to bring some kind of balance to all that. In the end I think it’s more of journey back to his true self.

  3. uws nyc says:

    Sadly, essay misses the point. Written by a communications major, I understand that it is composed by someone out of his or her depth–suggest you read some 19th century fiction and try to understand what you are writing about. See this from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/feb/23/naysayers-be-damned-tom-hardys-taboo-is-a-work-of-wicker-man-genius

    Also very weak on analysis of the “look” of the piece as this relates to the characters and plot.

    Essay is poorly phrased, badly argued, and shallow. C-

  4. Barbara says:

    One of the reasons I found this series so compelling is the exact look of those London streets, interiors, river waterfront; have never seen London in the early 1800s look as realistic as portrayed in this series. Not glam, romantic “Downton Abbey” for sure but more like the London inhabitants were familiar with at that time. And yes, I know nearly a century separated the two fictional series set in England. Hooray for “Taboo”, Tom Hardy and am hugely anticipating a second season.

Jesse Nussman is a senior at UNCC majoring in Communications and minoring in film. He is an avid film lover and writes about various pop-culture subjects within film, television, and music.

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