TV Review: Tom Hardy's 'Taboo' on FX

Taboo review Tom Hardy FX

Courtesy of FX

Ponderous and heavy-handed, this new period drama wastes its talented actors on chiaroscuro and angst


At first, the problem with “Taboo” is just that it is slow. Lead Tom Hardy is on the scene immediately — scrambling over some mud to bury something in a ditch — but he never quite does anything that grabs attention. His character, James Delaney, has returned to London for his father’s funeral, but his time away — in unspecific, undifferentiated “Africa” — has taken some kind of toll on him. Hardy spends most of the first episode of “Taboo” brooding and lurking about in dark corners (every corner in 1814 London is shadowy), casting portentous glances and uttering every word as if it is the beginning of an incantation. As Hardy has demonstrated in several other projects, he is eminently watchable — a presence that can manipulate the audience through just looks and grunts, as he did in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” But “Taboo” seems to have no idea what to do with his presence, short of giving him a scar and wrapping him in black broadcloth.

While “Taboo” appears to be building to something, it makes the most of the show’s stellar production values, which create a textured cross-section of London’s less-savory elements that is fascinating, if not exactly pleasant. For example, James has a tense run-in with a lawyer in a pub outhouse — itself just a few steps away from a butcher stewing offal in a back alley cauldron. The scene is a foul corrective to the period nostalgia of “Downton Abbey” and other similar fare, which is to be expected from showrunner Steven Knight, the mind behind World War I-era gangster drama “Peaky Blinders” (also starring Hardy, in a smaller role). But “Taboo” feels like it is trying a little too hard to establish grit, while failing to establish anything else; while the viewer is still wondering what’s up with James Delaney’s bountiful angst, he and the lawyer say the word “piss” several times in their quaint accents and then threaten each other with murder, presumably to drive home the impression that it is all very hard over there in old-timey Londontown.

Then — in the pub, incongruously hosting the post-funeral wake for James’ father — James comes face-to-face with his half-sister Zilpha, played with wonderful histrionic nerves by Oona Chaplin. James leans over to her, as she is trying to leave with her husband: “One thing that Africa did not cure is that I still love you,” he declares, with what is supposed to be rough-edged passion. (Might it even be taboo passion?) The audience has just been adjusting to the idea that the two most handsome people in the show are not romantically linked but siblings; turns out, the show wants to offer us both. “Taboo’s” primary story driver is just “Flowers in the Attic: Old-Timey London,” or “Game of Thrones: But Victorian-ish.” The line, which Hardy tries to imbue with hoarse and fiery urgency, lands with all the sexual chemistry of a surgical strike. James seems enraptured merely out of onerous duty, and Chaplin’s Zilpha is less consumed by passion than calculating it.

It is a frankly laughable moment — ponderously serious, lit in overcompensating shades of gray and black, and veined with a bit of self-flagellating malice that is more overwrought than introspective. This is “Taboo” in a nutshell; trying way, way too hard to sell the audience on the performance of seriousness, while failing to offer anything of substance. At times it seems the show is shying away from substance in favor of delivering more superficial appeal. And to be sure, if “Taboo” were fun, perhaps that would be understandable. But “Taboo” is not fun — it’s grim, dour and self-important. It’s odd — the show should have spades of atmosphere and talent to offer. But for all its mustache-twirling, it never reaches a cohesive, sharp point of significance. Instead it seems a little like “Penny Dreadful” and “Game of Thrones” were hacked apart, and in an unholy dissection, eviscerated for parts. “Taboo” is a reanimated corpse of prestige drama tropes — manufactured darkness, heavy-handed grit, and sexual titillation, assembled with little to no unifying vision.

And despite the actor’s talent and appeal, much of “Taboo’s” problems are encapsulated in Hardy’s James himself. Perhaps that is not totally surprising — along with Knight, “Taboo” was developed by Hardy and Hardy’s father. But the attempts to make James sympathetic or admirable flatten him into caricature. And, most uncomfortably, the efforts specifically fall apart when it comes to race. It’s natural enough that Londoners in 1814 might dismiss Africa as an undifferentiated continent — or favor the observations of a free white man who witnessed slavery over a person who actually was enslaved. But it is no longer 1814. A still-developing plot point in the first three seasons is James’ realization that his father did not marry his mother so much as buy her; she was a slave bundled into a property deal. With its meditations on identity and belonging, it’s one of the most interesting developments in “Taboo.” But this story beat also means that Hardy, a white man, is supposed to be playing a character who is mixed-race.

Furthermore, James’ decade in Africa is given a kind of hand-waving occult power. James speaks a tribal language, seems familiar with a set of symbols from some kind of ritual or worship, and according to the rumors of others, engaged in some kind of cannibalism. But without the grounding specifics, these are lazily sketched signifiers about “dark magic,” which either capitalize on James’ mixed-race heritage or his time with “savage” tribes. “Taboo” is at its most interesting when it observes how random and relative our assumptions of moral purity is; a whole show alone could exist on the changing connotations and denotations of “savage,” as it is used to describe behavior, ritual, individuals, and locations. But given that “Taboo” excels at creating the texture and nuance of London at this time, the vagueness around “Africa” is even more pronounced.

On a purely story level, too, James is just too good at being the rakish lead. He doesn’t do a single thing wrong, strategically, in the first few episodes — paying out debts with money that appears out of nowhere, showing up to speak publicly just as the occasion demands it, and intervening with violence at precisely the moment the other shoe is about to drop. Coupled with his tortured passion, apparent abolitionist beliefs, angst regarding his father, and threatening swagger, he’s just too slick all around — a character that seems too perfect, modern, and badass to be a real man in 1814. He is also infinitely attractive, of course, a kind of pre-Victorian James Bond. In one scene, he is brutishly rude to a local prostitute (Helga, played by Franka Potente), who responds by outlining, in no uncertain terms, that she would like him inside her.

Indeed, yes, there are prostitutes. In “Taboo’s” defense, London has a long and storied history of prostitution. But so does prestige television. There is something a bit too convenient about Helga’s desire for James, just as there is something a bit too flat in the numerous cracks made about how a soliciting English gentleman might prefer boys instead. It’s a pulpy kind of progressivism, an interest in diverse experiences that only encompasses how titillating each viewpoint can be.

Which is a shame, because elements of “Taboo” do succeed. As with “Peaky Blinders,” Knight excels at creating the grit underneath our genteel assumptions of this era — 1814 is just a couple of years after the majority of Jane Austen’s novels were written, after all. It is a far cry from her parlor teas to this labyrinth of corrupt dockworkers and raucous auction-houses, those locations where her heroines could not go, but only hear about later from the men they would eventually marry.

But for all of the taboos that “Taboo” so proudly portrays, it cannot locate a reason for all of this cursing and killing, either tonally or logically. James and Zilpha’s father is described by everyone as a failure and embarrassment. But despite the older Delaney’s failings, James is committed to his father’s company and property, going so far as to refuse to sell a piece of land in British Columbia that is strategically key in the ongoing war of 1812. Jonathan Pryce plays the East India Company official whose job it is to make James sell the land for the good of the Crown; James, a rebel without a cause, refuses to capitulate to king and country. It is very difficult to understand why, except that perhaps James prefers brooding in dark corners to rolling around in cash. But this decision to not sell is what the entire story hinges on; everyone, from Zilpha’s extremely creepy husband to the Prince Regent, is trying to get James to sell, and they’ll all happily see him dead.

“Taboo” has far too much going on for its relatively thin material; it insinuates more than it says, and the first episodes only make sense if you are willing to believe that there is something intriguing about the “darkness” that James and sometimes Zilpha have at their core. It is so outsize and over-the-top with elements of its storytelling that it might work better to think of “Taboo” as camp; but if so, it is very expensive, self-serious, and unfunny camp indeed.

21 Comments

  1. Neil says:

    January 8, 2017 at 6:27 am

    Just watched the first episode, which was tremendous. Igonore the review. This will scoop awards all over. Just wait & see.

    Reply

  2. Sky says:

    January 8, 2017 at 2:18 am

    “A still-developing plot point in the first three seasons…” How was this missed in editing? It should read episodes not seasons. Also, the writer mistakenly implies the mother was an African slave when in fact she was from a North American Indian tribe.

    Reply

  3. Elizabeth Hill

    Elizabeth Hill says:

    January 7, 2017 at 9:36 pm

    I loved this! Not slow at all. Perfect in every way. Tom Hardy is mysterious and magnetic. The scenery was spectacular. Must watch.

    Reply

  4. carterfrancis

    carterfrancis says:

    January 7, 2017 at 7:21 pm

    WOW! Was this a review or a recap? Sorry, Sonia, but based on your top 20 for 2016, pardon me if I don’t take your word on Taboo.

    Reply

  5. jojo says:

    January 7, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    I just watched the 1st episode. It was not boring or tedious. What critics cant stand is they expect a movie or series to lay out the full story in the first 10 minutes or they are bored.
    What if Game of Thrones did that? Who would bother watching?
    This story seems pretty familiar, inheritance dispute, mean evil father, mean sadistic big step brother etc.
    The only unknown here is the implied voodoo/magic which in time may or may not reveal itself to be.
    Worth watching more episodes.

    Reply

  6. alexabingdon2015

    alexabingdon2015 says:

    January 7, 2017 at 8:54 am

    This review is just tedious to the extreme and I didn’t say that because she semi-trashed the series: other reviewers seemed to agree with her and I’m not a huge fan of Tom Hardy anyway.

    Reply

  7. Mike says:

    January 7, 2017 at 2:40 am

    Wow the Tom Hardy fanboys and fangirls took over the comment section to defend their fave. Hardy (a white guy) wrote a bi-racial character for himself and in addition the character was able to do magic from Africa. This is racially offensive and stereo-typing. There’s no excuse for that.
    And the petty comments that get so upset that the reviewer just didn’t enjoy the show much are laughable. It doesn’t make the show better just because Hardy fans claim that the show will be great although they haven’t even seen the first episode.

    Reply

  8. Sky says:

    January 8, 2017 at 2:40 am

    The first episode has already aired on BBC. We don’t know the full racial/ethnic makeup of the mother other than she is from a tribe located in present day Canada so you can’t assume Hardy’s character is bi-racial. She herself could have been bi racial. And as noted by another commentator, Hardy’s character spent a decade in Africa. Surely he was able to learn local religious practices. How is that offensive? What Westerners consider a religious practice such as turning water into wine could be viewed as magic too. It’s all a matter of perspective. Let the full 8 episodes play out so we get the complete story before we pull out the pitchforks and label something as racially offensive or stereotypical.

    Reply

  9. Theodora says:

    January 7, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Mike, since you are in such high spirits, would you mind answering the following questions?:
    -Why is it unacceptable for a white actor to play a character who is supposed to be partly white?
    -Unlike what people of your ilk think, Delaney is not half black-half white. His mother is from a Nootka tribe which belongs to the North American Indian ethnic group. Which means that Delaney is part Irish-part American Indian. In this context, would you be as offended if an entirely American Indian actor would play Delaney, just because he is not white? And if not, would this mean that you are profoundly hypocritical?
    -Given the fact that African Kingdoms at the time (in this case The Ashanti Kingdom: Delaney speaks Twi and has Ashanti-like tatoos) have both religious and magic practices, do you think that a foreigner would not be able to absorb them over a 10 year period? If not, what do you make of the nonfunctional cases such as Francisco de Sousa, a mixed race slave owner and a vodun practitioner?
    -Why is a ”white” person devoted to a West African religion such an ”racially offensive” thing?
    -Why do you have such fixation with ”Hardy fanboys and fangirls”?
    -Do you think that there is ”no excuse” for checking facts and judging without any knowledge on the issue whatsoever?

    Reply

  10. Theodora says:

    January 7, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Mike, since you are in such high spirits, would you mind answering the following questions?:
    -Why is it unacceptable for a white actor to play a character who is supposed to be partly white?
    -Unlike what people of your ilk think, Delaney is not half black-half white. His mother is from a Nootka tribe which belongs to the North American Indian ethnic group. Which means that Delaney is part Irish-part American Indian. In this context, would you be as offended if an entirely American Indian actor would play Delaney, just because he is not white? And if not, would this mean that you are profoundly hypocritical?
    -Given the fact that African Kingdoms at the time (in this case The Ashanti Kingdom: Delaney speaks Twi and has Ashanti-like tatoos) have both religious and magic practices, do you think that a foreigner would not be able to absorb them over a 10 year period? If not, what do you make of the nonfunctional cases such as Francisco de Sousa, a mixed race slave owner and a vodun practitioner?
    -Why is a ”white” person devoted to a West African religion such an ”racially offensive” thing?
    -Why do you have such fixation with ”Hardy fanboys and fangirls”?
    -Do you think that there is ”no excuse” for checking facts and judging without any knowledge on the issue whatsoever?

    Reply

  11. eddie willers

    Theodora says:

    January 7, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Mike, since you are in such high spirits, would you mind answering the following questions?:
    -Why is it unacceptable for a white actor to play a character who is supposed to be partly white?
    -Unlike what people of your ilk think, Delaney is not half black-half white. His mother is from a Nootka tribe which belongs to the North American Indian ethnic group. Which means that Delaney is part Irish-part American Indian. In this context, would you be as offended if an entirely American Indian actor would play Delaney, just because he is not white? And if not, would this mean that you are profoundly hypocritical?
    -Given the fact that African Kingdoms at the time (in this case The Ashanti Kingdom: Delaney speaks Twi and has Ashanti-like tatoos) have both religious and magic practices, do you think that a foreigner would not be able to absorb them over a 10 year period? If not, what do you make of the nonfunctional cases such as Francisco de Sousa, a mixed race slave owner and a vodun practitioner?
    -Why is a ”white” person devoted to a West African religion such an ”racially offensive” thing?
    -Why do you have such fixation with ”Hardy fanboys and fangirls”?
    -Do you think that there is ”no excuse” for checking facts and judging without any knowledge on the issue whatsoever?

    Reply

  12. That Black Guy

    Theodora says:

    January 7, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Mike, since you are in such high spirits, would you mind answering the following questions?:
    -Why is it unacceptable for a white actor to play a character who is supposed to be partly white?
    -Unlike what people of your ilk think, Delaney is not half black-half white. His mother is from a Nootka tribe which belongs to the North American Indian ethnic group. Which means that Delaney is part Irish-part American Indian. In this context, would you be as offended if an entirely American Indian actor would play Delaney, just because he is not white? And if not, would this mean that you are profoundly hypocritical?
    -Given the fact that African Kingdoms at the time (in this case The Ashanti Kingdom: Delaney speaks Twi and has Ashanti-like tatoos) have both religious and magic practices, do you think that a foreigner would not be able to absorb them over a 10 year period? If not, what do you make of the nonfunctional cases such as Francisco de Sousa, a mixed race slave owner and a vodun practitioner?
    -Why is a ”white” person devoted to a West African religion such an ”racially offensive” thing?
    -Why do you have such fixation with ”Hardy fanboys and fangirls”?
    -Do you think that there is ”no excuse” for checking facts and judging without any knowledge on the issue whatsoever?

    Reply

  13. That Black Guy

    Theodora says:

    January 7, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Mike, since you are in such high spirits, would you mind answering the following questions?:
    -Why is it unacceptable for a white actor to play a character who is supposed to be partly white?
    -Unlike what people of your ilk think, Delaney is not half black-half white. His mother is from a Nootka tribe which belongs to the North American Indian ethnic group. Which means that Delaney is part Irish-part American Indian. In this context, would you be as offended if an entirely American Indian actor would play Delaney, just because he is not white? And if not, would this mean that you are profoundly hypocritical?
    -Given the fact that African Kingdoms at the time (in this case The Ashanti Kingdom: Delaney speaks Twi and has Ashanti-like tatoos) have both religious and magic practices, do you think that a foreigner would not be able to absorb them over a 10 year period? If not, what do you make of the nonfunctional cases such as Francisco de Sousa, a mixed race slave owner and a vodun practitioner?
    -Why is a ”white” person devoted to a West African religion such an ”racially offensive” thing?
    -Why do you have such fixation with ”Hardy fanboys and fangirls”?
    -Do you think that there is ”no excuse” for checking facts and judging without any knowledge on the issue whatsoever?

    Reply

  14. Theodora says:

    January 7, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Mike, since you are in such high spirits, would you mind answering the following questions?:
    -Why is it unacceptable for a white actor to play a character who is supposed to be partly white?
    -Unlike what people of your ilk think, Delaney is not half black-half white. His mother is from a Nootka tribe which belongs to the North American Indian ethnic group. Which means that Delaney is part Irish-part American Indian. In this context, would you be as offended if an entirely American Indian actor would play Delaney, just because he is not white? And if not, would this mean that you are profoundly hypocritical?
    -Given the fact that African Kingdoms at the time (in this case The Ashanti Kingdom: Delaney speaks Twi and has Ashanti-like tatoos) have both religious and magic practices, do you think that a foreigner would not be able to absorb them over a 10 year period? If not, what do you make of the nonfunctional cases such as Francisco de Sousa, a mixed race slave owner and a vodun practitioner?
    -Why is a ”white” person devoted to a West African religion such an ”racially offensive” thing?
    -Why do you have such fixation with ”Hardy fanboys and fangirls”?
    -Do you think that there is ”no excuse” for checking facts and judging without any knowledge on the issue whatsoever?

    Reply

  15. Doc Michaels

    Theodora says:

    January 7, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Mike, since you are in such high spirits, would you mind answering the following questions?:
    -Why is it unacceptable for a white actor to play a character who is supposed to be partly white?
    -Unlike what people of your ilk think, Delaney is not half black-half white. His mother is from a Nootka tribe which belongs to the North American Indian ethnic group. Which means that Delaney is part Irish-part American Indian. In this context, would you be as offended if an entirely American Indian actor would play Delaney, just because he is not white? And if not, would this mean that you are profoundly hypocritical?
    -Given the fact that African Kingdoms at the time (in this case The Ashanti Kingdom: Delaney speaks Twi and has Ashanti-like tatoos) have both religious and magic practices, do you think that a foreigner would not be able to absorb them over a 10 year period? If not, what do you make of the nonfunctional cases such as Francisco de Sousa, a mixed race slave owner and a vodun practitioner?
    -Why is a ”white” person devoted to a West African religion such an ”racially offensive” thing?
    -Why do you have such fixation with ”Hardy fanboys and fangirls”?
    -Do you think that there is ”no excuse” for checking facts and judging without any knowledge on the issue whatsoever?

    Reply

  16. Dani Thomas

    Bobbi says:

    January 6, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    Hey Sonia, Whaaaaat? Your review of Taboo was exhausting! There wasn’t a lick of redeemingly valuable information in your article. This I do know: Tom Hardy is an amazing actor, I’ve been looking forward to this series for months, it’s on avant-garde FX…AND, I already have every episode recorded – so there ya go!

    Reply

  17. eddie willers says:

    January 6, 2017 at 8:24 pm

    Jeeze…this review is longer than the mini-series.

    Reply

  18. That Black Guy says:

    January 6, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    Oh and ma’am, as someone who comes from an African family, I have 3 uncles that if they didn’t tell you their mother was Nigerian and show deftness at her native tongue you’d never guess, you’d think they were Greek or lighter Arabic. I have 3 cousins two look Samoan or Filipino and one looks pretty white, even has a weirdly blond section of hair like something out of an anime, but all 4 have a grandmother that comes from Africa. Now I myself along with my siblings and parents are all pretty dark so this makes me hanging out with my uncles and cousins a very strange sight to behold. So I can easily believe Tom Hardy is potentially Part-African in this story.

    Reply

  19. epicurioustraveler

    That Black Guy says:

    January 6, 2017 at 4:13 pm

    So it’s great then? Because everything you said was flipping great here

    Reply

  20. Bcdc says:

    January 6, 2017 at 10:21 am

    Maybe the reason it’s so vague about Africa is because at the time the continent was pretty vague to the average Londoner. It was known as the heart of darkness. If they went around avoiding anything that would seem mildly racially stereotypical to modern eyes it wouldn’t be a very good period drama.

    Reply

  21. stevenkovacs

    Doc Michaels says:

    January 6, 2017 at 10:08 am

    Yet another tedious review from this writer. In fact, Saraiya’s reviews are like a reverse barometer for me on this site. They seem to be written first and foremost for the reader to be impressed with her prose and vocabulary — actual criticism of the show being analyzed second.

    Reply

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