Historical fiction dramas can be boring. Supernatural dramas can be exciting. So what happens when you combine the two genres? You get something like FX’s new limited series, “Taboo,” which is not quite exciting, but not completely boring either.
Given its ambiguity and lengthy run time (each episode is almost an hour long), “Taboo” is a demanding show. It draws viewers in with elegant performances and visual splendor, but has trouble maintaining its audience’s attention as it lacks urgency and emotional resonance. The series requires full concentration in order to completely comprehend the story, yet it barely gives an idea of where the show is headed.
Despite these flaws, “Taboo” is rewarding for its much more substantial qualities. It includes a riveting title sequence, intriguing cinematography, gothic imagery drenched in gloomy colors and, most importantly, some damn good acting, particularly from the perfectly cast Tom Hardy (“Legend”) and the always reliable Jonathan Pryce (“Game of Thrones”).
Produced and created by Hardy, his father Edward Hardy and director Steven Knight (“Locke”), “Taboo” succeeds with its supernatural and atmospheric thrills, but falters in its suspense buildup and overall sense of dread. Set in 1814 London, the story revolves around James Delaney (Hardy), a formidable man presumed dead who returns to Britain to avenge his father’s death and claim his inherited stretch of land. With no warning, Delaney’s sudden resurrection spooks the locals and the people closest to him — namely, his half-sister/possible secret lover Zilpha (Oona Chaplin, “Black Mirror”), her cruel husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall, “Vikings”) and Sir Stuart Strange (Pryce), the charismatic chairman of the East India Company.
While each character possesses shades of complexity, the greatest strength of “Taboo” is its protagonist. With his signature gruff grumble and imposing physique, Hardy transforms Delaney into a perplexing yet fascinating and believable antihero. He drives the show’s mystery, reflecting the enigma of his character through his looming presence over a morally corrupt Britain. Thorne, Sir Stuart and others perceive him as a barbarian, but by exhibiting a sophisticated demeanor, Delaney contradicts both his doubters and the viewers. Nevertheless, he also seems capable of animalistic impulses. In addition to being a threatening figure, Delaney is haunted by troubling visions and demonic hallucinations from his travels to Africa, where he stayed for 12 years before coming back home.
No one seems to know exactly who Delaney is, what his true intentions are or what actions he is willing to take in order to get what he wants. This character is exactly what powers “Taboo;” a disappointment considering the show doesn’t seem concerned with making its plot or themes a larger priority. “Taboo” is at best mediocre and at worst languid, but given its striking main character, it has the potential to develop into a much more layered story.
“Taboo” falls on familiar themes from other British dramas — a forbidden romance, eloquent historical dialogue, the socioeconomic clash between the rich and the poor. But for some reason, the series differs from the conventional period piece. The show is in that weird, uncomfortable limbo, where it verges on being something transcendent, but instead settles for being just alright, relying mostly on its remarkable lead to carry it along.
Part of FX’s phenomenal programming, “Taboo” certainly lends to the network’s thematic and aesthetic diversity with its compelling visuals and deliberately paced storytelling. Next to “Atlanta,” “The Americans” and “Fargo,” however, “Taboo” is not at the same level of incredible, entertaining storytelling (at least, not yet). For patient viewers, “Taboo” can be a real treat, especially for fans of Hardy’s previous work. But for those looking for something more engaging, “Taboo” may not be the right show.