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.