TV: Taboo - Season One - Reviewed

With a small, tight cast, boundless mood and atmosphere, and a narrative wrought with twists and betrayals, Taboo invades the U.S. on FX like a ship commandeered by a skeleton crew of the damned.  Taboo, like many pop-culture defining series of the last decade, is adult, brutal, and unquestionably divisive.  Let’s take a plunge into the icy depths of these eight episodes, and see if it’s the right experience for you.

Taboo is, at times, masterful.  It’s careful and deliberate – unlike the many violent, adult dramas of today, it doesn’t assault the senses with near constant brutality and action.  The series begins with a host of mysteries and intrigues, and ratchets up the tension through patient, ominous dialogue and distinctly unsettling direction.  Set in the backdrop of London at the end of the American Revolutionary War, Taboo somehow manages to make trade and border disputes downright riveting.  The embarrassed British Crown, the indomitable East India Trading Company, and the fledgling nation of the United States all play key roles in the drama that unfolds throughout the series, and grey areas abound – there are no “good guys” in Taboo.

The audience is quickly introduced to the story’s primary anti-hero, James Delaney, played by Tom Hardy.  Hardy is clearly comfortable in the role; from Mad Max: Fury Road, Legend, to Bronson, Hardy is no stranger to the brooding, but charming protagonist.  Hardy builds an interesting, robust character – even his speech patterns and gait seem to have been developed solely for this role.  It makes the character feel alive, if, at time, a bit larger than life.  Like the titular Max, Delaney is a man haunted by his past, surrounded by chaos in a world in which he doesn’t quite seem to fit.  Therein lies Taboo’s prime conflict – besieged on all sides by the powerful men of Britain, America, and the Company, Delaney must carefully navigate these dark waters while planning far ahead to secure his future.  In a world full of hard men, Delaney is practically titanium.

He knows things about the dead......and fashion.

This fact belies the most important distinction to be made about Taboo – despite its historical backdrop, it is not a realistic show.  More Grimm’s fairy tale than period piece, it’s full of round, but exaggerated characters, mysticism, and elaborate, and arguably unbelievable plot points.  This is sure to make Taboo divisive for many viewers.  It appears gritty and realistic on its face, but its fanciful nature cannot be ignored.  Accept this fact, and there is much to enjoy in Taboo.

The score is limited, but effective.  A few tracks are used throughout the series, including one particularly gloomy track that combines classic strings with anachronistic, nearly industrial sounding synths and builds throughout the episodes during moments of menace.  It’s distinct without being overwhelming, which is precisely what a good score should be. 

Technically, the series does have a few misses.  Occasionally the directing and editing can be a bit obtuse, practically assaulting the viewer with foreshadowing or symbolism.  It is, however, consistently beautifully shot, and like it’s deliberation with violence, even the use of color is so deliberate that you might find yourself gasping the first time the show leaves the drab, dreary streets of London.  Color!  We nearly forgot you exist!  Not a criticism, Taboo’s strongest elements are used in careful measure – violence, sex, color, even profanity are appropriately placed for maximum impact.  One exception – the costume design is consistently ostentatious and bold, and fits the tone of the show perfectly.

Something tells me this won't be the last funeral I attend on this series. 

The remainder of the core cast is largely without misstep.  Jonathan Pryce is once again fabulous as the director of the East India Company, Sir Stuart Strange, he deftly dominates several scenes throughout the series, and is a worthy adversary for Hardy’s Delaney.  Stephen Graham of Snatch fame is a dangerous criminal with a nearly incomprehensible London accent, and is more than capable throughout.  Finally, Oona Chaplin takes on the role of Delaney’s half-sister and is the source of several intoxicating scenes of psycho-sexual excess à la Coppola’s Dracula that make for some cinematically and thematically difficult scenes.  Again, Taboo, as the name implies, is perhaps not for the faint of heart.

At the close of the season nearly all the established plotlines are wrapped up in tight expository bows.  There is certainly the possibility for more of Delaney’s story to be told, and if it does return, I, for one, will welcome its arrival.


-Patrick B. McDonald