In the past few years, FX has consistently put out the best shows.
Through comedies like Wilfred, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Man Seeking Woman or dramas like Fargo, American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson and The Americans, FX has made itself a destination network. But what FX doesn’t have — and has been trying to get on its roster for quite some time — is a dramatic period piece. AMC had Hell on Wheels, Showtime had The Tudors and The Borgias, while HBO has been thriving on fantasy-driven series that can sometimes feel like a dramatic period piece.
[Warning: The following contains some spoilers for Taboo.]
Until now. Taboo is the newest series from Steven Knight and Tom Hardy, who collaborated on Peaky Blinders and Locke. The series follows James Keziah Delaney, the son of a dead shipping tycoon, who surprises everyone in London by returning home a decade after being presumed dead. No one is as surprised or disappointed to see him, however, as his half-sister, Zilpha, and her husband, Thorne, who want to be the sole inheritors of what remains of the tycoon’s empire.
While the show does meander a bit at first, it seems like the series will focus on Delaney’s disregard for his family’s wishes. More specifically, Delaney’s desire to retain control of a small island off the western coast of Canada that is of particular interest to an aggressive buyer, Sir Stuart Strange of the East India Company. If it sounds boring, that’s because the subject matter is. Luckily, the show thrives on its sharp writing, and most importantly, the performance Hardy delivers in each scene.
There’s no question that Hardy is the best part about Taboo. One of the more underused actors working today, Hardy’s performance is equally terrifying and demanding. Delaney is monstrous in the way he interacts with people, leaning in and grumbling menacingly whenever he’s threatening someone. From the moment Delaney is introduced, we’re supposed to believe that the decade he spent in Africa made him a changed man. He’s not as sane as he was when he left, and he’s out for blood. There’s a mania in Hardy’s performance, and while it has the potential to be off-putting or exaggerated, it ties into another of the show’s interesting elements.
Taboo may a period piece chockfull of family drama and historical elements, but it also has a supernatural subplot that’s as intriguing as it is distracting. Again, Taboo takes some time to figure out what it wants to be and that’s never more apparent then when the supernatural plot comes into play. We don’t know if Hardy is possessed or a spirt, and there are clues littered throughout that allude to either. The ghostly elements are a hard sell for a show like Taboo, but it’s thanks to Hardy’s incredible performance that it’s even somewhat conceivable. Hardy approaches the subplot with such confidence that any doubt of what’s playing out on screen disappears almost in an instant.
The biggest takeaway so far? This is Hardy’s show. This is a testament to Hardy as an actor in the same way that Peaky Blinders was a testament to Knight’s ability as a writer and showrunner. It’s not enough to throw dazzling costumes and an eye-catching set in front of a camera and call it a period piece. Taboo has those, especially on the costume front, but it’s Hardy’s sell of his character and the surrounding fiction that’s so gripping. It’s good news since there’s rarely a scene that Hardy isn’t in.
There’s one other aspect of the show that should be brought up, however, and that’s the level of violence. It’s not uncommon for a series to rely on violence, but there needs to be a reason for it. Game of Thrones and The Bastard Executioner are perfect examples of this. The series are about violent times, centered on war, and to a certain extent, call for gratuitous bloodshed. But Taboo doesn’t need the violence to succeed. Instead, it uses it as a way to shock the viewer. The first few times, it accomplishes its goal, but after a while, it feels overly indulgent. It’s strange to write about gratuitous violence on television in 2017 because we’ve become so accustomed to seeing it and desensitized to its necessity that we no longer question it. For it to stick out as much as it does on Taboo, I think, says something about just how off-putting and out-of-place it seems.
Despite that, Taboo has managed to gain my interest and hold it. In an era of “Peak TV” and with more than 500 scripted shows expected to air this year, it’s becoming more difficult to catch all the good ones. Instead, we’re forced to seek out the great ones — on top of the garbage shows we refuse to give up — and stick with those. Taboo may not end up being one of the great series of 2017, but it’s good enough that I’m willing to stick with it until the end and see how the story wraps. Not to mention that a performance as strong, powerful and, quite frankly, rare as Hardy’s is something to behold.
Taboo will premiere on Jan. 10 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.