Taboo Tuesdays, 10 p.m., FX. Premieres January 10.
It’s no surprise that Tom Hardy first had the inspiration for Taboo while appearing in an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, because the actor’s new miniseries (which he co-created with his father Chips Hardy and screenwriter Steven Knight) is positively Dickensian in its depiction of working-class ruffians, sudden reversals of fortune and dramatic returns of long-lost relatives. Set in London in 1814 (slightly before Dickens’ time), it stars Hardy as James Delaney, a gruff, violent man who returns from unspecified adventures in Africa (where he was presumed dead) to claim his inheritance following his father’s death. Played by Hardy with his customary intense mumbling, James is full of anger and angst, and his enemies aren’t hesitant to employ extreme measures to get what they want from him.
But after a slow setup, Taboo fails to deliver on its vague promises of criminal conspiracies and underworld battles. At least in the three episodes provided for review, the show spends far more time on paperwork: wills, treaties, marriage licenses, deeds. These are the tools that James and his adversaries use in fighting over a piece of land to which James’ father laid claim, a small trading post in the Pacific Northwest, on the disputed U.S.-Canadian border. Set in the waning days of the War of 1812 (a conflict that rarely gets the dramatic treatment), Taboo places James in the middle of a complicated battle among the British government, the still-young United States and the East India Company, a nefarious corporation with a near-monopoly on trade with China.
The complex negotiations among the various parties are drawn-out and tedious, and James spends most of his time wandering around the streets of London or through the rooms of his father’s house with a pained look on his face, flashing back to some undefined trauma during his time in Africa (depicted via clichéd images of scary-looking natives). His goals are never exactly clear, although he puts himself in harm’s way in order to hold onto his father’s trading post (also the birthplace of James’ Native American mother, another dramatic device of questionable cultural sensitivity). Thus far, James is mostly a compendium of TV antihero traits, including a trendy incestuous relationship with his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin).
The show does capture the grime and corruption of London during the time period, and there are some entertaining supporting performances, especially from Jonathan Pryce as the ruthless head of the East India Company. But all its brooding and scheming goes nowhere, and the macho posturing of the various characters wears out its welcome pretty quickly. Hardy and his collaborators have tapped into some of the atmosphere of Dickens, but at this point they fall short of his characterization and storytelling abilities.