It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what feels off in the series premiere of FX’s new drama “Taboo.” The miniseries has many virtues — absolutely stunning visuals, masterful tension building and stellar performances — yet all of it feels eerily familiar. It is as if creators Steven Knight, Edward “Chips” Hardy, and Tom Hardy built the Frankenstein’s monster of television. They took the best elements of other massively popular dramas, sewed them all together and gave them an electric dose of Tom Hardy — a producer and star of the project — to bring it all to life.
“Taboo” tells the story of James Keziah Delaney (played by Hardy), a mysterious figure who, once thought dead, has made his return to London to claim his late father’s shipping industry. When outside forces position themselves to seize Delaney’s inheritance, he finds himself surrounded by conspiracy, deception and foul play. However, Delaney has returned to London as a man not to be trifled with, a man with a supernatural flair and a spark of madness.
Visually, “Taboo” is a masterpiece. The rainy gray hues captured in the gloomy streets of 1814 London are only ever punctuated by the occasional sharp pops of blood red. The muddy browns, stormy silvers and intense blacks are an unusually vivid backdrop for the colorful characters, and the use of these shades adds an immense amount of depth to the setting and context to the characters’ motivations. When Delaney enters a room, his melodramatically long black coat instantly snatches your attention, his imposing top hat shadows his brooding, haunting visage. As he roams the dreary yet chaotic streets, walks along the barren shoreline or meets his adversaries in stylish drawing rooms, there is always a palpable energy to the surroundings that thoroughly enriches the story without overpowering it.
The period drama also benefits from great pacing. Knight, serving additionally as the project’s writer, has sprinkled dozens of interconnected mysteries and unanswered questions into the script, and director Kristoffer Nyholm does a tremendous job of dangling these just out of the reach of his audience. Viewers are dying to break through Delaney’s cold exterior and dive into his disturbing past, just as they’re desperate to know what Delaney might do next. In the premiere, the audience can already see the tension of every situation beginning to rise toward the surface, building to what should be a wildly tumultuous climax.
Of course, both Knight and Nyholm have Hardy to thank for dramatically upping the intensity of “Taboo,” as the gifted actor adds another impressive performance to his resume. As Delaney, Hardy bleeds with intrigue. He hardly even needs to speak to captivate his audience; his performance is totally commanding as he gruffly barks his poetic dialogue or hammers with his brutal gaze.
Unfortunately “Taboo” lacks a certain spark, the X factor that could bring it all together. Instead, the miniseries borrows some of the magic that other leading TV shows and movies have captured — and the resulting repurposed plot points aren’t reworked nearly enough to be considered fresh or inventive. The power-hungry villains, constant threat of betrayal and gruesome blood are all reminiscent of “Game of Thrones.” The London-setting, economic competition and presence of Tom Hardy may give “Peaky Blinders” fans deja vu (it’s worth noting that “Peaky Blinders” was also created by Steven Knight.) With the East India Company as Delaney’s central foe, an early 1800s backdrop and an uncouth antihero, one can even make a case that it’s a darker version of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
It’s not that the show’s setup is blatantly unoriginal or cliche, but it does lack its own distinct identity. It’s fairly evident that Tom Hardy is intended to be the beating heart of “Taboo,” but even with all of his passion and talent he alone cannot make the show a hit. In the coming episodes, Knight must develop that elusive quality which can belong solely to “Taboo,” something that his audience won’t be able to find anywhere else.
With so many terrific components, the miniseries is oozing with potential. It’s definitely worth sticking around to see whether the cast and crew will be able to capitalize on it.