Tom Hardy in Taboo
Jason LaVeris/ TIBRINA HOBSON/ Kevin Winter/ Getty Images
Tom Hardy’s first foray into producing for television is the dark, macabre Taboo, which premiered last night with a ninety minute pilot. Hardy stars as James Delaney, who returns to London after being presumed dead for a decade. Delaney is the long lost heir to a shipping company, I think? It's 1814 and everyone’s jobs are things like prostitute, fancy man, soot salesman, and grizzled mysterious sea captain.
Delaney more or less falls into that last category, as he has made a fortune in Africa that may be through the slave trade, and he is obviously keeping many secrets. The show is called “Taboo” and Delaney’s secrets are all different taboos, like loving his half-sister (Game of Thrones’ Oona Chaplin) a little too much. Like, Folgers Christmas Commercial too much. There’s also his as yet unexplained connection to the slave trade, and his mother’s suppressed identity as a Native American his father bought as part of a land deal in the Pacific Northwest.
So, yes, Tom Hardy is playing a bi-racial Native American. That’s not ideal. The whole reason to watch Taboo is Tom Hardy’s performance, but his father’s land in the Pacific Northwest is a huge plot point already. Anglo-European and indigenous interaction is obviously a big part of the show’s engine, which is fine in and of itself, but it’s undermined by an English actor playing a half-Native character, which perpetuates a system that disadvantages indigenous voices and talent. I think there’s enough going on to justify watching Taboo, but like so many other things—most recently Doctor Strange—there’s just going to be this one thing sticking in our collective craw about it.
And that land deal provides the backbone of the show as Delaney is set up to fight everyone from his brother in law to the East India Company over that land, which includes a sound between Canada and westward-expanding America. Why this is important I don’t exactly grasp yet—I think Delaney explained it but Hardy’s in marble-mouth mode and some of his line deliveries are complete nonsense, I swear once he said, “Podunk mashed potatoes” when someone asked him about Africa—but it has something to do with the soon-to-be-settled War of 1812. Watching people argue over land deals and real estate is not inherently fascinating drama, but Tom Hardy is so laser-focused as Delaney that he turns every moment he’s on screen into utterly compelling television.
It cannot be emphasized enough—Taboo lives and dies by Hardy and he is DELIVERING. If you’re a Hardy fan, this is a must watch, but even if you’re not, it’s still a strong start to a promising show. Between the lure of Delaney’s many secrets and the battle set up over the American land—which will undoubtedly lead to skullduggery and mayhem—Taboo has plenty of room to grow.
It’s also GORGEOUS to look at it. It has the kind of lush, detailed set and costume design you expect from a Merchant-Ivory film, and Taboo hits the same “lavish melodrama” mark that the first season of Downton Abbey did. Co-produced by FX and the BBC, this looks like something you’d expect to see on HBO or Netflix, so it’s a little jarring when the show cuts to black for commercials. It would be interesting to see it without the commercial breaks because it feels like it’s meant to be watched uninterrupted. Some of those cuts come at awkward moments, like the show wasn’t written for them—network dramas tend to hit little dramatic peaks before each break so that you’re left in suspense during the commercial, but Taboo doesn’t quite have that rhythm.
But that is such a minor annoyance in a show that is offering so much. Given the land-deal driven plot and sheer number of outrageous secrets being kept, this show has a high degree of difficulty, and Taboo certainly has every chance of going completely off the rails, but even if it does end up being a totally bonkers revenge drama, there is still Tom Hardy destroying the scenery with his acting. Because of Hardy’s natural charisma as a performer and the particular menace and grit he’s put into Delaney specifically, he can sustain a rather large amount of batsh*ttery and keep the thing afloat. And his primary antagonist is Sir Fancy Man—his name sounded like Sir Shush Solange when the ludicrously accented fat pompous man introduced him—who is played by Jonathan Pryce, Game of Thrones’s High Sparrow. Pryce makes a fantastic villain and even though he spends the whole pilot sitting at a table plotting to steal real estate, he’s clearly enjoying the role, especially when Hardy shows up to spar.
So while there are a lot of secret revelations and the main plot mechanism is not fascinating, between Hardy and Pryce Taboo is worth a shot. This show will either get really silly or REALLY dark, or, if we’re very lucky, it might just nail the silly-dark combo and be an entertaining melodrama that’s just smart enough to not make you feel bad for watching it. At the very least, with all the period detailing and potential for Back-Stabbing and Lies, it’s filling the Game of Thrones void. And, seriously. Tom Hardy. Watch it for him alone. He’s spectacular.
Attached - more shots of Tom Hardy with the cast of Taboo at the premiere and after party in LA the other night.