Roush Review: Boo to Taboo

Matt Roush
Robert Viglasky/FX

TABOO -- "Episode 1" (Airs Tuesday, January 10, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney.

Taboo is not so much a show as it is an ordeal, a slog through a miasma of squalid period clichés that’s possibly even less inviting than last season’s FX vanity production, The Bastard Executioner. While it’s understandable that any network might jump at the chance to work with star Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), who created the series with producer/writer Steven Knight (Netflix’s cult favorite Peaky Blinders), it’s less clear why this atmospheric but uninspired revenge melodrama needed to be told.

As James Keziah Delaney, described as “an adventurer of very poor repute,” Hardy glowers and swaggers in a quickly tiresome one-note performance of grunting, feverish rage from his mythic entrance. He’s first seen sailing home to 1814 London after years in the African wilds, where he was presumed dead. Bedecked with tribal tattoos, trailing rumors of unnatural acts including cannibalism, Delaney is greeted at his father’s funeral with the shocked query: “Has Hell opened up?”

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No, that may just be the jaded audience, yawning at another sordid and violent refugee from Mess-terpiece Theatre. Like a character from Dickens’ slush pile, Delaney has returned to claim his family inheritance, a piece of strategically located property off the coast of Vancouver, which is coveted by the all-powerful East India Trading Company. Naturally, its vile leader, Sir Stuart Strange (Game of Thrones’ Jonathan Pryce, doing his best Mr. Burns imitation), wants Delaney dead. And apparently vice versa.

Let the skullduggery begin, with assassins lurking around every dank corner as Delaney recruits allies from London’s underground, with grizzled visages and rotten teeth as apparent requirements. We know he’s haunted by tragedy, thanks to recurring surreal flashbacks of ghoulish tribal rituals and a calamity aboard a slave ship, but his real obstacle to success may be his lust for half-sibling Zilpha (Oona Chaplin). Quasi-incest is just one of many societal taboos Delaney toys with, this snarling beast among despicable “gentlemen” of what passes for society.

“You take pain like a stone,” a doctor (House of Cards’ Michael Kelly) tells him while stitching up a particularly gruesome wound. Good for Delaney, I guess, but do we really need this dreary wallow in misery?

During a time when the tonnage of new TV could overwhelm anyone, this series commits the ultimate taboo: being as uninteresting as it is unpleasant.

Taboo, Premieres Tuesday, January 10, 10/9c, FX