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FX 'Taboo' is a Grim and Grimy Plunge into Old London
January 9, 2017  | By David Hinckley

A mysterious haunted man appears out of the mist to confront powerful corporate forces in the marginally lawful world of 1814 London.

Welcome to FX’s Taboo, which premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET. If it feels like a kind of universal period-drama premise, frankly, it is.

This London is grimy and brutish, seemingly with little decency either on the streets or in its well-appointed boardrooms. It’s a panorama that predates Charles Dickens and has been warmly embraced in numerous TV series (Ripper Street, Penny Dreadful and others) as an ideal incubator for dark tension.

Specifically in this case, James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy, top) has returned from Africa with a bad haircut and stories he’s not talking about.

He was gone for long enough that he had been presumed dead by everyone except his father, who showed faith by willing James his last valuable possession: a modest plot of land on the other side of America.

The land is valuable because it’s a passageway to islands off Vancouver, which itself is the gateway to China and the Far East.

That’s why the East India Company, the powerful corporation that controls much of the lucrative spice trade, covets it.

East India, whose president is ruthless Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce, right), had been unable to pry the land away from James’s father. But as the father’s health failed, the company negotiated a deal to buy it from his presumed heirs; James’s half-sister Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin) and her awful husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall).

The arrival of James kills that deal, which makes Thorne and Stuart very angry. We’re not sure how it makes Zilpha feel, except less rich.

Naturally other forces and subplots are also at work here. Because the War of 1812 is still in progress, the American government may want to stake its own claim to James’s land. And we get the first suggestions as to why the show is titled Taboo, which seems to be a reference to something other than real estate. 

In any case, Taboo does something smart. By the end of the first episode it has created a sharply defined conflict within the murky, brawling world of London.

We have this one fellow, quirky yet vaguely sympathetic, taking on a corporation that is clearly not constricted by laws or morality in pursuit of their profit.

That enables the viewer to sift through the rather large cast and focus on a couple of characters, prominently including James.

It helps that Hardy plays him very nicely, making him mysterious and clearly burdened, but not inscrutable to the point of abstraction.

Taboo feels as if it will work well as a limited series, eight parts in all, because we get a sense from the beginning that this conflict needs a resolution.

Not everyone may stay that long. But it’s worth sampling.

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