Hit or Sh**: FX’s TABOO

In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.


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TABOO is one of those shows that you could hear not a whisper of until you see it and still have a pretty good idea what it’s about. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that this particular pilot would revolve around 19th Century real estate deals and black magic, but I wasn’t far off the mark at all in guessing that this was yet another network period piece driven by sex, violence, and some bad words that my dad didn’t like. The most intriguing aspect of Tom Hardy’s latest foray into historical television is that it sees him as star and showrunner, a practice common among comedies, but something of a rarity in dramatic fare. That being said, TABOO seems poised to cover a lot of ground in its eight episode run, and there is no shortage of other head-turning curiosities at play here.

TABOO picks up in London, 1814, as James Keziah Delaney (Hardy) returns from an extended sabbatical in Africa in order to attend his late father’s funeral. The elder Delaney left nothing to James in his will, save for an innocuous scrap of land in the Americas. Of course, nothing is ever what it seems with such plot devices, and it turns out that James’s newly acquired tract is of great strategic interest to the British East India Company, as well as the American government, with whom Britain is currently at war. We see the gears spin in James’s head, and he begins a scheme that lands him right in the East India Company’s crosshairs. Oh, right, and he also speaks in tongues to the dead.

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No word yet on how this comes into play, but I sure want to find out

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The pilot spends its entire runtime setting up this scenario, which might give cause for alarm to some, given the limited timeframe afforded to a miniseries. Yet THE NIGHT OF spent an even longer time during its 90 minute premiere establishing an even simpler premise, and that show turned out just peachy. The real issue with TABOO is the way it chooses to present the plot. While there are plenty of great character scenes showcasing different faces of James and company, most of the crucial plot information is delivered to the audience via two extended scenes where we literally do nothing but watch a dozen stodgy lawyers sit around a table and discuss each player and their relevance to the narrative.

Normally, such lazy storytelling would warrant a thorough dragging, but the rest of TABOO holds such promise that I’m hesitant to write the entire show off. First and foremost, Napoleonic-era London is a brilliant choice for period TV. The cramped and squalid streets lend themselves perfectly to studio lots, and TABOO treats the audience with a London grosser than anything out of SWEENEY TODD. We get to see a whole boiled lamb and a man peeing on pig poop in the same scene (!), which should tell you everything you need to know about the utility of the setting. Throwing in an opium den/whorehouse run by Franka Potente and an abattoir-turned-laboratory where vivisections are performed to harvest stomach gas, TABOO gets top marks for its set dressing.

taboo origin

The Poo Poo Pee Pee Man origin story we never knew we needed

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Tom Hardy excels at being big and scary, and while TABOO hardly presents a challenging role for the typecast star, BRONSON fans can rest easy knowing that their boy is in usual form here. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast feels underutilized, whether it’s in terms of screen time, in the case of Potente, or in the scope of their role, as with Jonathan Pryce as the dry chairman of the East India Company. Hopefully the supporting cast will soon find its feet and be able to keep up with Hardy, or else TABOO will feel like a one-note show.

TABOO’s premiere falls into many of the pitfalls of pilot writing. Overly expository, it is more concerned with setting the stage and introducing the cast than actually doing anything with them. And yet, it teases just enough for me to desperately want to know what direction it takes this story. Slow starts often belie great promise, and my fingers are crossed that the same applies to TABOO.

Verdict: Sh** Probation

TABOO airs on FX on Tuesdays

Ed Dutcher is the Video Games Editor here at Crossfader. The last time Ed had a meal that wasn't microwaved, George W. Bush was president. He only learned to read so that he could play Pokemon.

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