TV Series Review
If you look at an early 19th-century map, Nookta Sound doesn't look like much. In 1814, the little spit of land was seemingly at the end of the earth, a wild place thought to be inhabited by beavers and savages and not much else. Some would say you'd have to be crazy to value the place. And in fact the Londoner who owned it—Horace Delaney—was.
But Horace is dead now. And this stub of sea-scoured dirt has passed on to James, Horace's mysterious son. James came home to London just in time to claim his inheritance after everyone thought he'd been dead for years. Which is grimly appropriate, given that most people who meet the guy wish that he had been.
An unruly and brutal youth to begin with, James' ship sank off the coast of Africa years before, spurring horrific rumors and innuendo about him filled with tales of witchcraft and cannibalism. But if James survived the crash—and clearly he did—could it be that those rumors are true?
It'd be nice if London's power brokers could just leave the man to take his odd inheritance and glower in peace. Perhaps then he'd just get tired of English society and slink off to Nootka to live among the beavers and savages.
But as the War of 1812 winds to a close, Nootka has taken on greater importance. It seems that whoever owns that strip of land controls all of Vancouver Island, and with it, a potential trade route to China. As such, certain business interests would love to lay claim to the place.
Sure, James can be a bad, bad man. But evil for evil, he may have found his match in the East India Company.
Shock and Argh
FX's Taboo (originally a BBC production) is a seductive, dark drama that, like a sideshow barker for a disreputable traveling circus, draws attention through shock. Anchored by actor Tom Hardy, the program tries to clear a space in the crowded world of prestige television by being darker, bloodier and more, um, taboo than anything else around. And given the state of prestige TV these days, that's saying something.
Hardy's James Delaney is the sort of person whom even Mr. Hyde would give a wide berth. He's been suspected of being a cannibal, and he probably was. He chants strange, ominous incantations at inappropriate times, shocking the Christian city of London. He's killed more than his share of people and, we gather, will likely kill plenty more before the story's done. Oh, and then there's this: We suspect that James had an incestuous fling with his half-sister, Zilpha, before he took off for Africa. And it seems, he longs to rekindle the relationship again—never mind that Zilpha's married.
But as sinister as James is, he may be about the closest viewers have to a rooting interest. He seems to like dogs, for one thing (even though we're told that his particular pooch of choice subsisted by eating suicide victims). He despises hypocrisy. And whatever moral shortcomings James may have, he's surrounded by antagonists who have him beat on that score.
Zilpha's husband, Thorne, is a racist control freak. Meanwhile, Horace Delany's old lawyer is a shrewish manipulator. And many of the other folks James encounters feel as if they were plucked off the meanest of mean streets in a Dickens novel.
And we haven't even started talking about the show's biggest Big Bad. Showrunner and script writer Steven Knight described the East India Company as "the equivalent of the CIA, the NSA and the biggest, baddest multinational corporation on earth, all rolled into one self-righteous, religiously-motivated monolith." Some historians have taken issue with Knight's description. But there's no question that in this show, at least, the EIC makes the robber barons at America's turn of the century look like My Little Pony characters.
The Name Fits
Much of the content we see in Taboo would have been, naturally, taboo on American television 40 years ago. And even in today's age of envelope-pushing, it still does its best to shock. While the show's not as bloody as The Walking Dead or quite as preoccupied with sex as Game of Thrones, we still see plenty of blood and plenty of skin. The show also makes mention of plenty of unmentionable topics, ranging from incest to cannibalism to pedophilia and on and on.
And while most historical dramas—even content-laden ones—tend to keep their language a bit cleaner than shows set in the coarser modern day, Taboo seems to have imported our penchants for profanity back in time. Even f- and s-words are tossed around London with impunity—uncensored, at least on my online streaming version of the show.
The show's very name is an indication of where this FX show is aiming: Taboo is predicated on our morbid curiosity and a certain desire to be dabble with the forbidden. The very word taboo means, of course, something that is (or should be) forbidden or prohibited. And given the content here, that titillating title's literal meaning could also be seen as very good advice.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney; Jonathan Pryce as Sir Stuart Strange; Richard Dixon as Pettifer; Oona Chaplin as Zilpha Geary; Leo Bill as Wilton; David Hayman as Brace; Edward Hogg as Godfrey; Ruby-May Martinwood as Winter; Franka Potente as Helga