The Buzz: Tom Hardy’s Taboo muddles the story

Taboo season one review: Tom Hardy is an actor who never offers the same performance twice. His range as a performer has placed him in blockbusters like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, to smaller, more intimate films like Locke and Bronson. He totally transforms himself physically and mentally in each role; he bulked up to battle Batman as the muscular Bane before slimming back down for subsequent roles. It is possible no one knows what his actual voice sounds like, as he likes a different pitch for each role. One thing is consistent, though: in all of the films he is in, he is a highlight.

This trend carries over to Taboo, a show on FX he created with his father, Edward “Chips” Hardy. His shift to the small screen was a welcomed one, as it gave him another medium to explore his versatile talents. He leads the show as James Delaney, a man who returns to early 1800s Britain after being presumed dead. Like most of Hardy’s characters, Delaney is a fully realized creation. Stomping around Britain in his top hat and black coat, his rhythmic line delivery is hard to get out of your head, like Hardy is casting a spell rather than reciting a script. Unsurprisingly, he is the centerpiece of the entire show.

It is fairly jarring, then, that the rest of the show is so half-baked. Written by Chips and Steven Knight (who have previously collaborated with Hardy on Locke and Peaky Blinders), the show is a simple premise told with unnecessary convolution. Delaney returns to London after spending 12 years in Africa to lay claim to a piece of land called Nootka, located in modern day California. The East India Company (previously portrayed as villains in Pirates of the Caribbean) wants the land, as it will open up numerous worldwide trading paths. They think they can take it away from Delaney, but he proves to be a much more fearsome foe than they anticipated.

The show launches the viewers right into Delaney’s bizarre world without providing any context. The audience is at first not privy to what Delaney experienced in Africa – they are instead presented with surreal flashbacks that at first do nothing but confuse (in the first episode, there is a scene were Delaney is attacked by a large man not seen before and never explained again). Delaney dabbles in magic and dark arts, but no rules or guidelines are set up to allow the audience to understand them. Characters speak with an odd fusion of period dialect and modern day cursing. Luckily, most actors are able to sell their lines. The show counts on its audience to stick with it as early mysteries become clear over the eight-episode run. Unfortunately, unless you are a devoted Hardy fan, there is not much reason to stick past the first few episodes.

For those who do stick around, the show’s stellar production values were probably a deciding factor. Sets are authentic, and Max Richter’s score is great (he also recently scored Black Mirror and Arrival). As always, Hardy is in top form, but he unfortunately overshadows the rest of the cast – there is not much reason to care for scenes where Hardy’s face is not on the screen. Most characters are underdeveloped or have predictable story arcs. Overall, the show’s inability to tell a simple story makes it too frustrating for casual viewing. The show demands undivided attention for each of its hour-long episodes, or it will sweep its less devoted audience members out to sea.

The show was recently picked up for a second season after solid ratings (most episodes received between 5 and 6 million viewers apiece). The season finale was the most compelling episode of the series; maybe season two will be able to inject some excitement the first season lacked.