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TABOO Review

FX’s newest drama is TABOO, premiering tonight. It is the story of a man, James Keziah Delaney, who has spent the past decade in Africa under shady circumstances, and who has just returned home to London, England in the year of Our Lord 1814. Inheriting his father’s property and shipping business should be an easy thing, but even if Delaney were right in the head, which he doesn’t seem to be, he’d find it a challenge given the dark mysteries of his family and the many enemies who seek his wealth for themselves.

Given that TABOO is airing on FX, it stars the terrific Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant), and is created by Steven Knight of Peaky Blinders fame, as well as Tom and his father, I expect good things from the series. Its ensemble cast, which includes Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Game of Thrones), Oona Chaplin (The Hour, Quantum of Solace), Michael Kelly (House of Cards), Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), Jason Watkins (Trollied), Nicholas Woodeson (Rome), Tom Hollander (The Night Manager), Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire), Franka Potente (Copper), Jefferson Hall (Vikings), and more, adds even more promise. There is lots of talent bringing their skills to bear on this one!

Which means it’s extra disappointing when the show ends up being a dud, a rare misstep for FX.

I’d say the biggest problem is that it doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere. The pacing is very slow, but rather than feeding us bits of the story as it goes to keep us engaged, very little happens or is revealed in the first hour. It plods along and I keep waiting for even a little bit of a hook, but fail to find one.

The other option a series has, besides a gripping story, is to have very magnetic characters, but TABOO lacks those as well. Pryce is always wonderful, and I enjoy him as a villain here. Chaplin is very good in this, too, her character of Zilpha having a very weird relationship with half-brother Delaney. Others of the group do a decent job, but don’t stand out as all that memorable, and Delany himself isn’t well-defined enough to be interesting. He has a little bit of a presence, but trying to attribute mystic qualities to him just because he spent time in Africa (nope, doesn’t get any more specific than that) feels forced, and there really isn’t anything in the pilot to make you want to root for him, or even care what happens to him.

So what we’re left with is an hour that’s pretty excruciating to sit through, and it ends without any motivating factor to tune in again.

What TABOO does well is the production design. The gritty side of old London comes through strongly, providing nice contract to less grounded productions. For those who watch a lot of PBS, this is going to have a very different feel. The shadows and the muck work well with the tone the series is trying to set, and the opulence of the East India Trading Company clashes nicely with the more common men and women portrayed. The world is built is visually neat.

That isn’t enough, though, for repeat watching. It puzzles me why the BBC ran this, or why FX would want to pick it up, as it seems off-brand for both. I’m not sure where it fits in their lineups, especially on the American cable network, and I can’t imagine it’s going to stick around for a second season, given the lackluster reviews its getting. It doesn’t seem likely to draw many eyeballs on either platform.

TABOO premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.

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