The Bingeworthy Breakdown is (if this works) a new occasional look at new series. An estimated 500 scripted seasons of TV will air in 2017, and to help you sort the wheat from the chaff, we’re going to look at the first episodes of the most notable of these to help you work out whether it’s worth tuning every week for them, waiting to binge later, or using the time to finally watch the final season of “Treme” or whatever else you’ve been waiting for. First up is FX’s “Taboo,” which debuts on Tuesday.
So let me guess: this is another expensive period drama about a brooding white male antihero?
Well you’re starting 2017 off on a positive note, aren’t you?
I’m sorry. 2016 just really beat it out of me, you know?
Let’s start again. What is this?
It’s another expensive period drama about a brooding white male antihero.
You’re such a dick.
Yep. But it’s worth paying attention to because the brooding white male antihero in this case is Tom Hardy, a proper movie star, one of the biggest to have made the shift to the small screen in the peak TV era, and one of the most interesting actors we have.
Ok, you have my attention.
What’s more, Hardy also produces for the first time, and came up for the story with his dad, Chips Hardy.
Chips. And remember they’re from the UK, so these are proper fat British chips like fries, not wispy thin crisps.
I feel like you’re going off on a tangent.
Probably. Anyway, Chips used to work in advertising, but has a few comedy writing credits on his CV in the 1980s and 1990s too. But this is the first time that he’s worked with his son. They even have a production company together, Hardy Son & Baker.
That’s quite sweet.
That will definitely be the last time I’ll be using the word ‘sweet’ in the context of “Taboo,” unless it’s immediately followed by the words ‘and bloody revenge.’
They didn’t write the scripts though, right?
No — Hardy brought in Steven Knight who wrote and directed Hardy’s best performance in “Locke,” and with whom he did a little TV warm-up with a colorful supporting cameo in the second and third season of Knight’s other period crime drama “Peaky Blinders.” He’s the co-creator and seems to have written the bulk of episodes.
So he directs as well?
Nope, as with “Peaky Blinders,” Knight’s on writing duties only. Kristoffer Nyholm, who helmed much of the original Danish version of “The Killing,” directed the first four, and Finnish helmer Anders Engström did the back half. Oh, and Ridley Scott’s one of the producers.
Alright, enough pre-amble. What’s this actually about?
It’s 1814. America and Britain are at war. James Delaney (Hardy) has returned to London after ten years in Africa. He appears to have been presumed dead for a long time, but also rumors abound that he’s done some terrible things while he was away.
What kind of things?
Unspecified as of yet, but there’s lots of references to the terrible things. Anyway, Delaney’s back in town because his father, Old Man Delaney, has died after reportedly losing his mind in his final days. His first stop is to go and visit him in the mortuary. Then he pops up at the funeral, revealing he’s alive to his half-sister Zipha (Oona Chaplin, the ill-fated bride of Robb Stark in “Game Of Thrones”), and her awful husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall).
Just for the record, where did The Tom Hardy Wheel O’Accents land on this time?
It’s hard to tell: even by the actor’s standards, he’s almost inaudibly quiet for most of the show. But by the time you can distinguish it, it’s actually closer to Hardy’s own voice than we normally see. Still, subtitles are recommended.
Alright, so he’s got a half-sister.
Yep. And she seems afraid of him — “Is hell opened up?” she says when she sees him at the funeral. But there’s also some suggestion that they might have a bit of a Jamie/Cersei thing going on. “One thing that Africa did not cure is that I still love you,” he tells her at the wake, and he doesn’t appear to mean love in a sibling sort of way.
So that’s where the title comes from? A bit of incest?
Maybe. It’s not immediately clear. It seems like a complicated relationship, anyway. Particularly once the smallpox-marked lawyer Thoyt (you can tell he had smallpox, because he introduces himself by saying “Smallpox butchered me down to the bone”) tells Delaney that despite their estrangement, the dead man left his son everything. Everything in this case involving a barren piece of land that his pops bought from the Nootka tribe in the Pacific Northwest. Which is also where James’ mother hailed from: she was a slave, bought by Old Man Delaney from the Nootka tribe.
So wait, Hardy’s character is meant to be half indigenous American?
That appears to be the suggestion.
And Hardy is in no part indigenous American?
Not as far as we’re aware, no.
That’ll go down well.
Yep. And given that there are also hints that Hardy was a slaver during his time in Africa, expect roughly a bajillion thinkpieces.
To be fair, the show looks like it’s going to take as its principal subject the evil legacy of British colonialism and its role in the slave trade, which is definitely laudable. But it would also probably be better to do that with a show other than one where the only character of color so far is the ghost of a dead slave.
True. OK, so James Delaney owns a bit of land now, right?
He does, it’s called Nootka Sound. Which is bad news for his half-sister and her husband, because they were expecting to inherit it, and were about to sell it for a considerable sum to the East India Company, headed up by Jonathan Pryce.
Jonathan Pryce? Wait, how many “Game Of Thrones” actors are in this?
By our count, four: Chaplin, Hall (who got killed in a joust against the Mountain in Season One), Pryce and Roger Ashton-Griffiths, who plays Mace Tyrell, and is one of Pryce’s colleagues here. “House Of Cards” standout Michael Kelly also has a major role, but he’s nowhere to be seen in the first ep.
And I thought the land was worthless?
Well, for reasons we won’t give away here, it turns out to be very, very valuable to the East India Company. But Delaney refuses to sell, making him a target of both his brother-in-law and the almighty trading giant.
Anything else I need to know?
There’s a child who might be another half-sibling of James and Zipha, or might be… something else. And Old Man Delaney might not have died of natural causes.
This is a prestige period drama in 2017, so let’s get real: how much nudity are we talking?
It’s an FX (in collaboration with the BBC) show, and as a basic cable channel, they can’t get away with as much as HBO or Netflix, so just a few butts.
There’s still a scene in a brothel, right?
Obviously. A brothel run by “Run Lola Run” actress Franka Potente, who we assume will be back for more later in the show.
Let’s get down to it. Is it any good?
Hmm. I’m somewhere between “not really” and “maybe eventually kind of if you get on its wavelength.”
More. Elaborate more.
It’s certainly ambitious, attempting to mash up the greats of 19th century literature — there’s some Dickens here, some Bronte, some Hardy, some Conrad, even some Hawthorne. But if “Peaky Blinders” winningly added some stylization to its period crime with its Nick Cave and Arctic Monkeys soundtrack, this goes full on baroque, often feeling more Tim Burton than David Lean with its almost steampunk-ish interiors and Hardy stalking around the London streets like Batman in a top-hat. “Penny Dreadful” was significantly more realistic, and that had vampires in it, and tried to suggest that Josh Hartnett was a good actor.
Being a bit expressionistic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though.
No, not at all. But at least from the first episode, it comes across as pastiche rather than tribute, particularly because of the dialogue. Knight’s a very good writer, but the heightened language here aims for “Deadwood” but mostly clunks when it’s delivered here (“The only legacy is a poisoned chalice”; “Talk to me of poison”). And it doesn’t feel like on full-on pulp either, because it’s too indulgently paced for that.
A prestige cable drama that’s stretching its plot out over too many episodes? Stone the crows.
I know, right?
It looks nice, though?
Yes and no. They’ve certainly spent a pretty penny on it, but there’s something oddly flat about the direction, a slight lack of life in the background and a reliance on green-screen backdrops in places. And the aesthetic is a bit drab — maybe it’s the presence of the East India Company and Jonathan Pryce, but I kept thinking of it as a sort of R-rated “Pirates Of The Caribbean” in look and feel, which probably wasn’t the intention.
Maybe I’ll go see “Monster Trucks” instead, then.
Well, it might be worth giving it a try. Hardy’s as magnetic to watch as ever, and is certainly at his Tom Hardiest here, particularly when suggesting in scenes in private with his manservant (David Hayman) that Delaney isn’t quite as mad as he might want people to think in public. And the climactic scene of the pilot, as Delaney comes face-to-face with the mutton-chopped men of the East India Company, is cracking, suggesting that the real drama might still be to come. Also “Monster Trucks” isn’t out til Friday.
So the final verdict?
It’s a ridiculous, ridiculous show, and one that definitely feels like a disappointment, given how high our expectations were. But there’s enough here that’s intriguing that we might give it a second episode to settle before we bail.
Let’s go with a C, with room for improvement.
So I should watch this if…?
You want to know what it’s like to be inside Tom Hardy’s brain for an hour.
And I should avoid it if…?
You have a problem with murmur murmur murmur murmur indistinct murmur (hacking cough) murmur murmur murmur murmur whisper crazy eyes.
When’s it on?
The first episode aired on BBC One in the UK on Saturday, and will air on FX at 10pm (9 central) on Tuesday, January 10th, and continue for seven weeks after that.