Taboo is a beautiful mess. FX's newest stab at historical drama is visually splendid as it combs both the gutters and palaces of Victorian England with production that looks as good as anything you've seen on your television.
It's a shame, then, that Taboo teases greatness but is such a slog to get through in its first three episodes that FX sent out in advance to critics.
The drama stars international hunk Tom Hardy (Baaaaaane!) as James Delaney, an adventurer who returns to 1814 England to attend his father's funeral after disappearing to Africa where many thought he had died. What the show is truly about remains a mystery after three hours, but it has something to do with James' inheritance of a shipping port in Canada, which upends the plans of his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) and her weaselly husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall), as well as the evil East India Trading Company and its head Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) and America, which is looking to rewrite borders making James' land particularly valuable.
All through the first three episodes there are hints that something supernatural is afoot -- perhaps James has been literally resurrected from the dead and wasn't just backpacking around Africa, perhaps James learned a thing or two from a witch doctor on the Dark Continent and is about to unleash some black magic on some powdered wigs, perhaps there are demons, monsters or other Victorian frights ready to spring into action at any moment -- but nothing spooky ever materializes. There's always the promise of action and an army of the damned, but instead there are threats about property rights and blackmail. Heck, even when James sustains a near-fatal stab wound from an assassin (which isn't as exciting as it sounds) he's just sewn up in the next episode and goes back to growling.
However, unlike FX's fellow historical drama The Bastard Executioner, Taboo's mediocrity isn't immediately apparent and you may find yourself watching more of the show than you need to. And there are some reasons you should! The performances are fantastic, led by Hardy, whose eyes sit beneath layers of soot and sweat. Pryce is his usual fantastic self as the scheming leader of the East India Co. and Hall is an absolute convincing menace. As said above, visually it's a time machine back to the period with cool details I'd never seen before.
But the story lacks any oomph aside from macho verbal showdowns and maniacal glares, and can easily be put in the bin with the rest of the post-Breaking Bad antihero dramas that never grasped what made that show so important. However, because Taboo does just a good enough job to keep you on the hook, here are some things you can look for to make your viewing of the series as enjoyable as possible.
Play a game of "Can you spot the Game of Thrones actors?"
With its roster of predominantly British actors and cable cachet, there were bound to be former inhabitants of Westeros dressed up in all-new gear as members of the cast.
Pryce was last seen getting vaporized by Cersei's wildfire nuke in Season 6 as the High Sparrow, and here he serves as the series' main antagonist Sir Stuart Strange. Chaplin was a guest of honor at Season 3's Red Wedding as Robb Stark's pregnant bride Talisa Stark, and her situation in Taboo is only slightly better.
Hall is much meaner in Taboo as Chaplin's onscreen abusive husband, but he was gentler in Game of Thrones as Lord Hugh of the Vale. Until he was just dead after he was lanced through the throat in a jousting match against The Mountain in Season 1. Roger Ashton-Griffiths plays one of Strange's men, but you'll recognize his very unique face as that of Mace Tyrell, one of Westeros' true champions who was also melted in the great wildfire bombing of Season 6.
There are likely more in there, can you find them all?
Count the times Hardy smiles
Hardy's James is all business in Taboo as he seeks revenge for his father's death through land ownership and handshaking, and it's apparent in Hardy's sturdy and steadfast performance. In fact he's so serious, that you can count the times he smiles in three episodes on your hands. On one hand. On one finger!
Also worth noting: He wears a hat that would shock Pharrell.
Count the times Hardy isn't wearing pants
James may not smile, but he's got no problem going pantsless. For some reason, in several shots James walks around without pants (but with a long shirt, sorry), showing off his outer thighs. Maybe it's old English tradition, maybe he's just a fan of Murray Goldberg from The Goldbergs, but this man has no need for pants when he's in the confines of his own home. It also gives him the opportunity to show off his thigh tattoos, which are thick blue bands around his legs.
Look at the teeth!
Hardy doesn't smile much, and you won't want anyone to smile much given the authenticity the makeup department tried to achieve. People's grills in Taboo are jacked up! Yellow if you're lucky, brown and worse if you're not. In addition to the teeth, many characters survived various forms of disease, including smallpox, which left their faces riddled with moguls and looking like Jabba the Hutt.
Taboo premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on FX.