Saturday, February 18, 2017

Half-Dead: FX’s Taboo

Tom Hardy in FX's Taboo.

On its face, FX’s new drama Taboo seems an intriguing proposition. It’s clearly modeled on the sorts of dark, thrilling narratives that have captured readers’ imaginations since at least The Count of Monte Cristo. However, this show, a collaboration between Steven Knight, Chips Hardy, and star Tom Hardy, falls short of its inspirations.

The Monte Cristo comparison springs to mind because, as with Dumas’s classic story, Taboo is about the return of a mysterious hero, long thought dead, and the unfolding of his plan for revenge. Hardy plays James Delaney, who surprises his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) and everyone else from his past life when he suddenly returns to England for his father’s funeral. It soon emerges that Delaney’s father holds the deed to a small piece of coastline on the far side of the world (the Pacific Northwest, to be exact). Although this rocky, faraway plot seems worthless, a surprising number of people expresses interest in taking it off Delaney’s hands, including Zilpha and her husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall), the family lawyer (Nicholas Woodeson), and Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), chairman of the East India Company.

This set-up lays some promising groundwork for a satisfying old-fashioned melodrama, but unfortunately Taboo also owes far too much to the anti-heroic cable dramas – or, rather, their inferior imitators -- of the last 20 years. Delaney’s world is grimy and bleak; we get plenty of dirt, extras with rotted teeth, and close-up shots of butchers hacking away at meat. It’s the sort of attempt at gritty realism that’s meant to cut through romanticized notions of the past and acknowledge the ugliness of the good old days, but it’s become cliché, practically de rigueur in any modern depiction of the 19th-century world. The sets and costumes look good, but they’re dark and devoid of color. The lack of stylization might be historically accurate, but it feeds into the show’s overall self-serious tone. Hardy’s probably best known for his role as the villain Bane in Christopher Nolan’s last Batman movie, and unfortunately Taboo shares that film’s dour lack of humor and fascination with all things unpleasant.

Jonathan Pryce as Sir Stuart Strange

That sense of grim self-importance is also evident in the dialogue: some of the first words out of Delaney’s lips are a variation on “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” the sort of quasi-religious platitude that signals to us that serious matters are afoot. Knight and the Hardys lard the dialogue with heavy-handed hints at buried secrets and traumatic past experiences, which, one presumes, will inevitably come to light as the show’s plot progresses. Speaking of Hardy, his performance is mostly glower and menace, with little behind the pose. His delivery is mumbled and frequently low, an attempt to project an unsettling sense of danger that ultimately just becomes frustrating. Oona Chaplin, who injected some life into a largely thankless role on Game of Thrones, gets stuck with another underwritten character. Perhaps the most welcome face is that of Jonathan Pryce, who uses his silky-smooth vocal delivery to unsettling effect, giving his otherwise rather conventional villain some much-needed shading. Pryce has been a bright spot in a number of enterprises, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean and the later season of Game of Thrones, where he elevates the ho-hum material that he’s given as a supporting player.

Taboo makes a stab at becoming unique and interesting by layering on some additional elements that don’t usually make an appearance in anti-hero dramas or the original 19th-century material on which this show is based. We learn that Delaney has returned from Africa, and he reveals that he knows the family secret about his mixed-race parentage (his father’s first wife was a Native American woman from the stretch of coastline that figures so prominently in the plot). Delaney scandalizes his fellow mourners at his father’s funeral by muttering in a foreign language at the graveside, ignoring the ministrations of a nearby priest. We also see flashbacks that suggest he has a troubled past with the racial injustices of the time, including an incident involving a slave ship. He also has periodic episodes that might best be described as visions, including a moment when, walking among corpses in a morgue, he confronts the silent figure of a chained slave.

The attempts at inserting unfamiliar material are welcome, but they ultimately feel like they’re grafted onto the show as a way of making it appeal to 21st-century sensibilities. The various parts of Taboo all add up to yet another show about a troubled Man With a Past, albeit in a different setting than we normally see in a cable drama. Strip Hardy of his Napoleonic-era costume and he’s fundamentally a cut-rate Walter White or Tony Soprano. Edmond Dantès doesn’t even enter the picture.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

No comments:

Post a Comment