STARRING: White Idris (aka Tom Hardy), Lucian Msamati, Oona Chaplin, David Hayman
PRODUCTION COMPANY/COUNTRY: BBC One- UK; FX – USA
RATING: Five out of five wet wipes (you’re gonna need wipes if you watch this. Regency London, even the rich places, looks filthy.)
WHERE CAN I SEE IT?: BBC One and FX
Every week when watching Taboo, after emerging from my White Idris-induced daze, I’d think, “I really have to recommend this show to people because it is craaaaaazy.”
But it’s also also overly complicated and obtuse. That’s why I waited until it was over to review it. Now, if you’re a completists, you can binge-watch it. But Taboo is “sick with pneumonia” binge-watch material. Or “stuck inside during a hurricane or blizzard” binge-watch worthy. Taboo’s convoluted plot makes one easily distracted by the staging, the deliberate filth…or Twitter. And, yet, at the end, I actually stood up and cheered, which I’ve not done since Craster got merc’d in Game of Thrones.
The setting is 1814 London. This is the Regency period. The only thing I knew about this time period was that London was a nasty sewer, but that it’s also a period for some era-defining style and shit. Taboo’s settings relishes this aspect of its buildings and costumes. But the series is mostly set by the Thames River, which looks like a stew of incurable diseases. Which makes sense since the Regency era is also known for its inattention to poverty.
This is why, when James Delaney (White Idris/Tom Hardy) returns to London to claim his birthright, there’s an odd equivalency between how dirty everyone appears and their duplicitous natures. As Judge Judy would say about most of the people who come into her courtoom: no one has clean hands. Or anything else for that matter in Taboo. That’s especially the case for one of Delaney’s biggest adervsary’s, The Crown, as represented by the Prince Regent who, despite his lux surroundings and clear debauchery, looks like a sweaty, walking barrel of STIs.
AND IT’S SO FUN TO WATCH.
James Delaney: I have a use for you.
Me: Yes, please.
There’s a fine line between avoiding spoilers and giving enough background to convince you that Taboo is worth watching, but some basics and highlights:
- Delaney is off his rocker. Sometimes he simply grunts in response to questions, but after a few episodes you get into the nuances of his grunting.
Some of variations are: “I’m going to kill you,” “You mean nothing to my plan” and “You’re of no use to me.” We know from the series start that he’s returned from Africa (broadly and whitely defined) with lots of body tattoos and practicing actual B/black magic. This recurring theme requires analysis along the lines of Toni Morrison’s Africanist presence theory: even when black people aren’t present, representations of blackness are there doing the heavy lifting of signifying Otherness. So Delaney’s back and not a great communicator, but clearly up to lots of no-good. To what end, and for what purpose, doesn’t become clear until the pentulimate episode.
- There are two adversaries to Delaney in this story: the East India Trading Company and the Crown (aforementioned gross Prince Regent). They both want some land that Delaney might inherit off the coast of what will become North America. This means the American revolutionaries are also on the scene as a potential buyer, ally or enemy. INTRIGUE.
- There’re interesting ladies who get shortshrift. They could be way more fascinating, if Taboo is renewed for a second series. This seems to be the way of contemporary television: set up the first series’ drama with lots of male protagonists and then realize, “Oh! Right! Women do shit besides have boobs. Give ’em some plot!”
Delaney’s half-sister, Zilpha Geary, who he’s already shagged and finds other ways to seduce even when he’s not physically present (which is gross…but kinda hot…but yeah gross…but hot (see video below).
Delaney’s stepmother, Lorna Bow, that he didn’t know he had, but who becomes an ally.
And an instrumental brothel-keeper/whore (this narrative wayyyy predates “sex worker” so chill), Helga Von Hinten, who Delaney underestimates at every turn.
Again, now that the first series is over, check it out, but don’t expect it to be easy viewing. It’s nice to focus on a TV program and not be poorly multi-tasking all over the place. The twists and turns in Taboo aren’t implausible, if you’re used to high British drama. And it’s refreshing to see what real-ish people of the era across a few different class backgrounds.
And did I mention White Idris is fine?