Taboo, Season One (2017)

 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

Since the success of the wonderful, Dickens-esque Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell novel and miniseries, an interest in Regency-era magical stories has peaked. Taboo is an attempt to cash in on the genre, and give it a much darker, sinister and complex twist. Its fault is the plot is too complicated, sometimes.

 

No one has seen James Delaney (Tom Hardy) since he disappeared into Africa. In fact, most people thought he died there. Maybe he did. Still, he returns to London in the wake of his father's death, to claim the inheritance. This unsettles his sister (Oona Chaplin) and puts the head of the East India Company (Jonathan Pryce) on edge, because he's been trying to get his hands on an important piece of North American property for years... and now, it passes to Delaney, who has no intention of selling it. He seems rather hard-headed about it, and he might even have a problem with the East India Trading Company, with how he's acting.

 

Delaney has his own ideas... and they lead him to some dark deeds. Unfortunately, his motives are never entirely clear, and the series suffers from overt sensationalism. It takes its title a little too seriously, since it seems to set out with the intention of shoving in as many cultural taboos as it can, for shock value, which means the plot often founders while we pause for a little cannibalism, or sexual experimentation, or incest, or racial stereotypes. The characters are intriguing (and most of them are also vile) but the women in particular have no depth or nuance; it's primarily a story about a mystery man, who menaces a great deal, but doesn't give us enough answers by the end of the season to care whether the bloated budget program got enough repeat viewers to warrant a second season.

 

The costumes are great, and I have rarely seen a more eerie, darkly beautiful, or grotesque setting; a sense of menace oozes from foggy London streets, seeps in mud-entrenched lanes, and sputters in candle-lit rooms. Based on style alone, it's an exquisite piece of work and the dark, threatening musical score is magnificent. Many terrific European actors engage here, it's just a shame that most of what comes out of their mouths is profane. The desire to shock and unsettle viewers takes away from the deeper, more disturbing themes at work -- namely, slavery, in the form of a slave ship scuttled by the East India Trading Company. What connection does Delany have to it? Do visions of it torment him, or do the ghosts of the dead souls on board haunt him? The series offers no answers, and without them, why bother?

     
Sexual Content:
6 sex scenes, scattered over ten episodes (including oral sex); many contain backside nudity and all, graphic movement; one of them is incestuous. There's an incestuous subplot, where a woman behaves suggestively toward her brother (she kisses him on the mouth, straddles him, invites him into her bed, etc); he visits her sexually in her dreams. A man is often shown naked, his privates obscured; from the side. He walks around in nothing but a short shirt. A man rips a woman's bodice off her, exposing part of her breasts, and threatens her with rape if she won't talk.
 
Language:
Regular use of the f-word, various profanities, vulgarities, about a dozen abuses of Jesus' name in some form, and other profane terms.
 
Violence:
Infrequent but sometimes gruesome; the protagonist, for example, beats an enemy to a pulp, ties him to a post, and guts him. Other scenes show brutality, a man beating his wife, explosions, gunfire, stabbings, dismemberments, and chained prisoners drowning.

 
Other:
African/Indian mysticism, with the "hero" possessed of evil secret mystical powers (he visits people in their dreams and believes in his own prophecies); the show never makes it clear whether he is a ghost or not, but horrific nightmares and visions plague him of past and future events.


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