Most regular consumers of TV, movies, theater, and books are wired to raise an eyebrow when they hear the phrase “presumed dead.”
And so they ought to when it comes to “Taboo,” a pitch-black FX miniseries co-created by and starring Tom Hardy. The lead character, Hardy’s James Delaney, is presumed dead in 1814 after having left London for Africa 10 years earlier. But here he is again, a wild-eyed, weary, and weathered mystery man showing up out of nowhere to attend his father’s funeral. For his family in the pews, notably his sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) and her ambitious husband, the aptly-named Thorne (Jefferson Hall), it’s as if James is a ghost, reborn on an occasion of death. It’s also as if he has come back specifically to interfere with their inheritance.
“Taboo,” which premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m., is a period piece, but don’t even begin to liken it to “Downton Abbey” or anything that features pretty frocks and inevitable marriage proposals. The lighting is dim, the bordello madam is fierce, and the gore — particularly during James’s father’s autopsy — is quite explicit. The title may evoke thoughts of a classic scent, Tabu, but the show wants you to know that urban life in the early 19th century was not particularly fragrant. Like “Deadwood” and “Ripper Street,” grime and mud are supporting players. Not coincidentally, one of the “Taboo” creators is Steven Knight, whose “Peaky Blinders” (which featured Hardy) is also ridden with doom and dirt, if not quite as much shadow.
And the hero of the piece, James, is as far from dashing as you can get. No Poldark, he. James is a terrifying man who’s afraid of no one, least of all his bullying brother-in-law Thorne; he’d stare down the devil if he could, and in some scenes it looks as if he is. In Africa, it seems, he learned some kind of dark magical power, and he continues to have flashbacks involving women who look like witches. But that’s not the worst of him. James may have participated in two disturbing activities, both of them directly relating to the title of the show, neither of which I will spoil here. He’s bad, but then, like a number of cable TV anti-heroes, he often comes off better than the greedy people around him.
Hardy is the right guy for the role, as he keeps James’s secrets hidden behind a stiff brow and a primitive demeanor. He manages to make inscrutability intriguing, rather than dull, and no matter how cold James is to others, Hardy always lets it seem possible that there is nobility lurking somewhere inside him.
The inheritance issue becomes critical to the plot, as a piece of land James’s father owned in the United States is bound up in political tensions between the Brits and the Americans. The East India Company has its eye on that land, and its head, Sir Stuart Strange, is beside himself at James’s odd reluctance to sell — a bafflement that is wonderful to watch, since the great Jonathan Pryce plays Strange. Another plot, possibly related, has James looking into the chance that his father was murdered. He trusts no one, except, perhaps, his father’s devoted old servant, Brace (David Hayman).
I was fascinated by the first three episodes of “Taboo.” Some of the storytelling is muddled, which may well be intentional, and the hints of the supernatural are at times distracting. But still, if you like your historical fiction grim and your cobblestones dirt-caked, if you don’t mind looking into some of humanity’s bleaker facets, this one’s for you.
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michael Kelly, Jonathan Pryce, Oona Chaplin, Franka Potente, Jefferson Hall
On: FX, Tuesday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.