London is a filthy chamber pot in FX’s Taboo, a dour new supernatural miniseries and one hell of an endurance test. In last night’s pilot, adventurer James Delaney (star and series co-creator Tom Hardy) returns home from Africa and stalks across the slosh of piss, mud, and blood that is Britannia’s capital, demanding answers about how his recently deceased father came to pass and what might be made of his inheritance, a stony island off the coast of Vancouver. It’s 1814, when old white men who look like they’re never not smelling a fart decide the world’s fate by drawing lines on a map. Fighting against the armed forces of racism and capitalism with, uh, African and Native American superpowers is — sigh — a white savior.
Delaney is technically half–Native American — an identity reduced to magic and suffering by the trio of review episodes. But since he’s played by the Anglo-Irish Hardy, it’s hard to view the psychic seafarer as a significant departure from a Tom Cruise or a Matt Damon. It’s also difficult to take seriously Taboo’s anticolonial, antislavery critiques when the drama takes part in the very same racial stereotypes that justified colonialism: that Africa is a homogeneity, characterized chiefly by cruelty and mysticism. (Unrefuted but uttered by vile, cosseted Londoners are the ancillary portrayals of black people as savages, cannibals, and capable of abiding great pain.) This is the kind of faux-enlightened project in which we have to hear a mountain of racial barbs to learn that racism is bad, told from the point of view of a half-indigenous character played by a white actor.
At its trudging, fatuous heart, Taboo is not as edgy as it insists: Charles Dickens would easily recognize it as a tale of contested wills, only splattered with Ferrari-red gore. Resentful of her exclusion from her father’s bequest is Delaney’s married half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), with whom James had a Lannister-like attachment. A secret stepmother (Jessie Buckley) walks out of the shadows to collect her share of Delaney Sr.’s estate, which doesn’t look like much domestically, but may prove a thorn in the side of the villainous East India Company, led by the goofily titled Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce). Rebuilding his father’s shipping company, Delaney takes a high-low approach to the visits that make up the first two installments. Hatted like a gentleman and unblinking as a frog, he strides to brothels and butchers and grave plunderers, as well as the board of the East India Company and the secretary to Prince Regent George IV (Mark Gatiss), here a gilded sack of lurching lumps. Other than Chaplin’s papery-white cheeks, there’s no such thing as good skin or a clean surface. Co-written by Hardy’s father Edward, Taboo’s intended revenge on imperialists is largely hygienic: This is a dystopia of gunge. No wonder Londoners wanted to be anywhere else.
Among the parade of repulsions are some meant to impress us: Delaney vowing to turn a dozen avengers into “twelve sets of testicles,” jokingly threatening to beat his servant/confidant (David Hayman), chanting in what I guess is “African” by his father’s tomb, and being called “nigger” repeatedly without losing his temper. There will inevitably be viewers who find Taboo “cool,” but it screams “creative bankruptcy” and “crisis of masculinity” to me. With listless pacing and no characters to care about, the show just feels like a dick-measuring participant: My antihero is darker, my sensibility is grimmer, my background atrocities are bleaker than yours. Congrats, Taboo, you win. You’re the best at being the worst.