For Tom Hardy admirers, just landing him to star in a series after several high-profile movies — among them “Mad Max: Fury Road” — represents a coup for FX. That the result, “Taboo,” proves very good, set in an enticing period and graced with a splendid supporting cast, is a happy bonus.
Infused with a Dickensian flavor and a broodingly dark streak, this grim tale begins in 1814, with the return of a prodigal son. In this case, it’s Hardy’s James Delaney, who has been missing for a decade since embarking on a journey to Africa, brought back by the death of his father.
Delaney’s arrival unsettles everyone around him, starting with his half-sister (Oona Chaplin), with whom he exchanges too-long looks; and most significantly the powerful East India Co., which has a more-than-passing interest in his father’s estate and business affairs. Throw in a plot that brushes upon a disputed strip of land and the in-progress War of 1812 with America, and there’s plenty going on here, although the first three episodes are slow to disgorge Delaney’s secrets.
Told he looks the same, Delaney says ominously, “I’m not.” If there’s one unfortunate note, it’s the eerie and fleeting flashes of his past, a device that feels decidedly overused.
While the basic story is familiar, “Taboo” compensates by delivering a highly polished product, including Jonathan Pryce (like Chaplin, a “Game of Thrones” alum) as East India’s ruthless chief, and Stephen Graham (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”) as two of the associates that Delaney enlists to aid his cause.
While the war serves principally as a backdrop, like the Titanic and “Downton Abbey,” it’s a nifty historical means of enhancing and grounding the jockeying in which the combatants are engaged. The early-19th-century setting is equally bracing, offering a more brutal view of the period than one is apt to encounter in most PBS “Masterpiece” productions.
Hardy co-created the show with Steven Knight (with whom he previously worked on “Locke” and “Peaky Blinders”), and the actor’s father, Chips Hardy, joins him and director Ridley Scott among the producers. In many ways, the intense rags-to-riches role resembles Hardy’s earlier turn as Heathcliff in a 2009 remake of “Wuthering Heights,” with a touch of the bad guy he played in another miniseries, “Oliver Twist,” as he sashays around London in top hat and cape.
FX dramas are invariably gritty, but the mood here seems organic to the story, in the way it did, say, on “Deadwood.” Whether “Taboo” can rise to that level remains to be seen, but based on first impressions, Hardy’s TV return is pretty hardy indeed.
“Taboo” premieres January 10 at 10 p.m. on FX.