TV Review: Netflix’s ‘Frontier,’ With Jason Momoa

Frontier Review Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix

A drama about the struggles and skirmishes in colonial-era Canada stars Jason Momoa as a half-Irish, half-Cree rebel warrior

The theme music for “Frontier” encapsulates the whole show. It starts a little outsize, with an electric guitar riff over the orchestral strings that we’ve come to associate with adventure shows. But then the drumbeat changes subtly, and a chant-like singing is mixed into the music. The new element is Cree powwow drumming and singing — a warlike song, if not a war song. Against the brash guitar and “epic” strings, it’s at first buried, and then dissonant, before coming together to create a distinct, beautiful sound.

“Frontier,” a Canadian Netflix original debuting stateside this weekend, is a historical epic that capitalizes on the best features of prestige television. It’s sprawling, diverse, and detailed, with an eye towards complicating simple assumptions about its subjects. Because we’re in the midst of a glut of shows touting prestige markers, “Frontier” at first seems to be just another show parading its blood, guts, and whorehouses as indicators of just how cool it is. (In my metaphor, that’s the trying-too-hard guitar riff.) It reveals itself to be an ambitious, considered history.

Especially for the average American viewer, the struggle to control the resources around Hudson Bay in the 1700s is unknown or forgotten history. A map of the region will be handy. So necessary, in fact, that à la “Game of Thrones,” the opening credits unfurl a map of the region, and depict toy soldiers from every interested party meeting in a wary circle before gravely aiming muskets at each other. Each is wearing the uniform and waving the banner of their “team” — there’s a flag for the Hudson Bay Company, an English private interest, as well as a banner for the Cree people, also called the Lake Walkers. This is a history of competing peoples and fractured narratives, and “Frontier” puts that aspect of the show front-and-center. Unfortunately, the show is not always up to the task. The first episode is a real jumble of place names and accents — demonstrating the scope of the series, but also a weakness in the writers’ ability to build narrative out of apparent chaos.

This changes with alacrity when star Jason Momoa gets a chance to take center stage. The imposing actor is nothing if not compulsively watchable; it says volumes that despite his character Khal Drogo being killed off in the first season, Momoa is still one of the most memorable figures from “Game of Thrones.” As half-Cree, half-Irish Declan Harp, he embodies the split identity of the Canadian wilderness — and its future, in a way. It suits Momoa’s unique physicality that he doesn’t quite fit in with any of the other groups, but still can portray a character of some quiet grace.

Around him, the show’s chaos locks into place, revealing the show’s world to be a shaded explanation for why this atypical man pursues the goals he does. Declan is a rogue warrior with political ideas — ones aligned against the Hudson Bay Company’s longstanding dominion over the region, as embodied by the villainous Captain Benton (Alun Armstrong). It’s revealed in bits and pieces that Benton killed Declan’s wife and son — an act of oppression that sparks in Declan a desire for not just revenge but even, perhaps, revolution.

It is a plot that is reminiscent of nothing more than “Braveheart.” This might make “Frontier” a little predictable — but it’s a highly entertaining and satisfying journey, too, if you’re in the mood for it. The story is vast and at times either slow or confusing. But it always reads as considered and thoughtful — an adventure epic full of characters, not caricatures.

The story of “Frontier” is one of how history gets written, on the canvas of frigid wilderness, in the traces of different theories of civilization. These clashes between deerskin tunics, tartan sashes, and tailored suits mark the beginnings of globalization in the region, where brandy and beaver pelts stand in for currency and status. It is a little too slow to be gripping, but as far as variations on the prestige drama model go, its utilizing those tropes in all the right ways. “Frontier” privileges complication and nuance over titillation and pulp — and capitalizes on what television specifically can do in terms of telling a multi-pronged, multi-location story. Strangely, it seems to be what “Taboo” on FX was attempting to be. Both are about mixed-race heroes in period clothing, at the collision of cultures and philosophies and business interests. But “Frontier,” in its consideration for the Cree language and culture, is the only one of the two that has sparks of brilliance.

TV Review: Netflix's 'Frontier,' With Jason Momoa

Drama, 6 episodes (3 reviewed): Netflix, Fri. Jan. 20. 60 min.

Crew

Executive producers, Rob Blackie, Peter Blackie, Edwina Follows, Alex Patrick, John Vatcher, Allan Hawco, Perry Chafe, Michael Levine, Brad Peyton, Jeff Fierson

Cast

Jason Momoa, Landon Liboiron, Alun Armstrong, Zoe Boyle, Allan Hawco, Jessica Matten, Shawn Doyle

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  1. Jetagain says:

    I agree with the other commenters regarding the anachronisms. No effort was made to recreate the way people spoke or looked back then. This shouldn’t be hard if the screen writers made an attempt to consult contemporary novels and accounts during that period.

  2. Lynda L says:

    They’ve used slang expressions that were not used during that period (e.g., sack for fired). I’ve been jolted out of the story/period several times. Lynda L. Book Editing Associates.

    • johnrebchook says:

      I noticed that, too. They used “paranoid” about a century before the word was created. And the owner of the bar quotes Nietzche. That is just lazy writing.

      • Billy Emm says:

        Yes, and whilst the show is set some time in the late 1700s, the version of the British flag they use did not come into being until the union of Britain and Ireland in 1801. During the 1700s, the flag should not include the red diagonal cross of St. Patrick. Whilst on the one hand this doesn’t really matter, if you notice it it can interfere with the believability of the show, and it indicates a lack of seriousness in the production. It’s not like it is an unknown factor – there are tons of other movies and shows set during the era of the British Red Coats that don’t make this error.

  3. Atlas Shrugged says:

    The show is too clean and “modernized”. Every episode is increasingly painful to watch. Everyone has perfect white teeth and a fresh hair-do in every shot. In a show that literally is called frontier you would expect far more gritty realism. The dialogue is predictable and cliché with a fair amount of cheesiness. The plot feels lazy and thrown together in a hurry. Mamoa has the emotional range of a hammer. Cannot connect with him at all and you can tell the other actors have zero chemistry with one another. The antagonist is dull and mind-numbingly predictable. The protagonist looks like a JCrew model lost on the set of a cheap Game of Thrones spinoff. Very disappointed in Netflix.

  4. Ben Van Dusen says:

    I stopped watching during the third show when one of the characters used the word ‘paranoid’.

  5. matthewblott says:

    Given the carnage suffered by native Americans at the hands of the US it’s quite something that a drama that gives said group prominence has the English as the baby eating monsters. Throw in the mix of plucky cheery Irish thieves and my first impression is this is good looking cliched nonsense. It’s entertaining enough but I did hope for much better.

  6. comments are moderated, and the first post is spam?

  7. How odd only 2 members of the cast are mentioned. Perhaps toting out GoT references and clapping himself on the back for his turn of phrase re guitar riffs, left no room for more on the Cast! I look forward to the show because of Allan Hawco, not Mamoa.

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