All six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
If it’s possible for a show to be remarkably unremarkable, Netflix’s Frontier, a co-production with Discovery Channel Canada, makes an exceptional case. Grizzled and merciless, yet also drab and un-involving, this 18th Century-based period drama is dark, brooding and quite violent. No doubt of that. But there’s little that makes it unique or intriguing, especially in its muddled execution. Cold, monotonous, dimly lit and fairly shallow in its approach, it’s almost as if the freshman series tries to be as dull as possible. In this age of modern television, especially during its peak era, it’s a starkly mediocre piece of work.
In 1670, King Charles II grants England’s Hudson’s Bay Company land they can’t rightfully claim. Occupied by “aboriginal peoples for thousands of years,” as the opening credits put so elegantly, they once held a dominant fur trading monopoly, but things begin to change. By the late 1700s, French, Scottish and American immigrants have undermined the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dominance, which leads to a vengeful 18th century. The company provokes a bloody battle for control of wealth and power, spearheaded by Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong, guarded by some of the most ferocious eyebrows known to man) and the savage Declan Harp (Jason Momoa).
Harp, a part-Irish, part-Native American outlaw once under Hudson’s Bay Company’s control, has slaughtered Benton’s men in all directions, and they don’t take his attacks without menace or scorn. With their dominance fleeting, they don’t merely need Declan dead; they need to make an example of him, and they need to make him suffer. They cannot do that alone, however.
Impoverished Irish stowaway Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), in an effort to steal gunpowder from the Brits, finds his crush Clenna (Lyla Porter-Follows) captured and her brother dead. Under threat of death himself, Michael proves himself resourceful, and that comes to Lord Benton’s advantage. Sent on his watch to find Declan, Michael quickly finds himself in a heap of trouble when the English ship lands in its mainland and he’s framed with murdering an English soldier.
Guided along by Father James Coffin (Christian McKay), a self-interested drunk who is less holy and more tortured by his own demons, Michael escapes the crimes hung over his head, but it doesn’t take long before both Father James and Michael are captured by Declan and his Native American tribe, ready to be slaughtered at the stake. He just can’t catch a break. But once again, Michael proves himself resourceful, and Declan uses his new acquaintance to reclaim his people’s land.
Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey), Evan Jonigkeit (Bone Tomahawk), Allan Hawco (Republic of Doyle) and more round out the supporting cast, and while none of them make a bad impression, like the show that surrounds them, few make an impression at all. On the whole, Frontier looks and feels flat, cheap and deathly familiar. Even the production designs aren’t that inspired. But the cast, sometimes in their thespian nature, can sometimes make it work. Kinda.
As an actor, McKay is often as good as he’s underused, and that can be said here. Meanwhile, Momoa continues to remain a distinctive, sometimes intimidating screen presence, and while there’s nothing particularly charismatic about him (which is why I worry, amongst other reasons, for his upcoming turn as Aquaman), there’s a rogue John Wayne-esque nature to his Declan Harp — and the irony of that statement isn’t lost for a second. With his eternally growly voice and husky psyche, Momoa is an actor that doesn’t transform as much as he uses his individual screen personality to the benefit of his latest production. That’s most definitely the case here.
Otherwise, Boyle does a lot with the little she’s given, and behind Momoa, Armstrong is unquestionably the highlight of the series. It’s a delight to see him ravish in the larger-than-life essence of his fiery, vindictive character. If it weren’t for the occasionally-assured performance, however, Frontier would trek no ground. They do what they can, but that’s often not enough.
Again, few shows are as stubbornly undistinguished as Netflix’s latest. It’s a shame, really, because you can see the seeds of something mildly interesting here, and they squander that potential almost always. Netflix and Discovery Channel Canada, the latter marking new territory with their first scripted series, have the resources to shoot on stunning natural locations, but the dulled lightning and unattractive camera work can’t even make that look good. I cannot stress this enough: it’s as if Frontier doesn’t want to be anything more than meh. There’s very little — if anything — that grips you, pulls you in, compels you. You’d be frustrated if you weren’t trying to fight the sleep it will likely induce. It’s so very dull, lacking any pulp or spice. It has no bite.
Frontier wants to be mature, but it’s barely even MA. It wants to channel the grit and grime of other, more accomplished series, but it often feels artificial in that sense. Multiple characters have their teeth dirtied, their hair unkempt and their skin filthy, but the color of their choppers often changes (and it doesn’t help that Momoa has the pearliest white teeth of all, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever), their hair feels meticulously rattled and the muddy skin feel put-upon. Again, even in the ways it wants to stand out, it feels fake or forced. There’s little that feels natural or distinct.
And that’s maybe the worst sin Frontier commits: it fails to do anything truly worthwhile, in a time where so many other shows challenge themselves to stand out, be different, bolder, wilder — especially on Netflix, where it isn’t even binge-friendly, which is a true crime in these golden days.
Frontier has already been renewed for a second season, but it’ll need to step up its game if it’s going to earn it. It doesn’t need to be original, but it does need to be distinct. As it stands, however, this Netflix/Discovery Channel Canada original is anything but that.
Despite a fairly dependable cast, Frontier fails to give Jason Momoa the rugged, reckless and wild television series the future Aquaman deserves. In almost every conceivable way, it fails to break new ground and is as dull as it is dreary.