One TV show looms heavily over Netflix’s new Western Frontier, and it’s somehow not FX’s Taboo, which is also about a battle between gigantic British business interests and obscure but unpredictable traders in the wild world of the pre-20th century.
No, it’s Game of Thrones that Frontier — with its massive, sprawling cast divided among numerous locations and its love of unexpected violence and gore — would badly love to be. At times, it almost feels as if a group of Canadians got together and said, “You know what’s a lot like Game of Thrones? The history of our nation.”
(Yes, the show is debuting on Netflix in the US and just about everywhere else, but it aired on Discovery Canada last year, and has already been renewed for a second season by that channel.)
Set in the political hotbed of the Hudson Bay in the 1700s, the series traces attempts by the half–Native American, half-Irish Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), who’s seeking his revenge against his former employer, the very British Hudson Bay Trading Company. But Frontier takes its sweet time introducing its protagonist, setting up its entire world and a surprisingly large cast of fellow characters before really zeroing in on Declan. (Despite Momoa’s top billing, he largely sits out the first episode.)
As such, the show plays into one of the most basic mistakes a drama can make in its first season: It’s way too complicated.
Frontier’s first season is six episodes long. That makes the show’s immense sprawl all the more puzzling.
Frontier comes alive every time it pops back to Declan, for several reasons. Momoa is a charismatic guy, Declan’s motivations are the easiest to understand, and his storyline — he will have his revenge! — is the most streamlined. When Declan is onscreen, Frontier is a tight, nasty little adventure story of a man seeking revenge against those who wronged him and the various characters he meets along the way.
But the show keeps acquiring random side characters. It makes sense that the series would dig into the world of the Hudson Bay Trading Company, since they’re the villains of this tale. And as upper-crust muckety-muck Lord Benton, Alun Armstrong is a lot of fun in the HBTC scenes.
But then there are plots involving an Irish stowaway and a pretty barmaid and the local First Nations population and on and on and on. Every single character has an elaborate backstory and a set of allegiances. Every single storyline expands and expands and expands. And the only one that really adds anything is the story about the First Nations population, largely because Fargo veteran Zahn McClarnon is in it. (He’s the best.)
To be sure, all of these stories overlap here and there. By the time Frontier reaches its finale, the various characters have mostly chosen sides — either with Declan or against him — and the final series of action sequences is propulsive and fun. But it takes far too long to get to that point, with far too much throat clearing and random plot twists along the way.
Even worse, the show is packed so full of plot that it doesn’t have time for character development; whole episodes are filled almost entirely with expository dialogue. Characters don’t seem to have inner lives so much as they have easily defined goals that they keep talking about, as if they’re trying to state the objectives of a video game.
But what struck me most as I watched Frontier was just how murky it is.
I didn’t always understand why characters were doing what they did, beyond knowing the plot needed them to do it. I couldn’t always pin down the larger story, which seems to concern the exploitative nature of capitalism or something. (The over-the-top quotes from famous people — like Ice Cube! — that introduce each episode sure hope that’s what the show is about.) And sometimes I just couldn’t figure out what was happening because the show’s lighting is often literally so dark that it’s hard to see anything.
The show isn’t totally worthless. Some of its action sequences are entertaining, and it has a ready willingness to get gory. Its exterior scenes — shot in Canada’s great wild expanses — are often majestic. And Momoa gives everything he has to his performance, even though his character is ultimately kind of a dud.
Maybe there’s a good show buried somewhere in Frontier, and maybe it will emerge in season two. But in its first season, Frontier forgets the No. 1 rule of serialized TV, which is especially true for shows with only six-episode seasons: Start small, then get big. Frontier sprawls more widely than Game of Thrones did in its first season, and its clumsy expansiveness comes back to haunt it.
Frontier is streaming on Netflix.