Not wild enough

Frontier drama tries hard but feels tame


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There’s this thing about wild-frontier dramas in the age of specialty-cable TV and streaming-service content:

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/11/2016 (2397 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s this thing about wild-frontier dramas in the age of specialty-cable TV and streaming-service content:

To be noticed and embraced by ever-more-discerning viewers, they have to be really, really wild.

Canadian TV’s Discovery channel gives it a pretty good try with its first foray into homegrown original-scripted programming, but the ambitious fur-trade-era drama Frontier falls slightly short of the standard set by the genre’s best in recent years.

SUPPLIED A bloody Declan Harp (Jason Momoa, right) threatens Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron) in Discovery Canada’s Frontier.

Frontier, which premières Sunday at 8 p.m. on Discovery, is a sweeping historical drama set against the wilderness struggles and greed-fuelled political double-dealing of the 1700s fur trade. The series sets a very high bar for itself, employing a massive cast and filming in multiple locations — both urban and rural — while seeking to spin an intricate web of interconnected stories.

And on many levels, Frontier succeeds. Its attention to period detail is admirable, and the performances of its actors are solid throughout. But despite the generous application of mud and blood on most of its characters and an almost-gleeful embrace of a level of profanity that makes it clear this isn’t just another broadcast-network drama, Frontier’s story still feels like a sanitized version of what might have happened during the turbulent and violent era it explores.

One of the central figures of the drama is Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), a low-level Irish thief who becomes an unwitting stowaway on a Canada-bound ship after his plot to pilfer a keg of gunpowder goes awry. Instead of being tossed overboard after he’s discovered, he wins the favour of the vessel’s aristocratic master by exposing the ship’s cook’s thievery; by the time the expedition reaches the New World, Michael has won himself a job in Lord Benton’s (Alun Armstrong) ranks.

And given Michael’s Emerald-Isle heritage, that job involves finding and befriending the dangerous and violent Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), a half-Irish/half-native rebel who’s seeking to wrest control of the lucrative fur trade away from its traditional colonial keepers. Of course, when Michael finally connects with Harp and learns the truth about who’s really greedy and ruthless in the bloody business of trapping and trading, the lines between right and wrong become very blurred and some interesting decisions about loyalty must be made.

The far-reaching narrative also includes a trio of ambitious, but slightly unhinged, Scottish brothers named Brown (Allan Hawco, Michael Patric and Stephen Lord), strategically efficient American businessman Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle), and a not-quite-on-the-level British Army officer named Captain Chesterfield (Evan Jonigkeit), who forms an uneasy swindling-for-profit alliance with shrewd saloonkeeper Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle).

The first episode (two were provided for preview) totes the heavy load of introducing a dozen or so main characters and setting up storylines in a handful of different locales, but by the second instalment, Frontier’s narrative is fully in motion and the story gains momentum at a rather satisfying pace. Stiff-collared political intrigue and power brokering are in stark contrast to the outdoor scenes’ dark and bloody action sequences, and it’s soon clear that the evolution of the Declan/Michael relationship will play a huge part in determining the story’s outcome.

Momoa (Game of Thrones) is by far the series’ most compelling figure — physically imposing and possessed of a boiling-point intensity that forces the rest of the cast to play up to his level, he’s the engine that drives Frontier forward. When he isn’t featured, however, the energy level dips noticeably and the drama tends to feel a little bit limp and a lot less dangerous.

Jason Momoa (foreground) leads a large ensemble cast in the Discovery Canada miniseries Frontier

The series, which will be streamed internationally by production partner Netflix, has already been given a second-season renewal.

In comparison to a top-level costume drama like HBO’s gone-but-not-forgotten Deadwood, Frontier seems like a hard-times adventure that wasn’t allowed — for standards and practices reasons — to get as down-and-dirty as it wanted and needed to. It does the best it could within the constraints placed upon it, but the end result is a well-intended and pretty good scripted drama that can’t quite navigate its way to greatness.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @BradOswald

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Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.


Updated on Saturday, November 5, 2016 11:00 AM CDT: Link added.

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