One of the glorious, and horrifying, things about the current television landscape is just how much there is of it, with plenty of series slipping by unnoticed. And there may be no clearer evidence than “Frontier” starring Jason Momoa, the once and future Aquaman, a Netflix period drama that just released its third season.
A compelling period drama with the edge of “Game of Thrones” and a unique angle on history, “Frontier” is set in the late 18th century, miles away from colonial America, as the battle for control over the territories and the Canadian fur trade is just one of the forces guiding the violent nature of life in the wilderness.
“Game of Thrones” isn’t actually the best comparison point, although Momoa starred in both shows — think the classic HBO western “Deadwood,” albeit with less iambic pentameter and a whole lot more snow. (Same amount of blood and F-bombs, though.)
“Frontier” takes a thoroughly modern approach to its dialogue and character, one that extends to one of the show’s most eclectic and charming choices — each episode of the show’s three seasons opens with an epigram of some thematic resonance. But the thinkers that creators Rob and Peter Blackie choose to quote aren’t exactly local to the time period: It’s a mix of Nobel Peace Prize winners like Elie Wiesel and Nelson Mandela, alongside Beyonce and Ice-T lyrics, as well as a quote from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
It all plays into the overriding attempt, often successful, to create a period piece with wide appeal. The core story is a war between a compelling array of characters, and the priority is entertainment over education, whether it be an emotionally complex sex scene or a bloody slow-motion ax battle. It also has a banging opening credits sequence.
But while there are many appealing elements in “Frontier,” none can top Momoa himself. In every scene of “Frontier,” Momoa delivers a true movie-star performance. Even buried under some of the thickest and wooliest coats you’ve ever seen, he’s both an impressive physical presence and a captivating performer even when not in the throes of battle.
As Declan Harp, there’s some cliche to his backstory (would you believe that something tragic happened to his family that sent him down his current path?), but that’s not overplayed. Also, it’s quite cool to see a period drama focus on a character who is canonically non-white. As “Frontier” co-star Allan Hawco told the Huffington Post, “20 years ago, it’d be a white person’s show.”
Meanwhile, Momoa is very much the star, but the supporting ensemble includes an intriguing blend of stories and accents, with some notably strong roles for women over the seasons, including tavern owner Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle, far less tragic here than in her brief time on “Downton Abbey”) and the fiercely ambitious widow/business owner Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath).
Those wondering how Momoa has been able to keep up with both “Frontier” and filming blockbusters may find the answer in the length of each season, which run for six episodes each (a pretty light commitment for prospective new viewers).
Ultimately, what’s exciting about “Frontier” is it’s an under-the-radar chunk of television — the kind of show that always feels special to discover. With the overhype that surrounds so many big series, it can be more rewarding to explore the streaming-service wilderness. The volume is often overwhelming, something that Netflix has often chosen to emphasize at the expense of quality. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of great series out there, especially shows from parts of the world that might not have made it to America 10 years ago.
How to sniff out the great shows from the subprime isn’t the easiest trick, but more often than not, you could do a whole lot worse than taking a gamble on an actor who’s just now ascending to a new level of well-deserved stardom. (And he looks a lot less silly in those big coats than he does in his other outfit.)
“Frontier” Seasons 1-3 are streaming now on Netflix.