When you’re an actor like Jason Momoa who is 6’4″, jacked, pierced, tattooed, and have an abundance of charisma to go with your physical attributes, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you make an impression in every room you enter, and when you’re right for a part, you’re incredibly right for it. But the number of roles tailor made for a magnetic, multi-ethnic giant are few and far between, which is why Momoa’s had an uneven career in the years since his time on Game of Thrones as warrior king Khal Drogo came to an end.
He played Conan the Barbarian in an unloved movie reboot, was the quietly menacing highlight of Sundance’s sleepy, short-lived drama The Red Road, and had a 3-second cameo as Aquaman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The latter role will, of course, be beefed up in Justice League, and even more in an Aquaman solo film, but that still leaves Momoa with lots of downtime, and few tailor-made roles, when he’s not playing the King of Atlantis.
So you can’t necessarily blame Momoa for squinting at the script for Frontier — a Canadian historical drama (and co-production with Discovery Channel Canada) that debuts on Netflix on Friday (I’ve seen the first two episodes) — and seeing a potential fit in Declan Harp, the half-Irish, half-Native American 18th century fur trader at the center of most of the show’s plotting. As Harp, Momoa gets to wear a long coat, work with knives, intimidate everyone he meets and otherwise dominate the action.
The problem is that, as with The Red Road, Momoa dominates the material, and most of his co-stars, too much, through no fault of his own. Harp is so much more interesting than everyone else on screen that it’s hard to blame the creative team (which includes San Andreas director Brad Peyton, and writers Rob and Peter Blackie) for treating him nearly the way Homer Simpson wanted the Itchy & Scratchy writers to treat Poochie: “Whenever Poochie’s not on-screen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Poochie?'” There are occasionally conversations that have nothing to do with Harp, and they’re generally to the show’s detriment. Momoa has a few brief appearances in the debut episode, which has to introduce a host of other characters — notably Alun Armstrong as Lord Benton, the imperious, Harp-hating local representative of the Hudson Bay Company; Landon Liboiron (alum of Netflix’s Hemlock Grove) as Michael Smyth, an Irish stowaway forced by Benton to infiltrate Harp’s gang; Zahn McClarnon (so great in Fargo season 2, struggling to do more with less here) as Harp’s sidekick Samoset (Zahn McClarnon; Christian McKay as shady, drunken priest Father Coffin; and Zoe Boyle as local barkeep Grace Emberly — and establish their positions vis a vis both Harp and the beaver pelt trade as a whole, and the hour suffers for his long absences.
The second episode, involving the abduction of a local tribal leader’s son as part of a strong-arm treaty negotiation tactic, has more of Harp, and more of him involved directly in what’s happening, rather than existing as a threat or savior for the other characters to discuss. Yet even with Momoa and McClarnon being more central to the action, it’s middling historical drama at best, like the early days of AMC’s Turn or Hell on Wheels.
TV development often comes in pairs: two Chicago hospital dramas at the same time, or two about super-powered slackers who work at big box stores. (It can also come in more than pairs, as we’ve seen with the half-dozen time travel shows this season.) Still, the idea of two shows debuting in the same month on the subject of mysterious, violent iconoclasts going up against British colonial trading outfits? That feels a bit esoteric a coincidence, but here we are with both Frontier and FX’s Taboo, where Tom Hardy takes on the East India Company. Taboo is weird and aggro but ultimately dull, while Frontier has a lower ceiling but a higher floor, by not trying to be much more than it is, even if it what it is also lacks excitement whenever its highest-profile castmember isn’t around.
It’s hard to blame Momoa for taking the gig. Even as he’s becoming part of a mega-budget superhero franchise, his overall work options still seem limited, especially if he and/or casting directors only see him as a tough guy. (He’s done a couple of Drunk History episodes; could he make like The Rock and turn his size to his comic advantage?) Still, “Jason Momoa does historical epic for Netflix” sounds a lot more exciting in theory than Frontier is in execution.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com