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John Doyle: Frontier is a lively, bloody yarn about Canada’s fur trade wars

Canadian history is about cutthroat business. And greed, murder, rage, revenge and pillage. Mind you, it's mainly about getting on with the necessities of cutthroat business.

Frontier (Sunday, Discovery, 9 p.m.) is a new drama about Canada in the 18th century, before it was Canada and was merely a disputed place to pillage and ravage like the bountiful, wanton place it was. It's a stunningly opulent, wildly entertaining romp, an action/adventure drama anchored in the savagery of the fur trade. Blink and you've missed some character being knifed, hung or beaten to death in the name of profit.

The Canadian Discovery Channel's first scripted drama, made with Netflix, which will air it outside of Canada, is a rollicking good yarn, blessedly lacking in earnestness and devoted to fast-paced action.

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It's about the fur trade and early days of the Hudson's Bay Company. The gist is this – enormous amounts of money can be made from the fur trade and the HBC will not, and cannot, allow any competition. Given the amounts of money at stake, the battle for access to the trade is brutal and all-consuming.

At the start and for much of it, the dominant, looming central character is Declan Harp (Jason Momoa, familiar as that beast Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones), a half-Irish, half-native outlaw who is the most determined of the usurpers who want to wrest control of the trade from the HBC.

He's spoken about in London, where Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong, who is brilliant) of the HBC decides it's time to travel to the wilds of James Bay and deal with the notorious Harp.

He does travel and via this passage of action we get the young anti-hero we are meant to really care about.

A young Irish rogue, Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), is a stowaway after trying to rob the ship with his girlfriend and is then persuaded to try to con his way into the company of Declan Harp and help Benton get rid of him.

Soon, we're in the wilds of what-will-be-Canada and the place is brimful of rogues, wenches, priests and crooks of every type. And they will knife each other at any point.

We meet the rich American entrepreneur Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle), a guy whom the Scottish Brown brothers (Allan Hawco from Republic of Doyle is one of them) are trying to inveigle into a scheme.

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Also, there's an alcoholic and verbose priest, and much of the action is located in a tavern run by the shrewdest of them all, the owner Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle), who realizes that the only thing more valuable than fur in this wild, uncivilized place is information. There are chase scenes, fist fights and shenanigans galore.

Frontier is not what you'd call subtly multilayered. It wears its action/adventure intentions on its sleeve and moves forward with its own propulsive force, full of twists and shocking turns.

The involvement of native tribes with the fur trade is handled delicately, mind you (Declan Harp's ace is he works with the natives, not against them) and the six-part drama is far from being a whitewashed tale about the English, Scots, Irish and French battling out for possession of fur and land.

There are odd moments when the tone shifts – the role of the prattling alcoholic priest, Father Coffin (Christian McKay), is rather larded and approaches comedy; and while the drama is not shy about depicting violence, it seems strangely bashful about sex.

In an arena that is focused on savage human greed, it is thematically implausible that such bashfulness exists.

Still, the series – co-created by Rob and Peter Blackie – has a powerful and serious undercurrent. In the first few episodes, the key character is Lord Benton, whose ferocious focus on money and profit is underlined by his casually sadistic treatment of others.

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He embodies everything about this place, this new world rich in fur that would become Canada, and his attitude is anchored in merciless greed and the need to conquer.

You can take that message from Frontier or you can take it as it is – an action-packed, uncomplicated and very entertaining yarn about the cutthroats who created this country by plundering it, when they weren't busy killing each other. Highly recommended.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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