Television and movie producers have a weird habit of doubling-up on big ideas, delivering two projects with more or less the same basic concept at roughly the same time. For no apparent reason, we’ll get hit with a couple of “giant space rock threatens to destroy the Earth” blockbusters in the same summer; or a pair of “behind the scenes at a late-night comedy series” in the same fall TV season. So perhaps it’s not that odd that FX and Netflix are about to serve up competing historical adventures, both set in and around the worlds of malevolent old European trading companies.
On January 10th, FX debuted its BBC co-production Taboo, an eight-part miniseries written by Peaky Blinders honcho Steven Knight, starring Tom Hardy as a shipping tycoon’s long-lost son, who stirs up trouble for the East India Company in 1814 London. And yesterday, Netflix dropped the Canadian Discovery Channel’s Frontier, a six-episode series (with a second season already in the works) starring Jason Momoa as another aristocrat’s rogue offspring, sabotaging the Hudson’s Bay Company’s efforts to monopolize the fur trade in 18th century Canada. Hardy’s character James Delaney and Momoa’s Declan Harp are both burly, violent men, with eerily similar backstories involving ancient mysticism and colonialist dads who diddled the natives. Both shows are grubby and earthy, with a cast of characters that includes oily upperclass villains and scrappy underworld types.
The question now becomes: Which of these historical, tough-guy-on-a-vengeance-quest dramas is right for you? We’ve provided a sort of “tale of the tape” for these two series, weighing which one has the advantage when it comes to what they have in common.
The Mysterious, Half-Savage Tough Guy
Just how badass are Delaney and Harp? Both are spoken about in whispers by their adversaries, who see them as something akin to a force of nature, set loose from above to punish the greedy. Frontier‘s half-Irish/half-Cree strongman lives among Canada’s native population, and has a reputation among the Hudson’s Bay elites for being mad, merciless, and maybe super-powered. In Taboo, the East India bigwigs talk nervously of James’ years in Africa, and the rumors that he actually died and was revived through some cannibalistic ritual. Momoa’s character has a tough time competing with that kind of outsized origin story, and it doesn’t help that he shares so much of Frontier’s main plot with a handful of minor protagonists. Plus, it’s always going to be tough to out-act Tom Hardy, who also co-produced his show with his dad, “Chips” Hardy (and gives himself the lion’s share of the screen-time). With his red-stained face, steely glare, and threats like, “If you send 12 men at me I’ll send back 12 pairs of testicles,” his Harp is clearly no one to cross.
The Less-Imposing Secondary Heroes
Momoa is being touted as the star of this Netflix show, but he’s hardly front and center. The Canadian series is just as much the story of Michael Smyth (played by Landon Liboirn), an Irish petty thief who stows away on a Hudson’s Bay ship and then, as punishment, agrees to become a mole within Declan Harp’s organization. FX’s drama has its own secondary plots and characters, mainly related to James Delaney’s efforts to thwart East India by preventing them from seizing a small island, Nootka Sound, he inherited from his father. One of the other claimants for the land is his half-sister and twisted love-interest Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) and her fusty husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall). As formidable an actress as Chaplin is, Liboirn’s Michael comes out ahead here – in part because he’s in his show a lot more, and because his main motivation (to keep his imprisoned girlfriend safe by cooperating with her captor) is clear and honorable. He’s an old-school in-over-his-head junior hero, forced to get a little dirty to serve a higher purpose. Zilpha and Thorne are just a couple of greed-heads.
The Huffy, Balding Trading Company Rep
In one of the more curious Taboo/Frontier parallels, both shows have given their primary antagonist more or less the same hairstyle: a curly laurel of locks framing a broad expanse of bald scalp. They’re both master manipulators too, with Hudson Bay’s Lord Benton (played by Alun Armstrong) and East India’s wonderfully named Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) quietly instilling fear in even their most vicious lackeys with the merest hint of a threat. It’s impossible to pick one of these creeps over the other. Both actors underplay their roles perfectly, using a veneer of civilization and privilege as a way of masking their characters’ deeper evil.
The Savvy Female Vice-Merchant
Whether you’ve just arrived in London or at a seaside Canadian outpost, there’s really no better way to get the lay of the land then to cozy up to the one local who knows everyone’s dirtiest secrets. In Frontier, that would be a saloon-keeper named Grace (Zoe Boyle), who trades cash and booze for information. Taboo, on the other hand, has Franka Potente as Helga, a weathered madame who used to operate a brothel out of the Delaney family’s abandoned dockside offices until James came home and ran her off. Helga’s more colorful, but she has to share a lot of the plot with another femme fatale: Jessie Buckley as Lorna Bow, an actress who works with London’s moneyed libertines on an elaborate con to take Nootka Sound. Overall, Grace is the stronger character. She’s not just more involved in the story; she’s so capable and plugged-in that she could support an entire show all to herself.
The Colorful Supporting Cast
In terms of raw character tonnage, Taboo dominates this category. As he roams through London, James Delaney crosses paths with all manner of freaky confederates and crooks, such as Stephen Graham as a tattooed bruiser; Michael Kelly as a duplicitous American doctor; and David Hayman as a loyal family servant. Frontier‘s supporting cast is less star-studded, though Paul Fauteux is memorable as a French-Canadian trapper, and Christian McKay brings some welcome comic relief as Father Coffin, an opportunistic, drunken priest who takes a dim view of human nature. McKay’s presence in the show – which plays well off of Momoa’s worldly gruffness and Liboirn’s fresh-faced eagerness – evens out this contest. Advantage: Tie
Frontier was produced on a fairly tight budget, and leans heavily on just a few sets (primarily a docked ship, a dim pub, and a tribal camp), while evoking the past by dropping a lot of tidbits about colonial Canada in between old-timey lines of dialogue like, “That’s bound to be guarded like a virgin’s honeypot!” Taboo, meanwhile, looks very, very expensive, and recreates elaborate scenes of early 19th century London life, from ritzy orgies to probate courts to West End theaters. The FX show feels much more lived-in, and includes more fun bits of off-the-wall historical detail, such as a complex lab-test involving fire, tubes, eyeglasses and a long-buried corpse’s stomach gasses – all meant to determine whether Delaney’s late father was poisoned. That’s just cool.
Bottom Line: For serious acting, movie-quality production design and overall weightiness, you want Taboo. For sharply defined characters and more straightforward genre kicks, go with Frontier. Or if you’re really ambitious, watch both – and by spring you’ll be able to answer just about any trivia question about British trade routes in the pre-Victorian era.