It’s quite difficult to make a generalized statement about the type of person who would enjoy watching FX’s Shogun. And that speaks to the show’s strengths. The limited series—available on Hulu and FX—has become a certified hit with the highest number of viewers on multiple platforms in the weeks since its premiere in February. Seven of its ten episodes have been released thus far, and audiences seem no less enthusiastic as the story speeds up towards the finale at the end of this month.

In a world of regurgitated slop and cheap pastiche on TV, Shogun offers viewers an escape into a very niche and very thoughtful execution of the swashbuckling adventure genre. The series sets a new, reasonable standard for mass market entertainment — and, in doing so, may win over more discerning viewers who have all but given up on television. The series opens in the year 1600 and follows the adventures of John Blackthorne, a British explorer (or pirate, depending how you define those terms) who has found himself and his starving crew stranded on the Japanese islands. Viewed as a hairy, blue-eyed barbarian and marked for an unceremonious death, Blackthorne navigates interrogations and violent beatings as he argues for his life.

The only other Westerners on the island are the Portuguese and Jesuit priests—“papist” imperialists whom the Protestant Blackthorne judges to be just as foreign and dangerous to his Anglo self as the Asian warlords holding him captive. Audiences witness Blackthorne’s Machiavellian rise in service to his ally Lord Toranaga as he navigates a multi-front conflict between native warriors, foreign powers, and religious hierarchies vying for control of the islands.

Shogun is a classic swashbuckler adventure set in ancient Japan, exploring themes of religious spirituality, feudal warrior loyalty, and pre-modern geopolitics between East Asia and the West—a bit more niche than what one expects to dominate modern U.S. television screens. But the series meets audiences where they are and then encourages them to keep up as it takes them on a high-octane tour of historical intrigue, religious debate, and culture clash from the perspective of an equally befuddled protagonist in an exotic land he knows nothing about. If nothing else, the source of the show’s popularity is one rare virtue that sets it apart from much of mainstream television today—it cares.

Shogun cares about quality. It cares about maintaining some form of historical integrity. It cares about entertaining its audience but not underestimating them. It cares about Japan and the Japanese language. It cares about samurai. It cares about Europe. It cares about the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism. It cares about the East, the West, and the disconnect between them. If viewers appreciate effort, they will enjoy watching Shogun.

The plot, adapted from James Clavell’s 1975 adventure novel of the same name, expects viewers to pay attention and discern characters’ motivations as they cross paths with Blackthorne—and question the British captain’s own morality and intentions along the way. Like any good prestige TV drama, Shogun is not interested in providing pre-digested “good guys” and “bad guys” for viewers to swallow wholesale. The Japanese, Westerners, Catholics, Protestants, and Buddhists involved in the war at the center of Shogun’s narrative are all portrayed holistically and thoughtfully.

The overlapping factions have beliefs and motivations that make internal sense, and individual characters are not beholden to any one group. No character embodies this network of overlapping loyalties better than Toda Mariko (played by Anna Sawai). Mariko is a Japanese noblewoman who defers sincerely to Lord Toranaga. She is also a Catholic who takes her faith seriously, studying Latin and theology with the Portuguese Jesuits. She is a compassionate mother and wife who sees humanity in Blackthorne early on, despite his anti-Catholic beliefs and distaste for Japan. Her depth of character is far more compelling than the typical female character on mainstream TV.

The series also owes a massive debt to its predecessors. Martin Scorsese’s 2016 adaption of Silence—a cinematic masterpiece (and unfortunate box office bomb) about Portuguese priests ministering to brutally persecuted Catholics in feudal Japan—clearly influenced the 2024 series’ aesthetics. Tones are muted for a grim and cold atmosphere, the nature of the islands is rendered with an almost supernatural presence, and Japanese cultural miscellanea is introduced with subdued reverence.

Silence, born out of the renowned Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo’s theological novel, intends to force the audience into painful meditation on the nature of belief and the lengths to which we are willing to suffer for a higher power. While the conflict and violence is external, the spiritual journey of its priest protagonist is centered internally. Shogun does not have such introspective goals, but the show does center religious belief and how it propels men into action. The spiritual journey is more than one individual’s struggle as religious divisions erupt into hostilities. It’s a multi-sided holy war.

Three faith traditions are put on stage in Shogun—Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, and Japanese Buddhism. A fourth tradition, Shinto, goes without explicit mention by the characters but is ambient to the setting and narrative in, for example, the references to kami and demons throughout the episodes. The closest viewers get to genuine spirituality from the protagonist himself are Blackthorne’s occasional whispered reflections between action sequences. This seems to be a conscious choice meant to reflect on Blackthorne’s own spirituality—one Jesuit priest observes that the Englishman is “not a man to leave his fate to God.”

With its cross-Pacific production, the series aims to show its audience a window into the authentic past right down to the character’s smallest actions and vocabulary choices.

Tonally, Shogun is more akin to the 2003 epic The Last Samurai, directed by Edward Zwick and starring Tom Cruise. The two narratives share the same narrative skeleton of a Western warrior thrust into the center of a Japanese conflict who uses his foreign insights to aid a faction that takes him in as an ally. The Last Samurai was a major breakthrough in American storytelling about Japan and is still enjoyable today, but it does suffer from moments of cheesiness and contrivance when it comes to portraying East–West interactions. Complex philosophies like bushido are simplified, and charming behavioral quirks of the Japanese are exaggerated. Shogun largely manages to avoid such pitfalls.

With its cross-Pacific production—which reportedly involved multi-level translation projects, consultations with Sengoku-era historians, and months of research into contemporary sources—the series aims to show its audience a window into the authentic past right down to the character’s smallest actions and vocabulary choices. Japanese characters do not speak in modern Japanese. Many use refined court language developed by Japanese translators and linguistic historians in collaboration with American writers.

Japanese viewers tend to understand that their culture is complex and difficult for foreigners to portray accurately on more than a superficial level. They do not turn their noses up at productions that diverge from authenticity so long as it’s good-natured and doesn’t put on airs. Shogun, however, wants to be taken seriously for its efforts. And that’s a tall order for a flagship epic drama.

The producer Hiroyuki Sanada, who also plays main character Lord Toranaga, said that historical accuracy for the pre-modern Japan setting was one of his most pressing demands. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he described his initial skepticism towards the project’s lofty goals when asked to take on the role: “I asked … ‘How can you guys create this show in Hollywood? Can you guys hire Japanese actors for Japanese roles? Can we hire Japanese crew, and specialists for each department?’” The answer was yes to all of it, so Sanada signed on.

“As a producer, I could hire experienced Japanese crews for wigs, costumes, props, everything,” Sanada said in an episode of the show’s companion podcast. “And then, [a] master of gestures—it’s very important. How to sit, how to stand up, how to walk, how to serve. Those kinds of things are very important.”

With authenticity comes a steep learning curve, but FX gives committed fans resources through which to keep up. In addition to the Shogun companion podcast, an online portal offers historical summaries of the time period and relevant information about broad political issues of the time. A cultural reference guide is also available, through which viewers can examine a glossary of Japanese terms thrown about by the series’ characters for greater context. These supplements show a surprising level of effort on the part of FX to balance artistic complexity with engaging storytelling.

The production shows a glimmer of hope that companies may still see a market for audiences willing to engage with stories that demand more mental engagement than sitting on the couch slamming potato chips into their mouths. And, with the high viewership that Shogun maintains, that market doesn’t seem small.

Shogun may stumble here and there—for example, sometimes offering crass language as a substitute for actual humor—but it is ultimately a valuable series that attempts to bring out the best of our current media market. It’s heavily promoted to a wide market but does not dumb itself down for the sake of mass consumption. It respects its source material, the subject matter of its narrative, and its viewership. And while its decades-old source material must get some of the credit for the rich and fun adventure narrative, much credit is due to the production team for valuing their product.

People interested in Japanese history will enjoy Shogun. People interested in religion will enjoy Shogun. People interested in military intrigue, world politics, or power will enjoy Shogun.

People interested in good TV will enjoy Shogun.

As television and streaming services continue to bog themselves down with a quantity-over-quality approach to filling their catalogs, the series is one of discerning viewers’ best options for a serialized narrative with heart and effort. Shogun should be celebrated, and hopefully its success will be a sign that the market has room for both intelligent and immersive entertainment.