The town of Fortitude, an Arctic location with a population of 713, is called “the safest place on Earth.” When a new researcher at the local facility, Vincent (Luke Treadaway), asks his co-worker if the sheriff, Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer), is “a good cop,” she replies that no one would ever know one way or the other. There’s never been any crime.
That is all about the change, of course.
When it comes to crime series, it’s difficult for new shows to stand out in a very crowded pack. A move from procedural formats to season-long stories has become popular in the last few years, but that more long-range approach doesn’t always make for a better show. (For instance, PBS’s Grantchester relies on a procedural formula a la Agatha Christie shows like Poirot, to great effect).
There are also plenty of familiar elements to Fortitude, which comes to Pivot, a channel you may not know you had (and may not in fact have), and from Britain’s Sky Atlantic. Its Arctic, white-washed tones are reminiscent of FX’s recent Fargo series, while its mix of accents and a healthy fear of the desolate, beautiful (and creepy) land has shades of Sundance’s Top of the Lake miniseries, with a touch of Twin Peaks.
What makes Fortitude a standout, though, is its cast. Truly, what better way is there to grab viewers than to start off with Michael Gambon shooting at a polar bear from across the ice? (There’s a lot more to that first scene that I won’t spoil, but it sets up a very brutal beginning that is echoed in the initial crime).
Fortitude has so many moving parts, though, that Gambon almost instantly becomes a footnote. The sprawling, slow-paced introduction dilutes the show’s impact, making it difficult to figure out even who the central characters are. The crime ultimately seems to drive the series, but it takes time for it to happen. When it does, almost everyone is a suspect, because this is a show about a small town — everyone has secrets.
The governor, Hildur (Sofie Grabol), is working on putting a luxury hotel inside of a glacier, which is met with both with personal resistance and many hints of personal gain. Elsewhere, two scheming coal miners try and sell what could be mastodon remains to a researcher, Professor Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston), who brings up the matter to police (since such artifacts are under protection by law), which raises their ire. Vincent, the young researcher, struggles to adapt to his new home, and is — as an outsider — wrongly accused of a crime. There is also a young couple struggling in their marriage and with the sudden illness of their son, who is treated by a doctor that appears to be a curmudgeonly loon of questionable competence.
All of these characters’ stories (and more) intersect with one another, and overlap through lies, affairs, shady business dealings, and occasionally, legitimate work. While they each have their quirks, though, none come off in a cartoonish, Fargo-esque way. Life is simply different in Fortitude.
Sam Miller‘s direction of Simon Donald‘s script accentuates the vast coldness of Iceland (standing in for Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago), and a feeling of isolation not only in the landscape, but among the population. There is conspiratorial suspense and horrific discoveries to be found at the most unexpected times, which keeps the show’s off-kilter feeling always at the forefront of the experience of watching it.
Stanley Tucci also arrives late in the series’ two-hour premiere as a London DCI (and as a lone American, which in a very meta way confuses the other characters), immediately clashing with Anderssen over the investigation. Really, though, he’s a welcome relief. Not just in terms of the investigation, but because his presence starts to tie the series together and make sense of it. Those disparate parts now have more cohesion and a direction; this isn’t just a show about life in a strange, formerly peaceful town on the edge of the world, but about his character’s murder investigation.
Fortitude can be engrossing, and it can even be funny in a strange way. Whether or not it’s the next great crime series, though, is uncertain. Pivot picked Fortitude up after Starz (who recently has had great instincts for acquiring international programming) passed on it earlier this year. But Fortitude‘s exploration of its horror side above the “quirky town” aspect is a good thing (it also leaves some opening for the supernatural, although for the most part, strange happenings are contributed to climate change). As one character warns another, “In this place, things can come at you from nowhere. Monsters … you won’t see them or hear the until they have you in their teeth.” Fortitude could end up having a similar, slow-burn effect, or it may just fade into the white.
Fortitude premieres Thursday, January 29th at 10 p.m.