Audiences love crime stories. And for as long as most viewers can remember, so has television. Between police procedurals, murder mysteries, and serialized legal dramas, there’s rarely, if ever, been a shortage of fictional crime on TV. The canon has ballooned recently, with more and more cable channels and online providers getting into the game and international productions becoming increasingly available to wider audiences. In such a cluttered field, it’s not enough to be good. To stand out, new crime series must in some way demand viewership and do so quickly, before audiences lose track of fledgling entries within the genre’s ever-expanding ranks. From its first episodes, Fortitude manages this and more, injecting life into the well-trod premise of murder in a small town.
Violence erupting in a peaceful, seemingly idyllic community is nothing new to television, but Fortitude immediately distinguishes itself by rejecting the subgenre’s traditional approach: that of making the central, titled town a familiar space. Instead of a generically sleepy hamlet, Fortitude is a remote outpost in the Arctic Circle. The frigid climate precludes strangers or stragglers; everyone in Fortitude is there because their job demands it. With the town’s entire population gainfully employed, there’s almost no crime. There’s also nowhere to run, and the realities of life on a glacier are an ever-present undercurrent to the show.
Fortitude opens with a potent glimpse of the area’s natural threats before introducing the town and its denizens. Shot on location in Iceland and the U.K., the landscapes captured are utterly gorgeous, cold, and menacing. Much of life in Fortitude requires intentionality—carelessness is not an option when forgetting to carry a firearm means ending up a polar bear’s lunch—and this deliberate approach to life carries through to the camera, which patiently follows characters as they trudge between buildings or creep through corridors. It takes a particular personality to choose to live in this part of the world, and the series gets substantial mileage out of exploring this notion, contrasting those who chose Fortitude and those who did not.
One of the series’ primary strengths is its international cast. While Stanley Tucci understandably factors prominently in the show’s advertising campaign, Fortitude is far more of an ensemble piece, with Irish actor Richard Dormer (Game Of Thrones) and Danish actress Sofie Gråbøl (Forbrydelsen, the Scandinavian precursor to The Killing) ably leading a large cast. When he does appear, Tucci’s DCI Morton is handily explained away as an American working for Scotland Yard, no potentially distracting accent required. Tucci is unsurprisingly excellent, finding humor in small moments and playing Morton, the lone outsider, as close to the vest as Dormer’s enigmatic sheriff or Gråbøl’s cool governor. Genre fans will be happy to see Michael Gambon (Harry Potter), Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who), Jessica Raine (Call The Midwife), and Luke Treadaway (Attack The Block) among the large cast, and the series nicely balances and develops its ensemble. As is common in mysteries like these, most of the characters are hiding secrets, but the actors and script manage to keep these teases enticing, rather than tiring.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of Fortitude, and the one that will remind some viewers of season one of True Detective, is its comfort with incorporating genre touches. From the scoring and sound design to talk of unexplained animal mutations, the edges of the show are filled with eerie, but easily explained details. While the series will likely remain rooted in the mundane, there’s a strong sense that at any moment, it could spin out into any of a number of directions, becoming a John Carpenter’s The Thing-inspired sci-fi action, a fantasy creature feature, or a conspiracy thriller. The isolation and atmosphere of the setting makes this approach a natural fit, building paranoia in the viewer and putting audiences directly in the shoes of the handful of characters who are new to Fortitude and unsure what to make of it. At the same time, this is a much more conventional series than True Detective, told mostly linearly with few time jumps and even fewer philosophical digressions. At least initially, these two sides of the narrative pair nicely. If all goes well, the writers will be able to maintain this balance throughout the season.
With its strong cast, diverse ensemble of interesting characters, beautiful visuals, and patient direction, Fortitude is a promising freshman outing from cable obscurity Pivot and a worthwhile addition to an already over-stuffed subgenre. It remains to be seen whether audiences will seek out the channel and series, but those who do will be treated to a refreshingly specific take on an all-too-frequently generic setup.