The idea that the location of a movie or TV show is a character in itself has become so overused in recent years that critics were startled to hear “Togetherness” co-creator Mark Duplass say at press tour that Los Angeles was not a significant character in the show, which they could have really set anywhere. And even the grand champion of the Location As Character shows, “The Wire,” could have probably been set in a lot of different American cities that had seen better days; Baltimore was just the one David Simon knew best.
With “Fortitude,” a new thriller debuting tomorrow night at 10 on Pivot(*), the location is so unique, specific and important to the story that the show would have no reason to exist without it. At its core, the plot is a familiar mystery about murder in a close-knit community that isn't used to crime on this level (see also “Broadchurch”/”Gracepoint” and “Fargo,” to name just a few recent examples). But when you take that story and set it in a physically remote island town in the Arctic, where polar bears are so abundant that even kids have to carry hunting rifles for protection wherever they go? Then you have something potentially very special.
(*) Pivot already had a few interesting shows in its lineup, like the comedy import “Please Like Me,” but this is one the channel co-produced with the UK's Sky. So now we can add Pivot to Sundance, Amazon, and all the other recent additions to the Too Much Good TV era.
Created by Simon Donald, the man responsible for the original UK version of “Low Winter Sun,” “Fortitude” doesn't waste any time establishing the specificity and danger of its setting. We're deposited on an icy shore, as a man dressed in white polar survival gear – soon to be revealed as Henry, a legendary nature photographer played by Michael Gambon – is called upon to rescue a person under attack by the local predators. If Dumbledore vs. polar bear doesn't get your blood pumping, then “Fortitude” is likely not for you, but the teaser quickly sets this up as the kind of place never quite depicted in a TV drama, even if the story has familiar elements.
The eponymous town is a Norwegian territory with unusual rules for who can and can't live there. The extreme cold, for instance, means that dead bodies won't decay – and, therefore, anyone on the verge of death is banished back to the mainland, lest the disease that's killing them spend centuries incubating while buried in the permafrost. (“There are bodies in the cemetery that still have plague in them,” a resident explains to a newcomer.) And because everyone in Fortitude is required to have both a job and a home, there is no poverty and barely any crime – which means the locals have little idea whether flinty sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer from “Game of Thrones”) is actually good at his job.
This all changes when murder comes to Fortitude, putting Dan potentially out of his depth, and also at odds with American-born British cop Gene Morton (Stanley Tucci), brought in to consult because the victim was a UK citizen. Through the course of their overlapping, at times dueling investigations, we get to know a lot about the people who have made this punishing environment their home, including Henry, scientist Charlie (Christopher Eccleston), the local governor Hildy (Sofie Gråbøl), Afghanistan vet Frank (Nicholas Pinnock) and a variety of shady characters.
The value the production got from filming in Iceland can't be overstated. While not as far north as the show's fictionalized location, the beauty and terror of the place is present in every outdoor scene, making even the most rote police procedural scenes feel like something new and strange.
Dormer and Tucci also make for compelling professional rivals. Dormer's Dan is weather-beaten, imposing and quick to anger, where Tucci is doing a soft-spoken Columbo riff as Morton, always three steps ahead of whomever he's interviewing, but also treating the investigation with the gravity it deserves.
I'll confess to losing the thread of the plot a time or three over the five hours I watched (the show debuts with the first two hours; there are a dozen in total), yet the location and the sense of unease that came with it kept pulling me along. Donald has talked about a desire to continue the series past the solving of the initial mystery. I don't know how many different kinds of stories you can tell in this place, but I'd like to see them try to breathe new life into all sorts of creaky genres by seeing what they're like when you put them on a glacier.
Maybe season 2 can be a rom-com where the coupling is as endangered by polar bears as by their incompatible personalities, season 3 could be an alien invasion thriller where the little green men also struggle with the cold, season 4 can be a body swap comedy where both swap-ees have to learn how to dress their new bodies for the climate… the possibilities may or may not be endless, but at the very least, it's one hell of a setting for a murder mystery.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org