“Twin Peaks” meets frozen tundra in “Fortitude,” a visually arresting series whose snail’s pace and drabness starts out intriguing and, by later episodes, slides toward irritating. Pivot’s first foray into scripted drama opens with a two-hour premiere, which makes sense, since marquee star Stanley Tucci doesn’t show up until well into the second hour. Shooting in Iceland (standing in for the Arctic) gives the proceedings an “Insomnia”-like feel, but as constructed, the show itself might actually be a cure for insomnia if things don’t pick up relatively soon.
The title doubles as the name of the small outpost where the series is set, a place where everyone has a specific job, so there’s ostensibly no poverty or crime, other than the occasional unfortunate run-in with a polar bear population that exceeds the number of people.
The bears, however, are behaving oddly, and shifting weather and melting ice has brought unexpected artifacts into view. Most significantly, there’s a murder, which forces the local sheriff, Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer), to get involved, and a forensic investigator from the mainland (played by Tucci) to eventually be sent to help him.
Among the other tantalizing and not-so-tantalizing threads, the governor (Danish actress Sofie Grabol) is eager to break ground (or more accurately, ice) on a luxury hotel that will bring tourism to the area; and a local rescue worker (Nicholas Pinnock) and his wife (“Call the Midwife’s” Jessica Raine) are concerned because their young son has been stricken by a strange and mysterious illness.
Written by Simon Donald and directed by Sam Miller, “Fortitude” certainly has a lot of moving parts, along with the tone of a paranoid conspiracy thriller from the 1970s. The cast also looks impressive, at least on paper, with Michael Gambon and Christopher Eccleston among the inhabitants, albeit in smallish roles.
Simply being cryptic, though, doesn’t really advance the story, and at a some point, as hypnotic as all those snowy backdrops are, it’s easy to grow impatient with the assiduous, disjointed nature of the plotting. Indeed, even as the mystery grows over five hours — and Tucci’s character becomes more involved — it’s hard to get a handle on the precise nature of the environmental message within “Fortitude” that would dovetail with the channel’s change-inspiring profile.
Like many smaller U.S. networks braving the wilds of scripted drama, Pivot has shrewdly capitalized on European talent (the show is a co-production with Sky Atlantic, and will premiere day-and-date across several major territories) to try carving out its own footprint. By that measure, the program is a credible effort, as well as a pretty explicit one in terms of sex and nudity.
That said, if the opening salvo is any guide, “Fortitude” will also likely describe those with the endurance to stick around for the duration of this 12-part series, which plants some interesting seeds but too often feels as if it’s plodding through several feet of soft powder.