'Fortitude' Review: Stanley Tucci Excels In A Tale Of Icebound Crime

'Fortitude' Builds A Fine Crime Story Set In The Frosty Arctic

It's easy to give you an idea of what "Fortitude" is like and whether you might like it, because it's not hard to find good shows that are pretty similar to the new Pivot drama.

It sits squarely at the center of a satisfying subgenre that has bubbled up in the last few years and is centered on visually ambitious dramas that skirt or avoid most conventional rules about how crime and punishment are handled on TV. Procedurals these are not.

Programs as varied as "Top of the Lake," "Rectify," "The Bridge," "Banshee," "Happy Valley," "Fargo," "The Missing," "Broadchurch" and "The Fall" generally do two things really well: They immerse the viewer in the mood and feel of a specific place, and, via an array of believably complex characters, they examine the personal and professional relationships that can shield criminals from consequences. These dramas do follow detectives and other curious types as they hunt around for clues, but those writing these kinds of stories are rarely interested in frill-free searches for unknown evildoers. In fact, quite often the criminal in question is known to the community, or suspected by some, and for many of these shows, part of the point to demonstrate that more than one person shares the complicity for ongoing crimes that often reverberate into the past.

I'd even put "The Returned" in this category, because, like those other shows, it's phenomenally successful when it comes to creating a mood in a forbidding yet beautiful place, and there is a confounding mystery that various characters have to muddle through. "True Detective" could also be considered an entry in the Remote Noir category; Season 1 was wonderfully atmospheric and evocative, but the drama was on much wobblier ground when its characters questioned, without much consistency or enthusiasm, the power structures that allowed elaborate crimes against the poor and the young to go unpunished.

"Someone is at fault for things that have gone wrong here," most of these wise, watchful shows seem to say, "but the bigger problem is that a lot of people look the other way, for reasons that are understandable, if not forgivable."

The tone can range from the cool tartness of "Fargo" to the precise, simmering anger of "Top of the Lake," but there's always tension quietly thrumming through the communities depicted in these dramas. Murders or other unfortunate events have woken sleeping dogs that, in some cases, have been lying dormant for years, and solving a crime in the present day often forces reluctant residents to relive or revisit past nightmares.

The capable and compelling "Fortitude" generally hews to forms that have emerged in the Remote Noir subgenre; it's a welcome entrant into a crowded TV field (though some of us trudging through mountains of snow might wish there was a little less frozen tundra in this program, which is set practically on top of a glacier).

The drama opens with one very strange death and then jumps forward to events in the present day that throw the hopeful aspirations of this small, ice-bound town into disarray. Take the icy setting of "Fargo," the isolation of "The Returned" and the complex social web of "Broadchurch" and toss in an array of fine character actors like Michael Gambon and Stanley Tucci, and you have a crime saga that's generally well-made and eminently watchable. There are also polar bears.

(As critic Alan Sepinwall has pointed out, this is the show to watch if you want to see Dumbledore -- aka Gambon -- take on a bear. Television offers a vast cornucopia of goodness these days, but wizard vs. bear is not something you see every day.)

Tucci's character, an American detective based in London, does what David Tennant's character did in "Broadchurch"; he upsets the apple cart. In "Fortitude," it's an Ikea-perfect applecart in a frosty town with Scandinavian overtones (the show was filmed in Iceland). Tucci, who doesn't show up until late in the second hour, is more than up to the challenge of playing an acerbic, thorough cop who isn't aggressively rude but who isn't particularly interested in being liked by the locals.

Various members of the community get in Tucci's way as his investigation progresses in stops and starts; does their obstruction arise from an instinct for self-preservation, or are they trying to deflect an interloper who doesn't understand their ways and their culture? Outsiders quickly realize that the town of Fortitude is an outlier in a number of ways: For one thing, all residents have to go around carrying rifles in order to protect themselves from the aforementioned polar bears.

"Fortitude" does a good job of playing around with questions of doubt, selfishness and complicity: The mayor and the top local cop seem reasonably good at their jobs, but both also appear to be hiding something. More generally, the town seems friendly enough on the surface, but it's not difficult to deduce that some people in it might be suffering from the effects of constant cold and extreme isolation. "Fortitude," like a lot of the aforementioned shows, was probably directly or indirectly inspired by the original version of "The Killing," which aired in Scandinavia in 2007 but became a cult hit in the U.K. in 2011. The U.S. version of the show went awry well before its first season ended, but in its early days, it had a very Scandinavian restraint, a quiet diligence that you also see in the great Danish drama, "Borgen."

"Fortitude" reminds me of "Borgen" because neither show is loud; nothing about this kind of drama is bombastic or outsized. "Fortitude" takes its time as it builds up its icy, workaday world and depicts the day to day lives of its residents, many of whom work in a mine that's closing soon. Like its Remote Noir compatriots, "Fortitude" doesn't do noisy, shocking things simply to get attention; it efficiently amps up the stakes by showing just how much it would cost each individual to reveal all of his or her deepest secrets. It's easy to be anonymous in a big city, or online, but it's not easy to melt into the background in an environment where you come face to face with half the residents of your town every time you go to the store. As Tucci learns, many of the town's residents are running from something, but there aren't many places to hide in environment so inhospitable to non-bear residents.

Elements of this formula aren't that new, of course; many mystery novels round up a group of suspects and put them in a place that they can't or aren't allowed to leave. So many Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers novels end up revealing that, as it happens, quite a few people in that little sleepy village had good reasons to murder the vicar, or drop poison into the wineglass of the local squire.

Much of the pleasure of these Remote Noir dramas comes from their able synthesis of the old and the new. They're willing to ask intelligent philosophical and political questions about power, gender and class, but they're also reassuringly familiar in some ways. We hope those in authority do the right things, even if they often turn out to like power more than they should. Good people are sometimes punished more than they should be in these tales, but bad actions do usually come to light, and sometimes the worst acts are even punished.

After all, as newcomers to the hamlet of Fortitude are reminded, nothing ever rots or melts away in a place where everything is permanently encased in a layer of ice.

"Fortitude" airs Thursday at 10:00 p.m. ET on Pivot.

Ryan McGee and I discussed the wave of Remote Noir programs, "Fortitude," "Better Call Saul" and "The Americans" in the most recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below:

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