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Fortitude: Season One

PBS // Unrated // April 21, 2015
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted July 8, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Season:

Television shows have a knack for rebounding from poorly-conceived pilots, or even premiere seasons, but the rules for that change drastically when it comes to murder-mystery series. Comedies can find the right chemistry and timing within its premise, and space operas can simply warp to more intriguing conflicts; however, if the core events at the start of a serialized homicide case are highly questionable, both in terms of the crime itself and the suspects involved, then it's difficult to shake that off as each episode builds atop those facts and mannerisms. Fortitude, Sky Atlantic's original foray into the genre, suffers from precisely that issue. Despite an impeccably selected cast and an utterly breathtaking setting embedded within the harsh Scandinavian climate, the ways in which the writing establishes its central violent event and the alibis of the township's citizens freeze the production's whodunit potential, even once the bizarre intentions of the writing attempt to thaw everything out.

Fortitude begins with a fatal accident in the outskirts of the area's icy expanses and polar bear roaming spots, the result of a mistake made by photographer and resident Henry Tyson (Michael Gambon) that ended in the death of one of the city's population ... and the help of a police officer to make it right. The story promptly jumps ahead three months after that, with the mostly peaceful city of Fortitude preparing to start construction on a hotel embedded in the ice. To move forward with the project, governor Hildur Odegard (Sofie Grabol) must have clearance written up by researchers -- a team led by Charlie Stoddard (Christopher Eccleston) -- stating that the area is free of significant scientific value, a situation that changes when a group of wanderers discover something out there. Affairs, cover-ups, and odd domestic issues are in no short supply among the population, which complicates matters when a member of the research team is found brutally murdered in their home. So begins the investigation, drawing the attention of American-Briton inspector DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci).

Peculiar characters and the township's enigmatic isolation and skewed culture make the cobbled-together influences in Fortitude easy to spot, a melting pot of components primarily aimed to lure in the Fargo and The Killing crowd with its idiosyncratic, procedural suspense. Within the stunningly photographed arctic setting forms a series of subplots -- about neglectful parents, scheming enterprising locals, and, of course, rampant sexual deviance -- that tiptoe around and interweave within the murder mystery, playfully exploring their potential motivations and tenuous alibis. A clearer influence starts to emerge within the deepening intrigue, though, gradually recalling more of David Lynch's Twin Peaks through the obscure nature of the location, where the government seem as if they want to build their own Great Northern Hotel amid polar bears, prehistoric skeletons, and clandestine shamans. That influence becomes more obvious as Morton, the suit-and-tie investigator, arrives and acclimates to the locals and to renegade police chief Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer), only much more stern-faced and without tape-recorded reports to a secretary who may or may not exist.

Headed by Stanley Tucci's subtly charismatic performance as Morton probes the believable clique of Scandinavian residents, an international collective of people shaken by the murder in their frozen seclusion, it's clear that the potential for gritty, elevated-reality suspense exists in Fortitude ... that is, if the plotting wouldn't get in the way. The circumstances established in the pilot episode are infuriatingly dubious, conveniently leaving people unattended and unaccounted for while others are guided to the right place at the right time to accentuate the mystery. These whereabouts and peculiarities aren't something that can just be shaken off in an episode or two, either, since the entire plot branches out from the events that transpired that evening (and three months prior): affairs revealed, children put in imminent heath risk, bloody garments discovered, and so on. It's a testament to the cast involved that certain developments are even remotely convincing; in fact, the strength of the drama, matched with the aesthetic of the environment, really makes getting frustrated with the lapses in common sense tough to bear.

Whether planned all along or a serious case of course correction midway through the writing process, Fortitude adapts to the unanswerable weirdness of its mounting circumstances by accelerating full-throttle into a hybrid of Lynch-ville and the early perceptions of the island from LOST, giving up on rational answers and falling back on the peculiarity of supernatural elements. Curiosity towards the discovery of the murderers and their motives gets replaced by curiosity towards whatever the hell's really buzzing between the town's population and underneath the ice surrounding the area, transforming the show's shaky logic into a borderline hybrid of paranormal and sci-fi horror escapades. The subtlety of the shift in direction makes it emerge without much warning, though, at first suffering from a few "wait, hold on, what?" moments before realizing that there's other-worldly forces at play behind Fortitude's sudden spike in murder. Does it transform into a better show because of it? Not exactly, but the desire to see the innards of the town's brimming chaos, unsettling riddles, and scientific abnormalities certainly bests its nonsensical stumble through murder-mystery tropes.

The DVD:

All twelve episode of Fortitude: Season One have been included in this four-disc DVD package, which arrives in a standard double-tray case covered with a cardboard slipcase featuring iced-over characters from the show. The first three discs of the presentation split the episodes pretty evenly between them, while Disc Four contains two episodes and thirty minutes of bonus content, ensuring that the digital quality of each installment remains consistent and strong.

Video and Audio:

The beauty of Fortitude's frosty exterior shots really can't be emphasized enough, but that bracing emotional tempo also carries over into the stylish angles and moody close-ups on the minimalist Nordic interiors, playing with warm and sterile lighting to intriguing degrees. Each of the three primary discs of this standard-definition release of the first season contains between three and four 1.78:1-framed, 16x9 episodes, giving the transfers enough breathing room without having to contend with many extras. What results is an extremely well-detailed, brilliantly shaded, clean and stable batch of transfers with a few niggling flaws. Some light aliasing garbled detail, and edge enhancement creep up in fine details, but they're few and far between. Mostly, the fine details of harsh weather garments, the contorted entrails and blood spatter on bodies, and the minute details of skin surfaces and falling snow are impeccably sharp. Contrast is stable and deep, the orange glow of streetlamps at night diffuse nicely to everything underneath them, and the transparency of liquor and the sheen of metal and plastic are capably natural.

Unfortunately, Fortitude's sonic fidelity and robust atmosphere are limited by a 2.0 Stereo track, and the absence of those surround touches is felt out of the starting gate. The brisk blowing of wind in the arctic wilderness commands fine separation in the forward channels, paired with crisp, appealing strength and reputable bass response, but the vigorousness just goes to further highlight the fact that it's all contained to the front. Quieter or confined sequences within interior sequences get away with more, driven by strong dialogue that never leaves anything muffled and capable awareness of slight environment touches, like the pulling of duct tape and the visceral disruption of blood and guts. Stronger thuds aren't that frequent, but they carry plenty of punch to accentuate sequences, and the combo of stillness and the suspenseful score create a well-balanced environment free of distortion or audibility issues. It's a shame about the surround-channel limitations, but the episodes get the job done otherwise.

Special Features:

In a display of extreme quantity over substance, a collection of seventeen brief snippets comprise the Behind-the-Scenes Extras (32:48, 16x9), with intro/title cards at the beginning of each that eat up a bit of that time. Interviews with the cast and clips from the season fill out most of the pieces at first, with the characters elaborating on the plot and characters. Later on, the segments reach a bit deeper into making the show, from set design and makeup work to the grisly violence and photographing in such a harsh climate. Nice glimpses at getting the actors ready for snowy scenes and of the locations in the show make the material worth watching from start to finish, but the generous and plainly descriptive chapters offer a solid skip-and-view experience.

Final Thoughts:

Fortitude's an odd bird. A beautifully-shot, well-acted, admittedly intriguing bird, but still an odd one in both beneficial and detrimental ways. Layered, nuanced performances across the board and the hauntingly abrasive isolation of the Nordic landscape create a splendid atmosphere for a murder mystery; however, the far-fetched connection of circumstances at the heart of the show's existence echoes throughout the entire season, no matter how the writing tries to correct and complicate itself. How the show transforms at the halfway point makes it even tougher to pin down: the dramatic validity really tries to make the dubious procedural elements work as a deadly whodunit, which undermines the shift in perspective to the outlandish, almost sci-fi nature of what's divulged about the area. Fortitude wants the audience to believe it's a clever crime-drama at first, then changes its mind and morphs into an eerie, enigmatic supernatural thriller later on, and the reality is that it doesn't really work on either end of the spectrum .... though it's more adept at emphasizing the genre-breaking oddities of the isolated corner of the earth than its exploration of the human condition. Rent It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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