Saturday, January 31, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Fortitude

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Thursdays at 10:00 PM on Pivot

Here's how fragmented the television landscape has become: Many people, even TV fanatics, don't know what Pivot is.  The network, which started in August 2013, aims to target young adults between 18 and 34 years old, which it does mostly by showing activist documentaries and old episodes of Buffy, Veronica Mars, and Friday Night Lights.  It's also home to the charming Australian import Please Like Me, which gets some critical notice, but hasn't been enough to put the network on the map.  They hope to make a bigger impact with Fortitude, a British psychological thriller co-produced with Sky Atlantic, which premiered this past week.

We've seen the broad strokes of the show's premise countless times, especially lately: The tight-knit community (here, the arctic town of Fortitude) with unique characteristics (heavy isolation and low crime rate) is shaken up by a shocking and disturbing event (the murder of one its scientists).  The last thing we need is another one of these, but at the very least, Fortitude justifies its existence simply by making its setting incredibly intriguing.  In fact, the pilot is at its most interesting when it's fleshing out the details of Fortitude.  Everybody is brought there to do a specific job and they all are given a place to live, so there's not really any crime, and almost everyone knows everybody else.  But there's also something a little sinister to it too.  All of those layers of ice, that punishing cold -- it almost feels like a prison of solitude and isolation.  Fortitude sports some gorgeous visuals, not just derived from the natural beauty of icy mountains and northern lights, but also from director Sam Miller's neat shot compositions.

If only the characters were as interesting.  The double-sized pilot throws a ton of characters at the audience, but none of them are very distinct.  Thankfully, the show boasts an impressive cast -- Michael Gambon, Richard Dormer, Christopher Eccleston -- who add a little bit of life to the proceedings, but it's still not enough when the character writing doesn't meet them halfway.  Everybody's just so dry and morose.

Fortitude is a slow burn -- it's much more about atmosphere than story.  It doesn't truly gain momentum until about an hour and 40 minutes in, when DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) arrives to investigate the murder.  Tucci is a crucial addition to the episode, mostly because he provides some much-needed humor.  There's also some tension drawn from his outsider status -- he's an American who lives in the UK, and his attitude and tactics cause frustration from the police force in Fortitude.  Without him, and the show's brief moments of eerie weirdness, I'd be more skeptical of this show.  For now, though, I'm tentatively optimistic.

Grade: B

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