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Fortitude combines murder mystery and polar bears in an intoxicating blend

Set in a remote outpost above the Arctic Circle, the new murder mystery Fortitude looks like nothing else on TV.
Set in a remote outpost above the Arctic Circle, the new murder mystery Fortitude looks like nothing else on TV.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You need to watch: Fortitude.

What is it: Set in a remote city above the Arctic Circle, Fortitude is first and foremost a murder mystery, though it takes its sweet time introducing the corpse. Instead, much of the first half of tonight's two-hour premiere is given over to small-town soapiness, stunning northern vistas, and polar bears. Writer/creator Simon Donald (a Brit) is setting all of these story threads up so that he can start pulling them apart once the body is found. And in the wake of the Big Death, the show also introduces Stanley Tucci, as a dogged British police inspector (with an American accent) who comes to Fortitude to puzzle out the crime. Who doesn't love Stanley Tucci?

Why you should watch: Fortitude turns out to be an intriguing blend of things a bunch of different nations' television networks do really well.

From the US, the show has borrowed the tropes of the weird mystery show, like Twin Peaks or Lost, where a strange location is suffused with odd goings-on and all manner of bizarre twists. From the UK, it's appropriated the tightly told, self-contained tale that boasts all sorts of quickly sketched, memorable characters. And from Denmark, home of the television movement known as "Nordic noir," it's adopted a gloomy milieu, a dark heart, and gruesome crimes. It turns out to be a heady mix.

First things first, though. This show is almost certainly going to disappoint you when it comes time to dole out answers. If you're only in it to figure out who killed the murder victim (whose identity I won't spoil), then you're going to come away frustrated, because that's just how these things go. Maybe Donald and company nail the ending, but that happens far less often in these sorts of stories than most TV fans would like.

Thus, this is another show where the journey has to be worth it. And Donald has found some ways around some of the other pitfalls that other shows of this ilk have struggled with. Because the world of Fortitude (the town, but also the show) is so interesting, the inevitable red herrings on the way to discovering the murderer are side trips worth taking. It's like if the latest non-suspect on The Killing also turned out to have vital information on the identity of Lost's Smoke Monster.

Donald also intends for this to be an ongoing series, even if the murder investigation will hopefully be wrapped up sooner rather than later. Thus, he's introducing lots of other weird twists and town secrets. There's constant wheeling and dealing about a hotel built into a glacier, some really nasty frostbite, and frequent reminders that when buried in the permafrost, the dead do not decay. It's neat and creepy and fun.

Donald's also assembled a cast of heavy hitters from all over the world, from Tucci, to Richard Dormer as Fortitude's sheriff, to Sofie Gråbøl (of Forbrydelsen, the Danish series that inspired The Killing) as the town's mayor. He's also loaded them up with great turns of dialogue and fun things to say, as when two characters have this exchange: "That's not something we have in Fortitude." "What, sexual infidelity?" "Pampas grass." The series is full of dry, snide little riffs like this.

Finally, there's just not another show you've ever seen that looks like this. Fortitude filmed in Iceland, and its use of the country's vast wildness makes for some beautiful, haunting visuals. The series particularly makes great use of twilight, the way that the constant, unending snow seems to swallow up all light once the sun sets, and that has the effect of making locations right here on planet Earth feel like something from an alien world. It only enhances the isolation.

You'll know if you're in or out by... the moment that opens the first episode, which involves acting treasure Michael Gambon, a polar bear, and a rather unexpected twist. If you enjoy this opening scene, settle in, because you're in for a winter TV treat.

When it's on: The series launches tonight on the little-known cable channel Pivot Thursday, January 29, at 10 pm Eastern. Don't know if you have Pivot? You probably do. The network has a handy-dandy "find Pivot" guide right here. (Once you've found it, you might also check out the wonderful Australian comedy Please Like Me, which is also on the network.)

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