Sometimes a polar bear is just a polar bear, especially when it appears in a nature or reality series. The scripted version, on the other hand, is almost always a metaphor, the symbol of opposing forces (cuddly looks, predatory nature) or mystical impossibility (the polar bear of “Lost’s” jungle island).
The polar bears of Pivot TV’s series “Fortitude” are a little bit of both.
Television’s first Arctic murder-mystery, “Fortitude” combines the best of scripted and reality programming, unfurling the type of complex if invariably grim human drama we have come to expect from short-season cable series in an environment more familiar to fans of “Ice Road Truckers” or National Geographic channel.
The story begins with a polar bear. More specifically, with Michael Gambon, a lone white clad figure in a vast snow scape, shooting at a polar bear. Breathtaking, swift and quickly unfathomable, the scene may be the best opener in recent television history. In a few very bold strokes, creator Simon Donald and director Sam Miller establish place (the Arctic), the mood (isolated, mysterious) and the tone (survivalist ethereal).
It also immediately establishes Pivot as a player. The less than 2-year-old network, which targets millennials, is following the popular scripted-biz game plan established by FX and later AMC: Enter big with a smartly written, star-studded story that introduces viewers to a whole new world of characters.
In this case, they are the citizens of Fortitude, a town on an island in the Arctic archipelago. Its outlier locale makes it attractive to the sort of people who have always inhabited the frontier — an international assortment of loners, survivalists, artists, naturalists and people on the run.
The man in the opening scene, Henry Tyson (Gambon), is a famed British wildlife photographer; Elena (Veronica Echegui) is a young Spanish waitress. Former soldier Frank Sutter (Nicholas Pinnock) has just joined the local search and rescue team, bringing with him wife Jules (“Call the Midwife’s” Jessica Raine) and their young son, Liam.
Currently, Fortitude revolves around the Arctic Research Center, run by Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston) and Natalie Yelburton (Sienna Guillory), who are researching the environmental impact of a glacier hotel proposed by Mayor Hildur Odegard (Sofie Grabol), who envisions a town fueled as much by tourism as science, though it’s tough to imagine the Travel section cover piece.
Like its inhabitants, the buildings of Fortitude are built to withstand extreme conditions. What lies within may be lovely or shabby, homey or creepy, but from the outside, the town is monochromatic industrial. Likewise, the rules are simple but absolute: Everyone must support themselves, and no one must die, at least not on the island. The basic degree of difficulty of life in Fortitude does not allow for a dependent class just as the permafrost does not allow decomposition.
So although everyone carries a rifle (for those non-metaphorical polar bears), Fortitude’s crime rate is all but nonexistent.
Until, of course, it isn’t.
Briefly, two children find something in the ice, and the discovery appears to prompt a brutal murder, Fortitude’s first. As Sheriff Dan Anderssen (“Game of Thrones’” Richard Dormer) struggles with his own demons, among them lack of experience, detective Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci) arrives to aid the investigation, which involves chipping away at the icy town and its icier inhabitants.
With lots of long, lingering shots and minimal dialogue, the pace of “Fortitude” could be characterized as slow, but that too is deceptive. Many things happen in the first three episodes, often quickly, and concurrently. “Fortitude” is one of a growing number of programs that demand the audience’s full non-multi-tasking attention by creating an alternate universe not just in setting but in narrative biochemistry.
Like “Rectify” or “Top of the Lake” or, before that, “Mad Men,” the pulse of this show is different from that of other shows and also from modern life. The landscape is foreign, but so is the way in which information and insight are revealed. Wildly ambitious and initially hypnotic, “Fortitude” has set a perilous course — the fascination of a few hours spent in a new world can quickly wear down to tedium or absurdity if the story is weak or the tone too coy.
Unlike “Twin Peaks,” to which it invariably will be compared, “Fortitude,” which is also airing on SkyTV, does not flirt with camp or satire. There is no Log Lady here, no easily mimicked motif of really good pie and over-sexualized teen girls. The Arctic, with its night sky of broken light, invariably conjures a sense of the supernatural, but “Fortitude” is interested in reality, albeit one to which we are not accustomed — Simon refuses even the traditional build-outs for A-list names like Tucci and Gambon.
Indeed, “Fortitude’s” only safety net is a cat’s cradle of inter-linked, understated and strangely powerful performances.
That, and the polar bears.
Where: Pivot TV
When: 7 and 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)