“There has never been a violent crime here.” Maybe that’s because after shooting a guy in the head you’re told to go home and not worry about it by the cop who watched you pull the trigger.
Believe that’s a realistic portrayal of everyday life in Longyearbyen and you’ll be well-prepared for the rest of “Fortitude,” since throughout the 11 episodes (or 12, since the DVD version treats the double-length opener as two) the locals wander about killing and pummeling each other, stealing relics and expensive equipment, going on drunken shooting binges, and generally acting in ways that make viewers think everyone deserves to be locked up at some point. And while some are – always the wrong ones, naturally – nobody’s ever charged, let alone convicted of anything.
But we really don’t care much about that, because the far more twisted thing is – WTF is up with all those trees?
The TV series about a Svalbard community that Is Not Named Longyearbyen debuted its first season a year ago and is now out on DVD. With the shooting of season two (in the filming sense, alas) beginning this month we binge watched all the first-season episodes in a couple of sittings to see if their weird fiction can match our surreal reality.
Forgot the personalities, the love triangles and even the rampant crimes in a town that supposedly has none. That’s all meaningless crap you can read elsewhere in episode summaries by bloggers who care about inane things like the plot. Instead, here is the ultimate authoritative guide to how well “Fortitude” captures the reality of Svalbard:
Good grief, what a mess. The first episode may well be the most surreal since it tries to portray real life here before things degenerate into “The X Files” meets “The Thing.” As such, this recap is also by far the longest.
Dumbledore of the Arctic opens by walking along a beach with more immense glacier/sea ice fragments than we’re likely to see in a generation. He’s dressed vaguely like the storm troopers in “The Empire Strikes Back,” which we can deal with – since we tend to get gear from the free “thrift store” we’ll wear a Mickey Mouse or sumo costume if it’s warm. He spots a polar bear attacking a still-living guy and…shoots the guy. Then the Spasmodic Sheriff, who just happens to be there on a nearby roadside, tells Dumbledore to scoot and all will be well. OK, that’s some fine community-oriented police work, but what happened to the bear – he just let it wander away now that it’s got a taste for human flesh?
But there’s not much time to process that because, immediately after the opening credits, there’s a tree in someone’s yard. And some shrubbery (there is no end to the Monty Python references we wanted to use; feel free to insert your own). We’re less than three minutes into this and already know this is destined to be far worse than when “Baywatch” filmed a movie in our editor’s Alaskan hometown that was mostly an ad for the cruise industry since stock footage publicity snippets from one particular cruise company are at least 40 percent of the film.
One cute opening scene that will be lost on non-locals: the two kids out digging on a hillside for coal and fossils. During the summer you can find them in ones and twos at busy tourist spots at what’s essentially Svalbard’s version of a lemonade stand (and right now they’re earning a lot more for their coal than our 100-year-old mining company is). Alas, any chance of expanding on this bit of cuteness vanishes when one kid passes out when he gets home, setting up one of the main plot points of the series. (And, in passing, we’ll note Svalbard must have been going through its driest and warmest winter ever, since such digging would normally be impossible just at the dark season is ending in early February, which is when the timeline begins – although a massive and unexplained warp in the time-space continum will happen later in the series).
Skipping past many other lesser idiocies – such as the main road into town being magically elevated a couple hundred meters above the coastline, and some overhead shots of a town that looks like Longyearbyen in a carnival funhouse mirror – let’s talk about about a subplot more insane than the real-world fantasies of mad scientists and zombies living in our Doomsday Seed Vault.
Apparently, our governor thinks The Next Big Economic Thing here with coal mining declining (definitely happening in real life but, as will be seen, not at all for reasons portrayed here) is a luxury hotel carved out somewhere deep inside a glacier. Not to play up the cold/hot themes too much, but this is where our brains literally went into meltdown. Did the imbeciles who produced this show bother to look up “glacier” in the dictionary? Those lunatics are literally making a major plot point out of a hotel built in the middle of a frozen river of ice – there might be fewer fatalities in a hotel built on a raft sent down serious whitewater rapids on a daily basis.
Also, Svalbard’s real-life governor is soulless, at least in terms of pushing political or other agendas. (S)he is a three-year appointee who’s basically a legal administrator. In short, the person who’d be first to reject such a project, explicitly citing sections of the Svalbard Treaty and Svalbard Environmental Protection Act that state, in bureaucratese, “you are an utter freaking moron.” She’s also technically the police chief – there is no such thing as a sheriff, instead there’s several officers who all share the title “police chief lieutenant” (a.k.a. “underling”).
BTW, it’s interesting that while one of the main characters (a search-and-rescue pilot) is black, none seem to be from the Thai, Russian and other dominant international communities (if you’re reading this in the United States, replace “Mexican” with “Thai” and you’ll grok who does the cooking and cleaning here – only without the jingoistic hate from the palefaces). The Russians, of course, would (and may) be a perfect villain to cast blame upon until the real culprit(s) turns up. Most of the workers in the main Russian settlement 60 kilometers away are actually Ukrainians – not a fave of the Russians right now. Although for that reason the Ukrainians would rather work here than return to their war-torn homeland, despite coping with things like the occasional death or loss of a limb since the concept of safety in that community’s mine is mostly an annoyance to Russian officials trying to figure how to get as many soldiers and nuclear military planes/subs just outside our borders as possible.
Then there’s the ultimate WTF scene in this episode. The Sheriff and Black S&R Guy land their helicopter on a glacier near town where a couple of clueless hikers are out without proper gear (kudos to the producers so far for recognizing that increasing reality). But when the Sheriff confiscates one of the tourist’s snowmobile key, Clueless Novice 1 pulls a revolver and shouts “we have a gun” while sort of pointing it at the cop.
Apparently Clint Eastwood and Crocodile Dundee are the Sheriff’s heroes because he walks up to tourist, takes away the gun (“this will not stop me, much less a bear”), then TAKES S&R GUY’S RIFLE AND TOSSES IT TO THE TOURIST, telling then both to walk back to town, at which point they can trade the rifle for the revolver (yup, we actually shouted at the screen when it happened). In real life, on many occasions, idiots wandering out without proper protection (one guy last year was carrying a cast-iron pan to beat off any bears) are flown back to town in the chopper, harshly lectured and possibly fined under laws essentially stating you can’t be an unprepared moron in the field.
Not much happens after this that we care about, although we note in the final minutes: Spasmodic Sheriff is getting seriously drunk in his office for whatever reason, yet he seems perfectly sober minutes later when he shoots a dog with a dead-steady hand and arrests a guy at what appears to be a gruesome murder scene. While others might have been fixated on the corpse, we were thinking if a guy has developed that much tolerance to alcohol he’d have been exiled from the island by now under our “Hitler-like” (to quote more than one visitor) policy that prohibits substance abusers, folks with terminal illnesses, the penniless and others unable to take care of themselves from living here.
Final analysis: Enormously entertaining for locals and outsiders alike – especially if you put an equal number of each in a screening room since the locals will be laughing during moments the outsiders are clutching their seats. The show actually bats at an all-star level (a.k.a. .333, or one time out of three) in accurately portraying Svalbard’s unique and bizarre qualities. But the concept of the show – fueled by what we’ll call an overall “B” performance by actors whose individual performances cover the full grade curve – is enough we can see it capturing the attention of general audiences and the morbid (or drinking game) curiosity of locals.
The show opens with deliberate irony as the Greedy Governor tells a group of prospective investors in her Harebrained Hotel “we live in the one place one Earth where we’re guaranteed a quiet life,” followed immediately by police officers rushing out of the building in a frenzy.
They are, of course, headed to the home where the lacerated body was found at the end of Episode 1. The governor is told to keep her elitist audience inside because of a suspected bear attack, although the Spasmodic Sheriff immediately tells his fellow officers “look at the wound pattern – this wasn’t done by a bear.” Then there’s one of those mini-horror moments when they realize the victim is still alive despite the mortal wounds.
Next we’re introduced to Unflappable Forensic Guy, who’s been hired by the family to investigate the death of the guy shot by Dumbledore in Episode 1’s opening scene despite killing a 14-year-old girl for the thrill of it in another life (but, hey, he also built a bridge). Thing is, we’re introduced to him while he’s on some tiny plane with maybe 16 seats and only a few with people in them. Which means that he was apparently too stupid to get on the flight to Svalbard (to say nothing of the airport/airline folks), since the only commercial flights here are on big commercial jets that rub their hands in glee at screwing you over with various fees. He’s also obviously hitting on the widow of the murder victim but, mercifully, several scenes later it’s obvious that’s going nowhere. He also pissess off Spasmodic Sheriff immediately, perhaps for stating he (UFG) has never eaten lutefisk, as if that’s a thing locals do regularly.
Meanwhile, back in Fortitude it turns out a young woman named Natalite is missing. Spasmodic Sheriff delivers an expectedly overly dramatic speech in a parking lot to those about to search for her (in more channeling of his hero Clint: “You have to ask yourself a question: if she is worth to you the risk that this entails”). But what scatters our already fragmented brain cells farther apart is when Clueless Tourist #1 from Episode 1 wanders into an empty governor’s office shouting “I have brought back your fucking rifle.” Um, in real life they’d have several agencies coordinating the search out of the building, not to mention a duty officer handling incoming calls. But we’re starting to notice lots of dimly-lit and empty buildings are a key element of what’s apparently going to be a survival horror narrative. One such scene involves a lab techincian at the research facility where big scary reveal ends up being pig in an aquarium attached to some monitoring stuff (but what matters, of course, is it could have been so-much-worse).
Final analysis: we’re rapidly getting a sense the show is rapidly moving beyond the Svalbard stuff into textbook surreal crime drama where, as long as they throw a few Svalbard settings and references, they can basically script a drama that could happen anywhere. It’d be nice to be proven wrong.
Interesting, accurate and ominous note early: someone telling Unflappable Forensic Guy there are people who died of a global flu epidemic a century ago in the cemetery here and “this place is a forensic treasurehouse.”
Another great line – if not entirely accurate – is a waitress in the cafe of a hotel we’ve never seen telling UFG “everybody here is running away from someone.” Maybe not everyone, but we’re certainly here because of easy entry requirements that largely depend on whether you can pay for your stay – and woe be unto even the most-loved local if they can’t.
And this is the first of many episodes featuring the N1 mini-store and gas station. Seeing as as how there are 170 of them in Iceland (the show was mostly filmed there for reasons we’re assuming aren’t about Longyearbyen not being authentic enough), and none in Norway, we’re clueless where the Svalbard branch is. Although we’d like to know, since their bacon/cheese-coated “tiger” peanuts utterly rock.
The only other scene of interest to us locals is UFG asking a waitress in some pub if a pay phone he sees works. Our guess would be no, since he’s obviously so drunk he’s mistaking a some random inanimate object for a pay phone – we’re pretty sure Longyearbyen hasn’t had any for decades (if ever).
Final analysis: the more this becomes a standard murder mystery (two of them by now since the lacerated guy does indeed die), the less we (and presumably other locals) care. Just a hunch: they’ll break out the Arctic/Svalbard aspects in the final episode or two, but for now it’s much easier and cheaper to film in some cookie-cutter studio.
As expected, we’ve descended into “could happen anywhere” crime drama. We’ll just note that Arctic Dumbledore goes on a wild shooting spree in his home early on (nobody hurt or killed) and Spasmodic Sheriff beats the crap out of Black S&R Guy because in a mistaken belief he’s the murderer (which means the guy suspected in Episode 1, who had just arrived in Fortitude that day, finally gets out of jail; this will be important later on). Nobody considers for a moment if either AD or SS should be held accountable.
By comparsion, a bunch of real-world people have criminal records and paid huge fines during the past couple of years for coming home drunk at 2 a.m., putting a frozen pizza in the oven, then falling asleep and setting off the fire alarm as a result (fires in buildings being a rather worrysome thing in what’s essentially a sub-zero desert town with a lot of old wood homes placed closed together).
Final analysis: One of the more skippable episodes, regardless of whether you’re a local or outsider, since the plot’s developing at what could charitably be called a leisurely pace.
Call this the interrogation room episode, which means from a local standpoint it’s the dullest of the series. One of the witnesses does admit to feeding her family mac and cheese on the night of the murder, which surely ought to raise local suspicions. While cheesy mac might be big in the U.S. and even a few European spots, in Norway those curvy tubed noodles are generally paired with fish in dish known as fiskegrateng (which has a bit of cheese you’re not likely to notice). We get a few boxes of the “real” stuff with toxic orange powder a couple of times a year (a cheap knockoff of blue-box Kraft) and gladly pay extortion-level prices to buy them out to satisfy our fix.
Final analysis: Following the plot? Go ahead and endure this – the pace is finally picking up – even though all the obvious suspects will obviously turn out to be innocent (or, at least– hint, hint – not themselves). Following Svalbard? This is the one you can most afford to blow off.
OK, it’s nice they start doing some reveals here by opening with a scene showing lots of extra scenes involving the murder, but nothing that reveals anything more (true or not) about Svalbard.
Sadly, this isn’t much better in terms of realism than Episode 5. There’s a scene at the N1 mart where stuffed penguins are sold alongside reindeers and polar bears…why not toss in some unicorns since, as anybody with a clue will scream at you, PENGUINS AND POLAR BEARS LITERALLY LIVE POLES APART.
There’s also a scene involving a taxidermist who seems to specialize in imported animals since the vast number of reindeer skulls in his workshop aren’t from here. Svalbard reindeer are much different than those elsewhere in the Arctic, although that’s entirely physical rather than culinary observation (both are very tasty, but a side-by-side comparison is beyond our means at the moment).
Finally, since we’re mostly slamming the show, a huge hat tip to the lutefisk scene. Unflappable Forensic Guy orders it in some pub while talking with Spasmodic Sheriff, only to be informed after the subsequent napkin-spitting fiasco “the secret of the lutefisk is not to order the lutefisk.” We’re aware of only two exceptions: in microwavable meals where bacon is an absurdly large percentage of the foodstuff – those coal nuggets the kids sell would be at least as tasty wrapped in bacon – and an annual “women who love lutefisk” gathering where the focus is on wearing funny hats and a bachelor auction.
Final analysis: Yeah, we know you gotta focus on developing the plot, but 95 percent of this episode could have been in a room in NYC, Kathmandu or Mars.
Clearly nobody with any knowledge of Svalbard was in the writing room when they decided to make this the Very Special Christmas Episode.
Call it the blessed lucky seven. We’re back in serious WTF territory in every way imaginable when it comes to what the show gets wrong about our icy little group of islands. The magnitude of sheer lunacy during the opening minutes alone can only be expressed geometrically
As noted earlier, the show’s timeline starts just as the town is coming out of the dark season, which means early February. There’s no daylight for several weeks on each side of Christmas, yet there’s numerous scenes in this episode that happen in broad daylight. As if that isn’t enough time travel, Christmas is happening two weeks after a solstice party, which means somehow the locals have used up 14 days of their life when only four have passed in real time.
Then we go to a Christmas party in a pub where the Spasmodic Sheriff gives a speech noting “we’re here to say goodbye to Mine 7 and some of the people who work there.” Way to be completely right and completely wrong. We did indeed spend the past Christmas – and the one before that – saying goodbye to a huge percentage of our miners as our cornerstone mining company went through two massive downsizings that will leave only a skeletal crew by the this summer. But it’s all the mines EXCEPT Mine 7 that are shutting down – indeed, they’re doubling the shifts there in order to keep a couple dozen extra folks employed at the mine that supplies our dirty little local power plant and hopefully adds a bit to the company’s nearby empty coffers.
Next, we’re forced to reluctantly dive into a totally incomprehensible side plot that’s been going on for several episodes – we’ve been ignoring it because it’s just a semi-maniacal dad and his reluctant preteen daughter zipping around to various spots in the wilderness because he’s afraid of being hauled in as a murder suspect. Anyhow, they visit a Russian mining settlement on the main island that’s Totally Not Barentsburg (that real-life settlement about 60 kilometers from Longyearbyen, where the look and lifestyle remain eerily unchanged from the Soviet-era days). The show’s Russian village is completely unrecognizable since, among other things, they have their own gas station/mini-mart (at least it’s not an N1 and the signs are in Russian). The real-life Barentsburg is a company town: there’s defintely no mini-mart and all the stores are strictly for residents only who pay with company scrip. The first time we stayed overnight there was no hot water or toilet paper in our room, and nobody at the reception desk to pester (luckily, they also were overly unconcerned about ensuring unloocked rooms had their doors closed – let alone locked – so we were able to rememdy the more urgent shortage). Tourists can buy booze and food at a couple of bars (including one inside the lone hotel), along with a fews souviners there and at a museum, but that’s it. Also, sigh, one of the main aspects of this scene is the girl places a call to the Fortitude police using yet another pay phone (her dad cuts her off before they learn where she is…but, seriously, how many pay phones are there for her to call from on that imaginary island?). FWIW, if you find yourself there, skip the tasteless grainy chocolate and go big on vodka.
And we’re finally introduced to a Russian and, sure enough, he proves he’s a bad guy right away. Although we feel safe saying it’s so blantent we’re pretty sure he won’t be among the main culprits.
Final analysis: Best episode by since the opener if you’re a local – and definitely more laugh-out-loud outrageous. And the plot’s moving along nicely if you’re an outsider, albeit with a steadily increasing number of grusome scenes involving blood, viruses and other necessities of the horror genre.
There’s four notable moments in this particular episode and the show bats .500 on them.
About nine minutes in we see the home of Killer Kid and his parents, which is not just full of trees, but the kind that shed their leaves during the winter. We’re not saying warm weather plants aren’t possible here (check the website ads and you’ll see a group starting a greenhouse and “locally sourced” food thing among our clients; they also made Christmas cookies out of earthworms they were using for composing that tasted a lot better than you’d think). We are saying those fully-grown trees must have been imported – like that’d be allowed, since the government types here are rather uptight about things that involve invasive species – sometime after whatever the most recent of many serious winter storms was.
One of the biggest reveals happens about 19 minutes in when that scientist mistakenly arrested on his first day here tells the higher-ups it appears a virus has possibly been exposed due to climate change, which would mean it’s no longer safe to live here. We’re probably the only reviewers who find this the most terrifying moment of the series because we totally believe it could happen – we’ve seen our lives and those of other humans/animals/etc. wrecked in so many ways by what the Denialists leeringly call “junk science” the question is simply what impact will be locally catastrophic and when.
A scene another reviewer calls one of the most alarming of the series comes about 40 minutes in when Greedy Governor gets off the phone and tells Spasmodic Sheriff the national government is no longer willing to subsidize Svalbard because we’re basically “ticks on frozen rocks.” This has to rank with the guv’s glacier hotel as possibly the most clueless political moment of the series. Anybody reading the headlines here for the past year or two knows the Norwegian government, despite their short-term funding being totally in the crapper due to the collapse of oil prices and our currency, is literally throwing billions of kroner our way as our coal mining company is bleeding money faster than it can be incinerated (while at the same time shedding the country’s oil wealth fund of investments in anything having to do with coal elsewhere) because the frozen lumps of rocks making up the archipelago are among the country’s most vital strategic resources. Five countries with territory in the Arctic, plus a bunch more like China, are trying to grab every foothold they can right now since maybe a quarter of the world’s remaining oil is here, plus it might become the primary commercial shipping route in the northern hemisphere when the sea ice melts a sufficient amount a decade or two from now. Russia isn’t deploying troops all around us and China isn’t hacking our satellite stations for nothing.
One tidbit of accuracy in that scene is when the governor mentions “I think the word ‘folly’ was used” in reference to the glacier resort and the sheriff, very sensibly on this occasion, says “you’re our governor, not some salesperson for luxury hotels.”
It might seem we’re getting lazy and eager to finish this marathon manifestation of digital diarrhea, but our notes for the next two episodes are dismayingly brief because at this point it’s almost all about exposing the horror-show plot. That’s good for you if you’re into it, but not for us.
Seriously, we wrote only two things about this episode. The first has to do with Arctic Dumbledore venturing far into the field on some crazy pilgrimage that probably has something to do with a desire to die here (we can relate; the governor a few years ago allowed people to apply to have their ashes to be spread here and, while we’re aware of only one time it’s been approved, we’re definitely hoping to go that route when our time comes). Anyhow, we saw him listening to a cassette walkman while laying in the snow and, while not really specific to Svalbard, couldn’t help wondering how one of those could have lasted up here for so long.
The other scene is a classic case of why we argue this is a wingnut paradise, even though those folks think Norwegians are socialist savages who live in hovels similar to North Korea, only much colder. There some scientist/politician discussions about testing everyone for the virus of concern, but the governor is obviously concerned how a community where everyone is armed will react. While we’re among the many who consider the ammosexuals in the U.S. insanely dangerous, they could do worse than to visit here for the ideal example of where “an armed society is a polite society.”
Ugh. Almost nothing in our notes that’s related to life in Svalbard. The opening scene shows a full reveal of the opener in episode one and it’s truly ugly – but we’re iffy on its credibility. Long story short: if we were Vegas oddsmakers, we’d put the the odds of a guy handcuffed to a mining trestle freezing to death before being attacked by a polar bear at 100-1 or more.
And, just so you know, yup – this is the episode with “that scene” involving the wasps. To use another animal reference, it’s pretty much when the show “jumped the shark” in all senses for us.
Our notes on this aren’t much longer than the previous two, but there is one utterly delicious moment that exposes the sheer idiocy/cluelessness of the writers as they take one of the most obvious things in existence and try to make it a major “reveal.”
“The glacier moves! You cannot build a hotel in it!” screams an otherwise insane character who’s basically trying to dig up the site where the wasps are. Seriously, to wait the whole season to explain this reveals just how little credit the show gives its viewers – and sadly with reason, since there are an alarming number of people who think polar bears and penguins co-exist.
The rest of the finale is cheap remake of “The Thing” (the 1982 version), including flamethrowers destroying lots of things where the evil creature(s) are supposed to be, some long monologues between those who survive and a foreshadowing look at the monster’s lair you just know will rise again to be a threat.
And thus endeth the narrative…until the second season when, with any luck, there won’t be a Burger King in our town.
Even though the show went totally off the the rails with the wasp thing in the final final two episodes, the overall effort is appreciated in the curiosity sense, if not the satisfaction one. There’s actually a potentially great plotline that gets lost to reality in the ferver to hype sensationalism involving the likelihood of those wasps emerging due to climate change thawing out their eggs/DNA in the permafrost. But after perusing reader comments in various articles about the show it’s clear few in the target audience give a crap about that or most of anything else we’ve written here. The characters, the frozen setting, and how the isolation and other unique lifestyle aspects messing with people’s minds are what it’s all about. So, fine, it’s a commercial success if not a particularly accurate one. That pretty much describes pretty much every fictional portrayal of Svalbard – as well as more than a few “actual reality” projects by some of the more respected folks in the business like National Geographic and the BBC. Which in a way suits us just fine – like the best of women, a place like this deserves to hold onto its finest secrets.