Television: Blizzard of oddballs trapped in a cold climate

Review: ‘Fortitude’, starring Sophie Grabol, Stanley Tucci and Christopher Ecclestone; Room to Improve; Phil Spencer: Secret Agent; Touched By Auschwitz; and How to Get Way With Murder

Goodness, but the Arctic is beautiful, and Fortitude (Sky Atlantic, Thursday), a new 12-part crime drama, has the budget for swooping aerial shots of intense gorgeousness, the sort you usually only see when David Attenborough is ready to pop into shot to talk about polar bears.

Of course, goodness has nothing to do with Fortitude. There something rotten at the heart of this isolated town, population 713, which is in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The opening scene has Henry Tyson (Michael Gambon), a wildlife photographer, trudging across the ice, dressed like an Arctic hunter, who sees a polar bear with his snout in the entrails of a dead man. There's another grisly murder to come before the first dazzling, intense episode is over.

Sophie Gråbøl, last seen in her trademark jumper in The Killing, is the ambitious governor, and it's not surprising to find her here. There's a one-upmanship about Fortitude. It takes the sullen grit and economical dialogue of those genre-defining Scandi dramas and moves it farther north to an even harsher climate: the series, filmed in Iceland, is believably Arctic.

The mood in Fortitude is Twin Peaks eerie: a pretty location hiding dark secrets with characters who seem straightforward but reveal a darker side. The ruddy- faced sheriff, Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer), is the first to emerge as potentially sinister. "Are you a good sheriff or a bad one?" he's asked. That's just one line of bald exposition among many, dropped into scenes with such regularity that they build to suggest a knowing melodrama.

Other flashing signposts of dialogue include lines from the governor – “This is one place on earth where you’re guaranteed a quiet life” – and a scientist’s explanation for the sudden weird behaviour of the polar bears: “Cannibalism isn’t the only aberrant behaviour we’re seeing.”

Each character in the large cast is deftly introduced in episode one, and there's one well-known face after another – star power is the showiest aspect of Fortitude. These include Christopher Eccleston, Jessica Raine – Fortitude is definitely worth leaving the BBC miseryfest Call the Midwife for – Luke Treadaway and Nicholas Pinnock.

In episode two – shown back to back with episode one – the clearly American Stanley Tucci is a London police detective who arrives to investigate the murder – before news of it happening could have reached Britain. It's a knotty plot twist in the making.

The architect Dermot Bannon returns for a new series of Room to Improve on Sunday (RTÉ One). Unlike wet rooms and patio heaters, this home-makeover show is standing the test of time. Other property series, especially anything fronted by Phil Spencer, seem increasingly desperate to come up with new angles on carpets-and-curtains TV.

Take Phil Spencer: Secret Agent (Channel 4, Sunday). Does anyone really believe that smoothie Phil, his pockets brimming with cringy puns, is a secret estate agent, hiding behind walls to surprise ever more dreary homeowners who can’t fathom why their pile isn’t selling? Every week his advice about the swathes of dodgy carpets and woodchip wallpaper boils down to “get a skip”, so it’s more than a bit repetitive.

Room to Improve is streets head – and, sensibly, it hasn't changed its formula. The affable Bannon is the architect on the building projects, and the first episode in the new series sets him a tougher challenge than before: there's no getting away with sticking one of his go-to solutions, a big glass-walled kitchen extension, on the back.

It features a young couple, priced out of more conventional housing, who have bought an ugly commercial building in Dún Laoghaire. Under Bannon’s guidance, and with input from the quirky couple – much of the show’s entertainment value lies in the camera-friendly types who are up for chat, and these two are great – the building is transformed into one of those cool contemporary homes that make it into interior magazines.

I like the pace and optimism of Room to Improve: no matter what nasty drainage problems or budget gaps appear, it moves inexorably towards a happy, light-filled ending. This season, however, Bannon seems to be taking a leaf out of Kevin McCloud's Grand Design signoffs, with a saccharine piece to the camera about the Dún Laoghaire house being "made with love and passion", when we'd just spent the previous hour watching rather a lot of concrete and breeze block going in to it.

Anniversary programmes marking the Holocaust will inevitably change in the near future simply because the best, most insightful ones feature survivors who give eyewitness accounts. Touched By Auschwitz (BBC Two, Tuesday), a superb documentary by Laurence Rees, was made to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp. It stays briefly within its walls before moving on to tell what happened next, through affecting interviews with six survivors now all in their 80 and 90s.

The six speak of how they built their lives, overcoming tremendous obstacles, in Jerusalem and Chicago, London and Bavaria, Cracow and Tel Aviv, each dealing with the memories in a different way. Above all they tell stories of endurance in this sensitive feature-length documentary.

Accepting her statue for best actress in a TV drama at last weekend’s Screen Actors Guild awards, Viola Davis described her character in the glossy US hit series How to Get Away With Murder (RTÉ2, Thursday) as a “sexualized, messy, mysterious woman” and thanked the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes. In one speech she hit on several reasons to watch the pilot.

Rhimes, the television genius behind Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, is dishing up another slick drama. Davis plays Annalise Keating, a law professor and criminal lawyer – for Grey's fans she's a mix of Yang and Bailey, only meaner – who gathers a crack team of students to solve cases by whatever means.

How to Get Away With Murder is the sort of drama I bet Olivia Pope in Scandal (Sky Living, Thursday) would watch with one of her giant glasses of red wine after a hard day of lip trembling and averting disaster. The pilot is head-spinningly fast, which is a good thing, as the plot doesn't bear too much scrutiny. It's fun, though, and Davis is terrific. tvreview@irishtimes.com

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