It might seem inconceivable that one could describe a four-hour miniseries about emotionally constipated small-town Maine citizens as “thrilling,” but that's what Olive Kitteridge is. Its excitement is due mainly to Frances McDormand’s performance as the title character, a woman whose sharp tongue wounds everyone, and who takes her kindhearted pharmacist husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins, of course, and thank goodness), and their son Chris (John Gallagher, Jr.) for granted. Once you know what Olive is capable of saying and doing, and that she is nearly incapable of censoring herself, you look forward to each scene with a mix of dread and glee. Cast as the sort of wife who chucks her husband’s Valentine’s Day card in the trash right after reading it because she “knows what it says,” and the sort of mother who tells her son, “Sit up straight, you look like a thug in a pool hall,” and the sort of teacher who tells her class, “I’ll be out in the hall, and I’ll know if you’re talking,” McDormand is, to no one’s surprise, perfect. Her skill at playing irascible characters adds an element of impending chaos to every scene: Who will Olive cut down next, and for what reason — and how appallingly funny will it be? There should be an Olive Siren that warns people she’s coming, so they can gather their possessions and flee.
The character would be purely comical, and maybe insufferable, if her crankiness were all that we knew about her, and if Olive Kitteridge (which airs tonight and Monday on HBO) were just about what it’s like to deal with a domineering prig who prefers to think of herself as a person of high standards. Luckily, there’s more going on in this miniseries, which was directed by Lisa Cholodenko (who directed McDormand in Laurel Canyon) and adapted by Jane Anderson (How to Make an American Quilt) from Elizabeth Strout’s novel. Because the program works so well as curdled Americana, you might not be inclined to peel back the other layers, much less delve into what’s happening at a storytelling level (which is even more impressive); but that’s a part of what makes Olive Kitteridge so pleasurable: its unobtrusive ambition. Parts of the series have an early John Irving atmosphere, with tragedy (or “The Undertoad,” as The World According to Garp described it) lurking just under the surface of seemingly ordinary conversations. (Don’t get too attached to any character, put it that way.)
There’s also a thread of empathy for mentally or emotionally disturbed people who believe their problems are minor (compared to, say, those of a violent psychotic) and therefore stiff-upper-lip them in silence, so as not to risk embarrassment by asking for help. Several major characters manifest symptoms of such a disturbance, including Olive, who shows signs of bipolar personality disorder and prepares to kill herself in the program’s opening scene; her former student Kevin (Cory Michael Smith), who seems to have inherited psychosis from his mother Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt); and Olive’s secret boyfriend, high-school English teacher Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), who’s got that I’ll-be-over-here-reading-poetry-and-drinking-and-giving-you-the-side-eye sort of depression. At no point, though, do Cholodenko and Anderson cross into the terrain of the public service announcement.
This mental/emotional disturbance material serves mainly to drive home the fact that, to one degree or another, everybody has a personality disorder, or else some sort of compulsion or blind spot that they must bear without complaint, for fear of seeming defective, weak or whiny. (“I think it’s stupid to dwell on the past,” Olive exclaims, in one of many statements of strength that are really admissions of denial.) The ultimate effect is to make tragedy faintly absurd by letting you know that the main characters in Olive Kitteridge are already dealing with a lot of stuff that they’re conditioned not to talk about; when death or some other dark event strikes, it’s just adding insult to injury. Scenes that might normally favor quiet desperation play as droll once you know how privately put-upon everyone is. (“We’re here if you need us,” a loved one tells Olive after a tragedy. “Sap,” she mutters.) Throughout, the filmmakers give us quietly extraordinary moments of empathy and lyricism, such as the scene where Kevin hallucinates plants growing out of a bar singer’s baby grand piano as she sings the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” and the pathetic way Henry overdoes his smiles and laughs whenever he talks to a cute pharmacy employee (Zoe Kazan) that he’s enamored with and that Olive has cruelly nicknamed “the Mouse”; and the shots of Olive voluntarily sequestering herself from her son’s wedding reception in an upstairs bedroom after alienating her new family.
The sense that every character is put upon, or weighed down, might explain why Olive is such a delightful character despite being such a thumb-size pill of a human being: Her eruptions of needling viciousness feel liberating at times, like steam blasts from the id that others tamp down. Which is not to say that the program positions her as any sort of Life Force worth emulating: We’re always aware that she’s afflicted by some sort of deep disorder, and that it runs in the family (she’s quite aware that whatever she’s got is genetic, thank you very much). And neither Olive nor the rest of the cast (which includes Bill Murray as a genial businessman of extremely conservative politics) becomes purely illustrative, or purely some kind of case-in-point. They’re all people, written and directed with insight and incarnated with unnerving precision by every actor who passes before the camera’s lens. (The saltwater-abraded panoramas are by Frederick Elmes, who shot some of David Lynch’s masterpieces, including Blue Velvet and The Straight Story.)
Olive Kitteridge is also, in its modest way, a significant advance in television narrative, taking some of the flashback-flash-forward devices that were deployed so brazenly in recent American TV series (including Orange Is the New Black, season five of Breaking Bad, and season four of Arrested Development) and using them to split open scenes- and sequences-in-progress and completely change what we were about to think or feel about them. Keep an eye peeled for one such moment near the end of episode two (airing tonight), which takes us right up to the edge of classically dramatic moment, then inserts a flashback lasting several minutes. The flashback somehow doesn’t destroy the delicate spell that has already been cast, but instead enhances our appreciation of the “present” moment, and makes it more profoundly sorrowful. This is the sort of thing that novels have been doing for about a hundred years now, but that movies and TV series have often struggled with (mainly because they’re under tremendous pressure to be linear and to drive the plot forward constantly). For all these achievements and so many others, Olive Kitteridge is hugely satisfying, easily one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year.