I can’t remember the last time I watched a television series so good that I was unable to come up with sufficient superlatives to describe it, but HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge” is so superbly acted, brilliantly directed, and heartbreakingly powerful that it really defies adequate description. This series has Emmy nominations written all over it, and it definitely belongs on your must-see list.
Based upon Elizabeth Strout’s Pulizter Prize-winning novel of he same name, “Olive Kitteridge,” which stars Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand in the title role, spans 25 years in the relationship of Olive and her husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins). The story takes place in the fictional town of Crosby, Maine, where Olive is a middle-school math teacher and Henry owns and operates the local pharmacy. They have one son, Christopher, played Devin Druid as a 13-year-old and John Gallagher Jr. as an adult.
The series comprises four one-hour episodes titled respectively “Pharmacy,” “Incoming Tide,” “A Different Road,” and “Security,” and each of them helps us come to know the characters better and better. The first episode introduces us to the Kitteridge family, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that they are not the happiest people on the planet. In fact the family is pretty much of a mess.
Although the story opens in the present, it almost immediately flashes back to the morning of Valentine’s Day 25 years ago. Henry is seated at the kitchen table with a heart-shaped box of candy on top of which is a card addressed “To My Darling Wife.” When Olive comes into the kitchen, she doesn’t look at Henry and proceeds to fill the coffee pot. And even when Henry says, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Ollie” as he slides the candy across the table, she never glances in his direction while replying with a monotonic “Yeah, you too, Henry.” At this point the look on Henry’s face either makes you want to weep for him or slap Olive to sleep.
As the story progresses, Henry emerges as a very kind and gentle man who takes pride in helping the ill people of Crosby by dispensing medicine to them. He loves life and people, but he also is a very honest person who wouldn’t think of filling bogus prescription.
In sharp contrast to her husband, Olive is an extremely negative and embittered woman with little good to say to or about anyone. In the first few minutes of the opening episode, I was ready to despise her, but then she actually showed some compassion for the mother of one her students. Sadly, Olive’s father suffered from depression and passed it on to his daughter, and unfortunately Christopher inherited some of those genes as well.
During the 25 years we spend with Olive and Henry, we share in a number of their experiences including Henry’s hiring Denise Thibodeau (Ruby Sparks), a giddy, young newlywed who becomes an important character, Olive’s relationship with Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), one of her colleagues at school, Christopher’s wedding, and numerous other events and tragedies that occur in their lives, including Olive’s intriguing encounter with an interesting chap named Jack Kennison (Bill Murray).
“Olive Kitteridge” is a fascinating series that has it all – drama, humor, heartbreak, tragedy, happiness, hope, despair, love, and hate. Under the stellar direction of Oscar nominee Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), who refers to the show as a “traumedy,” this family saga is as good as television gets.
Although there isn’t a single weak link in the cast, the program is a showcase for the incredible acting talent of McDormand, who was raised by adoptive parents in Pittsburgh. Before earning a graduate degree in fine arts from the Yale University School of Drama in 1982, McDormand received a bachelor’s degree in theater in 1979 from Bethany College, where she studied under the late David Judy.
In a recent online interview McDormand, who described her character as “heaven,” “delicious,” “full-feast,” “three-course meal,” and “soup-to-nuts,” offered some fascinating insight into Olive and about the series.
“Female characters in literature are full. They’re messy; they’ve got runny noses and burp and belch. Unfortunately, in film, female characters don’t often have that kind of richness. To contemplate the idea of taking someone like Olive, who is a full literary character — but also a complex human being — to film was a real conundrum, actually. Because it couldn’t have been done in 90 minutes. Four hours was just enough; six hours would have been better.”
Because of the way Olive treats Henry most of the time, the natural tendency is to feel sorry for him, but McDormand has a different take on that.
“I want everyone to remember — and I think people who’ve read the novel feel this way — happiness can be tyrannical. Yes, too much happiness can be tyrannical, especially to someone like Olive. So when, often on the set, when we would we be filming and people would say, ‘Oh, poor Henry,’ when Olive would maybe be a little harsh with him, forget poor Henry. Sometimes, think about poor Olive. She has to deal with his tyrannical happiness. But I think that one of the main things that keeps them together is the fact they’re supposed to be together. And they made a choice to be together. We meet them at a crisis in their life. Olive’s 45, Henry’s 55, and they’re both in unrequited love affairs. And then we get to follow the next 30 years of their life together.”
Another burning question that comes up while watch is how their marriage endures when they often appear so unhappy. And McDormand has an answer for that.
“Marriage is a complicated thing, and I think that — when we meet Olive at 45 and her son Christopher is 13 — she is in a crisis point in her life because when she was 13, her father was 45 and committed suicide, violently, and she found him in the kitchen. And, from that point forward, the fear of connecting and surrendering herself to her son, to her husband, to anyone was a real risk — a real danger. So, I think that she finally finds, with Henry really late in their life, that he was the true love of her life.”
And in his own online interview Jenkins offered a rather different answer to the same question.
“He loves her. It’s also part of his upbringing: You make a commitment, and you live up to it. You find a way. They’re in a very complicated, deep, emotional relationship. Olive says of Henry, after he’s dead, ‘I think he was the perfect man. When he was alive, I couldn’t stand him sometimes.’ And that’s part of life. In many ways, they’re both total opposites, but they give each other something the other one doesn’t have. Haven’t you known couples that were total opposites?”
In addition the incredible acting, great script, and a haunting musical score, “Olive Kitteridge” was filmed against the backdrop of some truly spectacular New England scenery with Massachusetts subbing for Maine. Don’t miss this marvelous miniseries, which receives the final score of it-couldn’t-be-anything-else-but a 10.
And if you’re interested in how McDormand assessed her performance in the series, she said, “This is really the culmination of everything I’ve tried to do professionally.”