With Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan and many others.
McDormand is fearless in the role of Olive Kitteredge, a prickly woman of a certain age with a tender hearted husband and a son destined to marry a woman as opposite his mother as possible.
The series consists of four episodes which were shown on two consecutive nights in early November for a total of four hours. This structure suits the episodic nature of the source material. The book of stories written by Elizabeth Strout featured the title character, who was always present but not always central, among many other characters who live in the small town in Maine where Olive teaches and her husband Henry is a pharmacist.
After watching Episode 1, I found it so powerful I waited several days to watch episode two. (Unlike those who binge-view tv shows, I apportion my helpings stringently and take a little at a time.) It is a good thing to have “on demand” so that I can do this. What an innovation. (If only I could also select the channels I want, and eliminate the dreck from my cable bill every month.)
Episode 1 was about the assistant who comes to work in Henry’s shop. Denise, played cheerfully by Zoe Kazan, is happily married and has a sunny personality when she breezes into the shop and begins selling greeting cards. Jenkins, as Henry, performs his usual everyman low key magic, and shows how much he cares for this person, how his empathy wraps around all of his customers.
Olive Kitteredge is a tough cookie with a surly teenage son. She always seems on the verge of curling her lip, but never quite gets there. Her observation skills come in handy though as she notices that her husband is smitten with the young assistant, especially when Denise is at her most vulnerable.
Episode 2 deepens our understanding of Olive and Henry as they watch their now grown son get married. Just because Henry demonstrates his empathy in obvious ways does not mean that Olive is incapable of saving lives, which she does here, in a remarkable plot that includes staving off suicide and rescuing a woman from drowning. A flower girl at her son’s wedding asks her if she is a witch in this episode, something she is called by other children later, near the miniseries’ conclusion. Just because Olive is grumpy does not mean that she is a bad judge of character. But the generation she comes from was not expected to go into therapy just because they suffered from bad moods, or had to survive their fathers’ suicides. Suicide and depression afflict a number of characters, and are now treatable, but when Olive’s son suggests therapy, Olive doesn’t have to explain but it is clear she is used to dealing with her misery unaided.
In the third episode, Olive and Henry learn that Christopher is getting a divorce. Henry is crestfallen — he had hoped for a grandchild. One of the sorry things about Olive is how little pleasure she seems to take in life, so that by the end of the series, when she is confronted with new pleasures, and a companion as surly as she is, it almost seems a little false or at least inconsistent with her character, but also a welcome change.
Bill Murray plays another resident of the town who is rescued by Olive’s straightforward help. “Are you dead?” she declares more than questions as she comes upon Jack Kenison lying on the ground, after fainting. The scenes with McDormand and Murray (who funnily reminds me now that he is older of John Wayne, his husky voice taking its time to deliver its lines) are some of the best. They have great lines to say, and they say them perfectly.
The whole show is like that, Strout’s dialogues having been carefully retained for maximum effect. It is refreshing to watch television with adults who suffer and survive, who suffer and die, who raise their children by their lights. That its main character is an older woman is most satisfying to me, an older woman, who sometimes feels as if all the movies and tv were written with others in mind.