Review: Deceptively simple ‘Olive Kitteridge’ unfolds as work of art

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

HBO takes a lot of heat. It may not be fair, but much is expected from the network that reinvented television, and when perfection is not delivered people find fault. With the overwhelming maleness of its dramas, and the whiteness, with the naked women used (still!) as scenery or the reins-free creative approach that can veer into artistic narcissism and narrative confusion.

Then HBO does something like “Olive Kitteridge,” a mini-series that premieres Sunday, and the only thing a person can do is stand amazed.

Literally; when this lovely, ruthless, masterfully restrained two-night, four-hour contemplation of love, marriage, parenthood, mental illness and identity came to an end, I stood up. There was no one physically present to applaud and I felt I had to do something.

While everyone is running around trying to figure out what the outlet’s recent decision to offer an online-only subscription means to the Future of Television, here is a reminder of what’s really important: Television’s unparalleled ability to tell stories in new, powerful and increasingly lyrical ways.


Adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Olive Kitteridge” is a story of deceptive simplicity told with persistently unexpected beauty. Much of this radiates from stars Richard Jenkins and particularly Frances McDormand, who brought the project to HBO and, along with screenwriter Jane Anderson, insisted that it be neither confined to the time limits of a traditional film nor strung out into the length of a typical mini-series.

She also plays the title role and is, quite simply, breathtaking. Her Olive is a straight-backed, grim-mouthed, clear-eyed New England woman of the sort who is, for better and worse, being psychoanalyzed, medicated and self-helped out of existence.

Saved from real viciousness by an essentially kind heart and a dry sense of humor, Olive, whom we meet in middle age, takes a dim view of most things. She does not suffer fools, gladly or at all, but she comforts the afflicted, yearns with sudden fierceness and is capable of great generosity when she feels it is warranted. Which isn’t often.

Following Strout’s fine example, and in many cases, her actual dialogue, McDormand pulls no punches. Olive is neither genial nor tragic. Outside forces have weathered her, but she is the architect of her own walls, from behind which she judges a world filled mostly by “dopes” and “saps” who don’t understand that happiness is synonymous with mediocrity.

She is content with her depressive tendencies — “Happy to have it; comes with being smart,” she says, though she might spare her son if she could. But she can’t; she can say only what she thinks, which is rarely anything good, and hope, as so many mothers do, that intentions speak at least as loudly as words.

Two vivid connections bookend her tale, the first with a fellow teacher (Peter Mullan), the second with a long-but-barely-known neighbor (Bill Murray). Each offer a glimpse of another, perhaps less rigid Olive (a scene in which McDormand and Mullan do nothing but look at each other burns with a passion that most sex scenes would kill for). But what “Olive Kitteridge” has to teach of love comes hard won through her marriage to Harry (Jenkins), the local pharmacist.


Harry is everything Olive is not. Amiable, open, optimistic and gentle, he too misses what he does not have: Someone less difficult to love than Olive. Indeed, the first hour chronicles his increasing attachment to his sweetly timid young clerk (Zoe Kazan).

Though both Olive and Henry surrender to longing and contemplate disruption, their love is real. Their marriage endures, growing slant ways, perhaps, in its tenacious struggle to find enough light to bloom. The sight of two extraordinary performers working together to reveal the layers of emotion that rage beneath even the simplest conversation between such divergent hearts is miraculous.

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), “Olive Kitteridge” moves slowly, deliberately and, like its title character, takes great care to avoid artifice. The coastal setting is gorgeous but impassive, the small-town milieu intimate but not sentimentally so.

Exquisite details, often in close-up, are noted — the green milk glass table settings, the crocheted afghan — but not fetishized. The faces of McDormand and Jenkins seem not just unenhanced but scoured to provide clarity, not pity. This is what it looks like, “Olive Kitteridge” says again and again, referring to love and hope, regret and age. Life may not be what you expected, but it will do if you let it.

It is a marvel, from start to finish, a reminder not only that quiet lives are filled with many things besides desperation but that adult drama lives and outside the realm of genre and period pieces.

So cut your cord, or don’t; unbundle or not, but figure out a way to see “Olive Kitteridge,” because it is a work of art.


Follow me on Twitter @marymacTV


‘Olive Kitteridge’

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday


TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)