In The Life Of 'Olive Kitteridge,' It's The Little Things That Add Up

Oct 31, 2014

Olive Kitteridge, a new two-part, four-hour miniseries that runs on HBO Sunday and Monday, sounds like the kind of long-form dramas TV used to make back in the '70s and '80s when miniseries ruled. Like them, Olive Kitteridge covers an entire generation in the lives of its characters — a 25-year span — but otherwise, it couldn't be more different. Most of those sprawling classic miniseries were set against major historical events, and were as much about passionate romance and glamorous costumes as anything else.

Olive Kitteridge, which stars Frances McDormand as a fiercely acerbic New England teacher, wife and mother, is just the opposite. It's all about family, and friends and the tenuous relationships that make up life. There's no glamour whatsoever in Olive Kitteridge, unless you count a wedding ceremony or two — but even those are layered not with pomp and circumstance, but with the tiniest, most revealing bits of human behavior.

Olive Kitteridge comes from an interrelated collection of stories by Elizabeth Strout about the residents of a small town in Maine. It's centered mostly around the title character, played by McDormand, who so strongly responded to these stories, and this character, that she optioned it from the author the week before the book won a Pulitzer Prize. Great timing.

Adapting the stories for television was a tough act to pull off — but McDormand, who's also the executive producer, does it superbly with her chosen on-screen and off-screen collaborators. The director is Lisa Cholodenko, who demonstrated her ability to film intimate family dynamics in The Kids Are All Right and Laurel Canyon. The screenplay adaptation is by Jane Anderson, who wrote Normal. Playing opposite McDormand, in the equally crucial role of Olive's husband, Henry, is Richard Jenkins from Six Feet Under. And the supporting cast, giving great support every step of the way, is truly top-notch, including a late but pivotal appearance by Bill Murray.

Olive Kitteridge tells most of its story in a series of flashbacks. We first get to know the central family when Olive is a math teacher at a public school, Henry is a pharmacist, and they have a young son, Christopher. At the dinner table, tensions are high. Henry is infatuated with one of his young employees at work; Olive is dismissive of both the girl and Henry.

Like The Affair, currently running on Showtime, Olive Kitteridge sometimes returns to the same scene with a slightly different perspective. But most of the time, it relies on its actors to convey all that's unsaid but implied, and they do it beautifully. As Henry, Jenkins, at times, almost oozes with longing and unrequited love — then, at other times, surprises you with his humor and self-assurance. And as for Olive — well, without an actress as strong and talented as McDormand, this miniseries simply would fall apart. It's as powerful a performance, and as challenging and complicated, as when Claire Danes starred in HBO's Temple Grandin. If you don't care for Olive, even at her most abrasive and disconnected, then nothing works. But everything in Olive Kitteridge works just fine.

There's one scene in which Olive is shown accidentally overhearing some other characters discussing what they really think of her — and not just her personality, but her style of dress, her relationship with her son, everything. McDormand doesn't have a line of dialogue in that scene — she just listens — but she reveals such quiet devastation that you're with her from then on.

Olive Kitteridge allows its characters to age, and their relationships to change. And it also allows some of those characters, and those relationships, to die — which somehow, by the end, makes you appreciate the small miracle of survival all the more. By focusing on the little things over a long period of time, Olive Kitteridge reminds us that the little things add up, in the end, to the biggest things of all.

David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Sunday and Monday HBO presents, "Olive Kitteridge," a two-part, four-hour miniseries. That sounds like the kinds of long-formed dramas TV used to make back in the '70s and '80s, when miniseries ruled. Like them, "Olive Kitteridge," covers an entire generation in the lives of its characters, a 25-year-span. But otherwise, it couldn't be more different. Most of those sprawling classic miniseries were set against major historical events and were as much about passion and romance and glamorous costumes as anything else.

"Olive Kitteridge," which stars Frances McDormand as a fiercely acerbic New England teacher, wife and mother, is just the opposite. It's all about family and friends and the tenuous relationships that make up life. There's no glamour whatsoever in "Olive Kitteridge," unless you count a wedding ceremony or two, but even those are layered not with pomp and circumstance, but with the tiniest most revealing bits of human behavior. "Olive Kitteridge" comes from an interrelated collection of stories by Elizabeth Strout, about the residents of a small town in Maine. It centered mostly around the title character, played by Frances McDormand, who so strongly responded to these stories and this character that she optioned it from the author the week before the book won a Pulitzer Prize - great timing.

Adapting the stories for television was a tough act to pull off. But star and executive producer McDormand, with her chosen on-screen and off-screen collaborators, does it superbly. The director is Lisa Cholodenko, who demonstrated her ability to film intimate family dynamics in "The Kids Are All Right" and "Laurel Canyon." The screenplay adaptation is by Jane Anderson, who wrote "Normal." Playing opposite McDormand in the equally crucial role of Olive's husband Henry is Richard Jenkins from "Six Feet Under." And the supporting cast, giving great support every step of the way is truly top-notch, including a late, but pivotal appearance by Bill Murray. "Olive Kitteridge" tells most of its story in a series of flashbacks. We first get to know the central family when Olive is a public school math teacher, Henry is a pharmacist and they have a young son Christopher. At the dinner table, tensions are high. Henry is infatuated with one of his young employees at work. Olive is dismissive of both the girl and of Henry, and as the son, Christopher, listens his parents discuss a neighbor with mental health issues. Olive doesn't exactly ease the already palpable dinner conversation tension.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OLIVE KITTERIDGE")

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Rachel Colson (ph) has depression. Do you know what that is?

DEVIN MCKENZIE DRUID: (As Christopher Kitteridge) No. Not really.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) You should. It runs in our family.

RICHARD JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) No it doesn't.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Henry, you nuts? What do you think's going on with my father.

JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge)That was a different thing.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) No it wasn't, my mother had it, too.

JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) No, it's not the same. I mean, she had her moods.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) She was clinical, Henry.

DRUID: (As Christopher Kitteridge) What's depression?

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) It's bad writing, makes your nerves raw?

DRUID: (As Christopher Kitteridge) Is that why you're so mean all the time?

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Absolutely.

JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) Your mother is not depressed.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Yes, I am, and I'm happy to have it, 'cause it's being smart.

JENKINS: (As Henry Kitteridge) All right, Ollie.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Oh, we might as well discuss it Henry. He might have it, too.

DRUID: (As Christopher Kitteridge) But you don't think I'm smart.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) Of course I do.

DRUID: (As Christopher Kitteridge) No, you don't. You think I'm average.

MCDORMAND: (As Olive Kitteridge) You are plenty complicated, Christopher.

BIANCULLI: This miniseries also is plenty complicated. Like "The Affair," currently running on Showtime, "Olive Kitteridge" sometimes returns to the same scene with a slightly different perspective. But most of the time it relies on its actors to convey all that's unsaid but implied, and they do it beautifully. As Henry, Jenkins at times almost oozes with longing and unrequited love, then at other times surprises you with his humor and self-assurance. And as for Olive, well, without an actress as strong and talented as McDormand, this miniseries simply would fall apart. It's as powerful a performance and as challenging and complicated as when Claire Danes stared in HBO's "Temple Grandin." If you don't care for Olive, even at her most abrasive and disconnected, then nothing works. But everything in "Olive Kitteridge" works just fine.

There's one scene in which Olive is shown accidentally overhearing some other characters discussing what they really think of her, and not just her personality but her style of dress, her relationship with her son, everything. McDormand doesn't have a line of dialogue in that scene - she just listens. But she reveals such quiet devastation that you're with her from then on. "Olive Kitteridge" allows its characters to age and their relationships to change. And it also allow some of those characters and those relationships to die, which somehow by the end makes you appreciate the small miracle of survival all the more. By focusing on the little things over a long period of time, "Olive Kittredge" reminds us that the little things add up in the end to the biggest things of all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.