We’re getting to the point where anything produced by HBO is pretty much guaranteed to be a worthwhile watch. A history of cutting funding for the likes of Deadwood, Rome and even The Wire at one point shows the premium service isn’t afraid to ditch something they’re not 100% confident in, no matter how good the early episodes are. Olive Kitteridge, of course, isn’t really a show – the four-hour miniseries spanned two nights earlier this week and will probably play on a loop for the next week, but after that no más. Still, the HBO association is evident in a high production value and a deep care taken with the characters and material that few other channels can afford to provide.
Frances McDormand plays the titular Olive, aging middle-school teacher in smalltown Maine, mother of a bratty son and wife of an irrepressibly optimistic husband (played by the always-brilliant Richard Jenkins). We meet Olive as she walks through the forest, gray ratty hair stemming out from her pale skull, and she calmly lays out a picnic blanket and removes a loaded gun from her coat. We suddenly backtrack to twenty-five years earlier, but the tone is set in that initial sequence: Ollie is unhappy, gazing longingly at the gnarled branches reaching toward the hazy sky, and maybe we’re about to see why.
Or maybe not. If there’s one thing we can glean from this first hour of Olive Kitteridge, it’s that although her son is a brat and her husband is a dullard and her town is a wasteland and people around her are depressed or worse, things in general aren’t that bad. There’s life here, there’s joy and laughter and youth – you might even find someone sitting back with a full stomach on a mild night saying you know, things could be a heck of a lot worse. And they wouldn’t be wrong, I suppose, but the point so far seems to be that Ollie is without a doubt unhappy in spite of all of this. Will we see some tangible evidence of why? Highly unlikely. Olive Kitteridge is sad in her bones, finding it difficult to like her own son and husband from behind her fake smile, and at a certain point external factors become irrelevant to Ollie’s state of mind. “Things aren’t that bad” becomes a sentiment that means exactly nothing.
McDormand is phenomenal in the role, and her silences say so much about Ollie’s often unexplainable moods. It’s clear even after just the opening episode that Olive Kitteridge was meant to be a miniseries, as the four-hour format gives McDormand enough time to properly get inside Ollie’s character. She’s utterly convincing, and Richard Jenkins’s husband Henry actually has a lot to do with the overall believability of the title role – these two performers are just plain perfect together, and there’s no trouble believing that these are smalltown people that have been married for decades. They were cast together as coworkers in the Coens’ Burn After Reading, but this is a far better use of the pair.
And the structure of Olive Kitteridge is interesting as well, plodding forward after that initial 25-year time jump and providing snapshots of the characters at different stages in their lives. True Detective comes to mind, again, through the HBO connection, and it’s easy to imagine that Olive Kitteridge will take advantage of this long timeframe in the ensuing episodes. The pilot (if we can dub the first of four hours as such) doesn’t try to do too much in this regard, which serves to prevent that timeframe from ever being overwhelming. It’s grand in terms of timeline, but Olive Kitteridge is at home in the individual moments and in fact decidedly ungrand in that respect. It’s simple, it’s neighborly and day-to-day, and maybe Ollie wanted something else in her life.