HBO’s Olive Kitteridge: Some Thoughts Now That I’ve Watched the Show

On Sunday night I skipped watching Madam Secretary at 8:30 PM, and passed up watching Homeland at 9:00 PM . Instead I tuned in Olive Kitteridge on HBO. As I had learned, the show is set in a place called Crosby, Maine. Apparently, this New England locale is the perfect setting for Olive Kitteridge.

She’s not about to warm your heart or anyone else’s either.

Before I get to some particulars, let me state that the original source material, Elizabeth Strout’s book, Olive Kitteridge, is not structured in the normal way a novel is. There are 13 loosely connected short stories – all about the folks in Crosby, Maine, with Olive Kitteridge at the center of the book if not at the center of each of the stories.

For the mini-series, a two night, four-hour production, they’ve chosen to follow a similar pattern with Olive as the main character in all four of the episodes. I’d like to describe the show as Life in the Slow Lane, which is kind of a wordplay on the Eagles song Life In the Fast Lane, but you might think that description to be a bit too glib. Set down home, in a small coastal town in Maine, basically we are spending four hours with Olive Kitteridge. She’s taciturn, she’s stoic, she’s disapproves of almost anything that appears before her – except maybe her loyal dog Clancy. To continue with another musical connector, Olive is a woman who definitely would not be singing another Joe Walsh/Eagles tune – the one called Life’s Been Good.

Olive is the daughter of a depressed mother and a father who killed himself with his own gun. But Olive believes that depression is a sign of intelligence. As in you have to be fairly smart to know that your life isn’t all that it could or should be. She doesn’t wear her depression like a merit badge, but she doesn’t hesitate to bring it up at dinner with her husband Henry, and son Christopher.

Christopher: What’s depression?
Olive: It’s bad wiring. Makes your nose rot. Runs in our family
Henry: Your mother is not depressed.
Olive: Yes I am. Happy to have it. Goes with being smart.
Christopher: Is that why you’re so mean all the time?
Olive: [nodding with a sense of utter conviction] Absolutely…

We meet Christopher as a teen-ager and then as an adult where John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom) has the role. Apparently years later Christopher still is smarting (even under the care of a therapist) for issues created by Olive being, as he describes her – a horrible mother.

Olive is married to Henry (Richard Jenkins plays Henry marvelously). He’s everything that Olive isn’t. He’s cheerful, he’s outgoing, he listens, and he cares.

Zoe Kazan as Denise

Zoe Kazan as Denise

There’s a young woman Denise who Henry hires to work in his pharmacy. She’s married and if we can say one word to describe how Henry feels about Denise it would have to be ‘infatuated’. So much so that Olive notices and her reaction is to call Denise ‘mouse-y’ and Henry doesn’t like it.

There are other characters like a snooty rich lady,

Peter Mullan as the teacher at the same school where Olive taught

Peter Mullan as the teacher at the same school where Olive taught

a fellow teacher at the school where Olive taught,

Rosemary DeWitt as the single mother with emotional problems

Rosemary DeWitt as the single mother with emotional problems

a young single mother with emotional problems, at least a couple of Olive’s students who now have grown into adulthood. And like any place you live, while you are going through your own stressful situations, so are other people. There are hunting accidents, and automobile accidents, people marry, divorce, or die. Bill Murray is on board as Jack Kinnison, a well-to-do widower who asks Olive, Give me a reason to get up in the morning?

Through it all, Olive is stoic about things. She never gets overwrought or emotional and that’s not because she doesn’t feel, but rather because of her stoicism you get the feeling that no one beside her husband really has a handle on her.

When Christopher is getting married, Olive doesn’t much care for her soon-to-be daughter-in-law. Or her parents either. She tells Henry, [Our son] married a woman who thinks she knows everything. Henry’s reply – So did I.

What makes this show so intriguing is that it seems ever so realistic. It accurately reflects life in a small New England town where everyone knows everyone, and everyone’s business too. As Olive says about that – It is a small town, what else is there to do?

But the thing about Olive is that she refuses to care or worry about whether or not you like her. She cooks, cleans, tends to her garden. She’s softly abrasive to her family, and indifferent to others. She speaks her mind, or she simply excuses her self and gets up and leaves. Frances McDormand performs this role of a unlikable woman, in a mini-series from a novel that was deemed unfilmable and, she is simply amazing as Olive.

As I said the novel’s structure was 13 short stories loosely tied together via Olive Kitteridge. The series, is four hours and characters come and go, time moves forward and backward, and Olive is like the tide. She’s a presence that is always changing yet one that remains the same.

My final thought is that this story may be set in a fictional small coastal town in Maine. People are not flashy or open or lively as much as they’re inward and closed off. The series doesn’t have highlights or high points. Rather it is like life as it continues with the days changing from sunlight to moonlight; with the flowers in bloom, or the wet and cold season places a damper on everyone and everything.

This is a series which centers on a unlikable character, and is a series from an unfilmable book. Yet, you won’t find a better performance by an actress. Nor will you find the series uninteresting or dull. I surely see some Emmy nominations for Olive Kitteridge.

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2 thoughts on “HBO’s Olive Kitteridge: Some Thoughts Now That I’ve Watched the Show

  1. I enjoyed your review, and I thought this adaptation was extraordinary, and exceptionally well-produced. The recurrent theme that resonated most personally for me was how people who choose not to embrace their own pain and losses hurt those they love by acting out. And how this cycle of repressed pain continues to wound successive generations.

    Olive was poisoned by her own parent’s dysfunctions, and her answer to every wound is “Erase it from your mind.” That’s such deep tragedy. Until she has lost virtually every relationship she could receive comfort from, including the family dog, she is unable and unwilling to face her own pain (at the point of suicide), and decide to go on living.

    It’s an almost unrealistically hopeful ending, but emotionally satisfying. It’s like the ending of The Searchers, when the hero has spent the whole movie obsessively trying to track down a girl kidnapped by Indians as a child. All through the picture he’s intent on killing the young woman, only to embrace her at the moment of recapture saying, “Let’s go home.” Something in us longs to believe in this kind of last-minute redemption.

    To me there were similarities in tone between this production and Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People”. Both shows dealt brilliantly with repressed pain and how it kills loving relationships.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I agree with comments about how well made this was – both from an adaption perspective as well as a production perspective.

    I wasn’t troubled by the hopeful ending and for me it showed that Olive wasn’t as sealed off as one might think. While I do agree that she did prefer herself to any one else – as she found fault with everyone else – she was still open even to not toss everyone aside. She worked at doing so, but it seemed as if she knew when to back off or excuse her self and leave.

    I think that Olive did do some good and was cared for by the young waitress and I think by the former student with the hallucinations.. . I think he left because he couldn’t bear to be too close to anyone.

    And the closing thought for was that she and Jack Kinnison (Bill Murray) might have a chance to forge some kind of future was surely a positive.

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