Much of the media coverage previewing HBO’s new miniseries Olive Kitteridge has focused on the idea that, however well crafted, this is a small story about small people. Words like banal, little, average, and, a bit deeper into the thesaurus, quotidian get bandied about. Frances McDormand’s lead character is described variously as curmudgeonly, dour and schlubby.
But it’s hard to square those descriptions with a story so packed with conflict, hallucinations, suicides, accidents, rescues, and complicated, deep love. There may be no towering robots or high-octane courtroom showdowns, but far from being some subdued slice of ‘everyday life,’ Olive Kitteridge is resolutely Dramatic in its plot.
The easy labeling of the four-hour series as slow and quiet may have less to do with any lack of drama in the lives it depicts, than with the fact that, like real people, its characters rarely respond with cinematic performances to the constant storm they’re weathering. Instead, they negotiate, rationalize, cope, and soldier on. The acting in Olive Kitteridge is so spectacular because it compresses the intensity of real experience into small gestures that speak volumes.
The struggles at the center of the show are in its characters’ minds and hearts, often seeming wired for depression or worse. The impacts of those dispositions echo down the 25 years the series spans. But the show is not about disorders or illnesses — it’s about people struggling with the challenges of being themselves, all too aware of both their shortcomings and their inability to overcome them.
Olive herself is undeniably cruel to those around her, in ways that are at once small and devastating. But she is loved and respected and a good person despite this, because her casual meanness is the other side of her perceptiveness and passion. Olive is a math teacher, and she expects the people and world around her to live up to mathematical rigor. But she also knows that her unbending nature is alienating, and McDormand beautifully conveys the regret and frustration that she experiences when her own mouth detonates in ways she can’t seem to control. We’ve all known or been people like this — unwilling to say anything but what is true, constantly demanding more out of life and other people.
Olive Kitteridge is riveting, not because it somehow elevates or transcends the "normal" lives it depicts, but because life is a minefield, constantly haunted with threat, and with frequent, bloody casualties. With Halloween behind us, this is a story that, while frequently warm and funny, summons the deep fears of which monsters and murderers are only cathartic echoes: being unacknowledged, losing faith, having friends turn away from us, questioning love, accidents, chance, change, misplacing our care, being different, being disregarded, being left.
Olive Kitteridge airs for the second time starting tonight, Tues., Nov. 4, at 11 p.m. Eastern Time. It’s not an easy watch, but it is absolutely essential.