Sympathy for the Devil: Why HBO’s Olive Kitteridge is Amazing Television

Frances McDormand gives an outstanding performance as Olive Kitteridge.

Frances McDormand gives an outstanding performance as Olive Kitteridge.

After that one time when I wanted to write about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, this is the second time that I’ve planned to write about something that then ends up being the topic of a Fighting in the War Room episode. I recommend to what the great hosts of that podcast have to say about the latest HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, but if I’m to give my two cents, then let me tell you that it is absolutely fantastic. Easily one of the very best things to have aired on television this year, which makes it all the more frustrating that so few people are obsessing over it.

Part of that has to be on HBO, which decided to air all four episodes of the show over two consecutive nights. Granted, this story about a grumpy old lady and the residents of a small Maine town is not the kind of thing that will get online fans to speculate what “it all means” like they did with True Detectivebut this method of airing it makes little sense to me. What is HBO trying to do, besides wanting to win some Emmys? Is the data that tells them people are more likely to watch this on HBOGo so staggering that it doesn’t really matter how it airs? That’s an interesting notion, but be it as it may, I’m just trying to advocate for what I think is a great piece of television.

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), and based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by Elizabeth Strout, the miniseries spans about twenty-five years in the life of a seaside New England town. More than chapters, each episode feels like a short story, focusing on different people, but always featuring the title character. By the end of the four installments, it becomes clear that Olive Kitteridge (Frances McDormand) is the main focus, even though we’ve seen so many people come and go and change through the years.

What’s so effective about this approach is that we first meet Olive Kitteridge from other people’s points of view. The first episode focuses heavily on her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) and a young new employee at is pharmacy. The second, starts out from one of Olive’s former student’s point of view (she works as a schoolteacher). This is important, because our first impression is that, while she has a wickedly dark sense of humor, Olive is an unbearably difficult and unsentimental person to be around. She is the kind of person who will never take a compliment, and would be even more unlikely to give one.

She might seem a little cartoony at times, but if you think about it, I bet you’ll find people you’ve encountered along the way that seem as bitter as Olive does. There are things brewing beneath Olive’s tough exterior, but her stubborn temper takes the best of her. She drives all the people that care about her away. She can’t help it. It isn’t really until the fourth episode that I feel like we get a whole hour from Olive’s point of view, and by the time we get there, we aren’t even surprised that the show is able to find such deep humanity and sympathy in what seemed like such an unpleasant character at the beginning.

It helps, of course, that Frances McDormand is giving what may be the best work of her career. She is masterful at playing an emotional arc that spans years (by the way, if this show doesn’t win the Emmy for Best Makeup for the ridiculously realistic work on display, then there is no justice in this world). And the rest of the cast is also fantastic. I mentioned Richard Jenkins, but Rosemarie DeWitt, John Gallagher Jr., Zoe Kazan, and Bill Murray, among others, show up to give life to Olive’s world.

I remember being a child and playing with my cousins around my grandma’s neighborhood. One of her neighbors was an old lady that always yelled at us. We called her “mrs. diarrhea”, I was scared of her, and I hated it with intense passion. If movies and television are the place where we come to empathize, then I can’t think of something more rewarding than watching Olive Kitteridge, and identifying with the type of person that elicited such raging feelings from me as a child.

Olive Kitteridge is available on HBOGo right now. What are you waiting for? 

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