You might not like Olive Kitteridge. But you’ll want to understand her. That dichotomy is what makes the four-part miniseries that bears her name so enthralling, especially since it’s clear that Olive doesn’t always like herself: She’s plotting her own suicide in the opening scene.
Adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), Olive Kitteridge follows a grumpy, tactless math teacher (Frances McDormand) who lives with a kinder-than-she-deserves husband (Richard Jenkins) and their resentful son (John Gallagher Jr.) in Crosby, Maine, where the locals have all been burned by Olive’s insensitive comments. Where the book relies on 13 interconnected stories—told from different characters’ perspectives—to tell us about Olive, the miniseries presents her to us without a filter. This is a woman who uses the word moron without apology, snaps at other people’s children, and smirks when her husband’s assistant (and crush), Denise (Zoe Kazan), accidentally runs over the kitten he gave her. Yet thanks to an Emmy-worthy performance by McDormand, it’s obvious that Olive is also capable of real compassion. It’s just reserved for those who, like her, can’t simply buck up and smile.
There are more than a few people like that in this small town, including Olive’s troubled former student Kevin (Cory Michael Smith) and a miserable widower (Bill Murray). In fact, Olive Kitteridge is one of the best explorations of clinical depression that I’ve seen on television, particularly when it comes to how mental illness is passed down within families. Olive’s father, who ended up committing suicide, belonged to the grin-and-bear-it generation, while her son uses Prozac and therapy, but they suffer from the same disease. Olive’s cruelty feels like a survival technique for her own depression. The fact that the miniseries begins and ends with her holding a gun to her head makes the story feel suspenseful, even though it’s rooted in the melancholy of everyday moments like family dinners and carpool rides. The people in Crosby should be drawn together by their sadness. Instead, they all feel alone.
We’re taught that good drama relies on characters changing over time. Here, McDormand proves that a character’s refusal to change can be just as compelling, and she hints at that stubbornness in exquisitely subtle fashion. You can learn so much from the irritated way she chews her meat every time Denise comes over for dinner, or the pursed-lipped expression she has every time she’s about to do something inexcusably wrong. It’s a brilliant performance and a necessary reminder that ”likability” is overrated. Great television shouldn’t just reflect our own experiences back to us. It should push us to understand the very people we can’t relate to. And if HBO can help us find the essential humanity in Jersey mobsters and Westeros tyrants, then empathizing with an ordinary woman shouldn’t be too difficult. A