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‘Olive Kitteridge,’ ‘The Leftovers,’ and the Uses of Disenchantment

'Olive Kitteridge,' 'The Leftovers,' and the Uses of Disenchantment

Save us from shotguns & fathers’ suicides.

This pleading scrap of verse, from John Berryman’s elegy for Ernest Hemingway, “Dream Song 235,” appears in HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge” scrawled on a cocktail napkin, yet another of the miniseries’ many reminders that in the midst of life we are in death. Adapted by Jane Anderson from Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel and directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), “Olive Kitteridge” abounds with death — sudden, slow, natural, accidental, suicidal — much as this summer’s “The Leftovers” (HBO) bristles with absence, and both thoroughly earn the adjective “bleak.” But the latter succeeds in traversing such rough terrain while the former falls short, a difference that comes down, I think, to their uses of disenchantment.

READ MORE: “Lisa Cholodenko & Frances McDormand’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ Impresses in Venice”

As “Olive Kitteridge” opens, the titular protagonist (Frances McDormand) lays out a blanket in a copse of trees, turns on an old Sony radio, and loads a single bullet into her revolver. The rest of the four-hour miniseries, an extended, episodic history of life in Olive’s small town, unspools with the specter of her suicide omnipresent on its margins; each untimely demise is also a flickering reminder that our heroine is planning to kill herself. Indeed, “Olive Kitteridge” — ruminative, impeccable, anchored by McDormand’s excellent, sour performance — ranges from the mildly to unbearably dispiriting. As neighbor Rachel Colson (Rosemarie DeWitt) tells Olive’s husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins, superb), the local pharmacist, “‘Blue’ is how I feel on the good days.”

Grief, sorrow, melancholy, and depression can be the subject of stellar television — Michelle Forbes’ turn as a bereaved mother on “The Killing,” for instance, proved far more compelling than the murder investigation that structured the AMC series’ first season. The problem with “Olive Kitteridge,” in which we see the tragedies of village life through Olive’s jaundiced perspective, is that it reduces these varieties of disenchantment to the main character’s aphoristic “wisdom.”

If you need proof that you were loved, then you’re in for one big, fat disappointment.

It’s never clean. You should know that.

People hold back when they’re married. That’s what you do.

Subsumed under such declarative assurance, “Olive Kitteridge” sands away the communal texture its realism seems intended to create. The miniseries format shoehorns Strout’s collection of 13 linked narratives into its strange, slack rhythms, neither the concise character study of a made-for-TV movie nor the rich group portrait of a full-length anthology. As such, the townspeople, rather than being honed into clarity by Olive’s hard edges, fade into the background; to so sorely underutilize DeWitt, Ann Dowd, and Bill Murray seems a shame, if not a crime.

As honestly as “Olive Kitteridge” comes to its understanding of the teacher, wife, and mother whose design for living increasingly marks her as the relic of a bygone era, the miniseries illustrates a relatively narrow view of all the ways we suffer, and perhaps survive, each “big, fat disappointment” we encounter. Olive’s conviction, for the most part unshakeable, is familiar enough that one might gloss it as yet another aphorism, always more suggestive than satisfying: life is hard, and then you die. 

Exceedingly grim, even despairing — so much so that Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Maerz publicly renounced it at midseason — “The Leftovers” begins weakly, with two diffuse, dour episodes that scarcely signal the remarkable, stricken work to come. But as it evolves, pausing to examine an array of responses to the Rapture-like “Sudden Departure” of two percent of the world’s population, the series arrives at an astute, compelling vision of disenchantment — with religion, with society, with marriage, with this fallen world itself.

READ MORE: “What Went Wrong with HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’?”

Though its quasi-apocalyptic premise situates it in the realm of fantasy, “The Leftovers,” created by Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) and Tom Perotta from the latter’s novel of the same name, weaves together a more varied, realistic view of tragedy, trauma, and unresolved grief than “Olive Kitteridge.” It’s far from perfect — a subplot involving a cult leader named Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) never pays off, and its constellation of disillusioned youths are clearly written by adults aping, rather than engaging, the Millennial mood — but it gradually emerges with the understanding that loss provokes not only resignation but also confusion, anxiety, terror, wrath.

In the astounding sixth episode, “Guest,” “The Leftovers” shifts the focus from the troubled Garveys (played by Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Margaret Qualley, and Chris Zylka) to Nora Durst (Carrie Coon, in one of the year’s finest performances), whose husband and two young children vanished. In New York for a conference on “Departure-Related Occupations and Practices,” a mix-up at registration leaves her without a nametag. She’s simply identified as “Guest,” and this respite from her role as a mourner leaves her free to flirt, drink, rage, cry, and ultimately hope, ever so briefly, for a new beginning.

It’s a lovely, moving hour, more delicate than critics railing against the series’ bleakness would suggest. Nora’s way through grief calls to mind the other residents of the series’ New Jersey suburb, in that it’s slippery, unstable, always finding novel forms of expression. So, too, in the penultimate episode, “The Garveys at Their Best,” which flashes back to the day of the Sudden Departure and ends with a broken circle, a light gone out, an empty space. Near the end of a season that pored over these clues as if hoping to write a different ending, “The Leftovers” finally conveys the haunting notion at the heart of grief, indeed of all disenchantment: what we considered ordinary while we had it comes to seem extraordinary once it’s gone.

“Olive Kitteridge” premieres Sunday, November 2 and Monday, November 3 at 9 pm on HBO. “The Leftovers,” which has been renewed for a second season, is available on HBO GO.

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