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‘Olive Kitteridge,’ Where Have You Been All My Life?

'Olive Kitteridge,' Where Have You Been All My Life?

Fellow female curmudgeons, rejoice! You have a new patron saint in the star of HBO’s Olive Kitteridge miniseries, debuting Sunday at 9 PM (followed by the second half on Monday at 9 PM). And star/producer Frances McDormand, as directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), is a goddamn revelation.

Olive is the anchoring character in a series of stories (adapted from the Pulitzer-winning book by Elizabeth Strout) about the residents of the town of Crosby, Maine. The first episode begins with Olive making an ominous pilgrimage into a field with a gun and a note, then flashes back to 25 years earlier, when she was a junior-high-school math teacher.

She’s taciturn and no-nonsense, upbraiding her students and family alike when she detects foolishness. She is the mortal enemy of whimsy. She is a master of the eye-roll. She talks openly about her depression, which runs in Olive’s family. “Happy to have it,” she says. “Goes with being smart.” She’s hard on her gentle, cheerful husband Henry (Richard Jenkins), but they are nevertheless in it for the long haul. (As far as I can see, anyway; I haven’t read the book.)

“It’s a subversive act,” McDormand recently told the New York Times, to play a character like this: Devoid of vanity or diplomacy, Olive’s the antithesis of our youth-obsessed, narcissistic, smiley-emoticonned culture. “Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45 — sartorially, cosmetically, attitudinally,” the 57-year-old McDormand said, sounding a lot like Olive. “Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair. Everybody is concerned about a smooth face.”

As a producer, McDormand was instrumental in getting the miniseries made, and it’s easy to see why. Parts like this don’t come along often, or maybe ever. I can’t remember when I’ve last seen a protagonist like this. Choose your term: curmudgeon, grump, crank… typical New Englander? (I say this as a Massachusetts native.) 

I’ve written before about the dearth of female curmudgeons in pop culture, but on the rare occasions that we get them, their caustic commentary is usually offset by the glow of youth. Olive has a face to match the severity of her nature. Unlike many actors her age, McDormand wears her lines proudly (though, given her movie-star looks, it would be a mistake to describe her as looking “average,” as Olive is written as in the book).

Also, Olive is never boiled down to less than the sum of her parts. She’s not a folksy, truth-telling hero, though she does exhibit moments of heroism — as when she spots a suicidal former student and derails his planned attempt. Sometimes she comes off as stunningly cruel or just blindly insensitive: She yells at a flower girl before her son’s wedding ceremony, then snacks on peanuts in the front row once it’s underway. Her chronic depression may “go with being smart,” but it also makes her short-tempered, gloomy, and difficult to be around. In other words, like most of us are, at least some of the time.

“There’s no such thing as a simple life” is the series’ tagline, while Cholodenko has described it as a “microcosm [of] life.” But Olive Kitteridge centers particularly on a female life, and, as McDormand says, it’s a story “about a woman who lives on the periphery of other people’s lives — not just her husband and son, but a whole town.”

She could easily be talking about the majority of female characters throughout the history of literature, film, and TV, all of whom have taken a back seat to their adventuring male counterparts. Interestingly, McDormand has also said she’s “never felt that a regular movie time frame is long enough to tell a good female story.” And this may be one of HBO’s most strongly female-created stories yet, from the novel’s author Strout to adapter Jane Anderson to Cholodenko and McDormand.

Together, they’ve created a work of art about the kind of woman who would, in so many other narratives, be a passing stereotype (the grouchy math teacher; the shrewish wife; the strange old lady who lives at the end of the road). That’s a radical act in itself. And in the hands of McDormand, she’s never less than compelling, no matter how off-putting her behavior might be. In fact, that’s one of Cholodenko and McDormand’s great accomplishments here: refusing to take the easy way out by making Olive more likable, which would be simple enough to do — I think she only smiles a handful of times in the first two hours. 

But you don’t have to like her (though I do, a lot) to get into this series. You just have to appreciate how rare it is that you’re getting a glimpse into her world.

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