Thursday, November 20, 2014

Olive Kitteridge review

"Olive Kitteridge," the HBO miniseries, is a character study of a remarkable woman: bright, depressed, judgmental, and -- this is key -- able to see through other people's phoniness and bullshit, while unable to see through her own.

We know little of Olive's (Frances McDormand) background, other than that her (undiagnosed) clinically depressed father blew his own head off with a shotgun. In the miniseries, Olive is presented as an adult, fully formed: a wife, mother, and math teacher at the local public school. The marriage seems solid, although they are clearly bored with each other. Husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) is the local small-town pharmacist. They live on the coast of Maine.

Their only child appears to be bright, listless and unhappy, making little effort in school. He doesn't like his mother, who he says is hyper-critical of his every short-coming. Olive, while interested in her son, is disappointed by his lack of effort. She takes an interest in the students at the school who have great potential, yet who struggle because of family circumstances. She helps as she can with the depressed single mother of one of her talented students. She gravitates to the misfits and those in need.

The story is a chronicle of the relentless march of time, aging, and death. Olive's marriage has gone hollow and she struggles to find meaning in retirement after her teaching career. Every detail is keenly observed, making it all the more painful. The relentless march touches her or those near her with frailty, illness, and death.

Her son (John Gallagher, Jr.), after a failed first marriage has become alienated and uncommunicative. A bright spot, the birth of a grandchild, she learns about months after the fact. Much as she learned of her son's second marriage.

In the fourth hour of the four-hour miniseries, Bill Murray appears as a neighbor that Olive develops a relationship with. Some viewers may be allergic to Murray, but for me Murray was the perfect choice. All of the acting is top notch, with Frances McDormand giving her best performance ever. And, yes, that is saying a lot, for those who know her remarkable career.

Lest this sound depressing and unwatchable, let me assure you, this is a wise, even spiritual take on growing old. This is easily one of the most remarkable programs on television in 2014.