Like 'True Detective' and 'Fargo,' HBO's 'Olive Kitteridge' Goes for the Jugular

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Frances McDormand as Olive Kitteridge.
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

There seems to be a concerted effort in progress by American TV producers to improve the reputation of one of their main products, the series. It started with “True Detective,” an atypical police procedural, continued with “Fargo,” a TV series inspired by an almost-cult movie, and reaches a sort of peak with “Olive Kitteridge,” an HBO mini-series based on the successful novel of the same title by Elizabeth Strout.

What the three TV products have in common is that they bring new life to a genre that is thought to be formulaic, contrived and run-of-the-mill, a product that caters to the tastes of the “common viewer” in order to garner “the ratings” and be renewed for another season. And all three of them achieve the aim of reinventing themselves by relinquishing the obvious – plot surprises, cases that have to be solved, “arcs” and such – and go for the jugular, i.e., the ingredients that make literature – local flavor and a personal story.

With “True Detective” we were in Louisiana, with its swamps, eerie hints of the occult and two policemen, played very ably by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, each of them meriting our interest as fully fleshed-out characters. Next year, in its second season, we will have to gear up for a different locale and other protagonists.

“Fargo” transported us to Minnesota in the winter, and we had to get used to incarnations of the Coen brothers’ characters, played by Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks, each one of them – again – involving us in their lives. Its second season will move to South Dakota, and rumors about characters and casting abound.

But more than anything, “Fargo” paved the way in our short (and getting shorter as I write) attention span for “Olive Kitteridge,” an HBO mini-series (four episodes) that was sprung on U.S. viewers in the first days of November, and began here November 9 on Yes Oh. Its producer and star is Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Police Chief Marge Gunderson in the “Fargo” movie. In the mini-series we are in Maine, in rural surroundings yet again, and there is very little in the way of plot, since it is all about character.

Another thing the three series have in common is that they travel backward and forward in time. With “Olive Kitteridge” we start right at the end (spoiler hunters, let’s see you address that): an elderly woman – we can surmise it is Olive-McDormand – spreads a blanket in the woods, unwraps a revolver and loads it with one bullet. She is clearly going to commit suicide, but before she squeezes the trigger (or not) the story goes back 25 years, and we are on the way, with a premonition of death hovering over the proceedings.

In the first episode we have two deaths – Mrs. Granger, an assistant in the pharmacy belonging to Olive’s husband, Henry, and the husband of Mrs. Granger’s replacement, the mousy Denise – plus another possible death at the end of it. Apart from that, depression reigns supreme: A customer of Henry’s pharmacy tries to hoard Valium pills with the clear intention of doing herself in, and Olive tries hard to help her to come to terms with her depression (Henry believes that getting more light – by using stronger light bulbs – into one’s life might do the trick). Olive herself believes depression is a hereditary matter, lurking in the shadows for herself, her husband and their son.

She is adamant in claiming to be depressed herself – something Henry doesn’t accept – and in sort of accepting depression as a way of life. In the first episode she comes over not as “abrasive” – as the HBO PR material describes her – but as cantankerous, quarrelsome, aggressive and generally unpleasant to have around. One’s heart goes out to her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins), a lovable, patient man, who is clearly in love with her, against all better judgement.

It is very much to McDormand’s credit that she developed and produced such a series. Her purpose was to devise a vehicle for herself as an actress who does not fit the standard for women’s parts on American TV – i.e., young, sexy, beautiful and either a villainess or a damsel in distress. Olive-McDormand go far the other way: She is in mid-life, not paying much attention to how she looks, and not caring much what other characters, or the viewers, think of her. And yet you follow her – well, it is her story, even if other characters vie for attention – hoping to find a chink in her armour that will allow you to like her, at least a bit.

The acting is excellent, the attention to detail impressive, and we know that within a month we will have to traverse 25 years with her, her family and many other characters up in Maine, in order to fully understand – although it does stand to reason as it is – what makes her ponder putting an end to her life, and to find out whether she does pull the trigger or not. Not having read the book, and having expressly avoided reading about the series and how it ends, I would bet on her pulling the trigger, eventually. But don’t take my word for it.

Shedding a tear

Before I wind up this column, let me part from a character in another series I have been following on BBC Entertainment. The viewers of the BBC series “Casualty” were in for a shock recently, when paramedic Jeff Collier (played by Matt Bardock) was killed in the explosion of a van from which he helped to rescue a trapped colleague. Collier was a very special and lovable character in the series. Even I, a hardened TV serial viewer, thinking myself immune, shed a tear as I watched his funeral, with his fellow paramedics raising their walkie-talkies in the air and broadcasting to those in the funeral parlor: “last call for paramedic Jeff Collier” and signing the episode off with “paramedic Collier not responding.”

R.I.P., Jeff. You were only a character in a series, intent on saving lives, but death comes at the end for the likes of you as well.