Misery Loves Company in HBO's 'Olive Kitteredge'

Olive Kitteridge joins a new wave of American television series focusing on the troubles of families. Instead of fulfilling the dream of harmonious family life, it presents a piece of real life

Ruta Kupfer
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Ruta Kupfer

There is a modern family on television, and the intention is not the comedy show of the same name that has won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series for the past five years running. It is an exposed family – real, which even if you run away from it, stays with you forever. This family – actually families – does not live from episode to episode in the best tradition of sitcoms, but has a long and complicated dynamic, filled with residues of many years.

In these new creations of families, shown on American cable stations of course, they focus on the miserable aspects of the families – and not just because, as Tolstoy wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Take for example Olive Kitteridge, a four-part mini-series from HBO. It is based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout and will be shown in Israel starting next Sunday on the YES Oh satellite channel. The series takes place over a 25-year period. It starts in the present, returns to the past in full detail, dismantles it and puts it back together, and then returns to the present. It is the story of a small family in a small town in Maine in the northeast of the United States, a pretty place, isolated and cold. There are shocking events in the series – tragic deaths, crimes that change the relationships between neighbors and family members in Crosby, Maine – but its unique value is in the emotional description of the Kitteridge family, and in particular that of the mother, Olive, the character at the center of the show.

Viewers meet Olive for the first time in her elderly and hopeless version, but also in her younger version she is not brimming with optimism and warmth. She is a woman of many contradictions, who on one hand anchors the entire family, while at the same time destroying her husband and son with the insults she hurls at them daily.

Her husband (Richard Jenkins as Henry Kitteridge) is a simple man, the loving and smiling town pharmacist, sensitive and human. He is open to temptation. His life with the coarse woman at his side is filled with insults. He is the sort of person who get excited over the greetings cards for made up American holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day and such. She, on her part, makes fun of them. So when he gives her as a gesture of good will a bouquet of flowers (she likes her flowers planted in the garden) and a plain card, she responds in a temper. He finds the card in the garbage later that day. She read it, there is no need to keep it, she explains.

Every such little insult to him is also an arrow into the hearts of the viewers. But Olive’s devotion to him over the years is real and cannot be denied, as is her care for neighbors and the children she taught as a junior high-school math teacher in the town. She really helps out people having a hard time in this world. She is sensitive to people wallowing in depression, she saves lives.

Olive is not the cliché of the witch, but the good fairy once you begin to know her; even when someone calls her a guardian angel it is not completely ridiculous. She sees herself as a moral person and is certainly not self righteous – though sometimes because she usually sees the forest, she ignores the trees. And they may well wither away.

She is uncompromising and has a big mouth – a type of character rarely seen on the television screen. We don’t see her maturing and becoming wiser, we see her just becoming old. That is the direction life goes in.

Frances McDormand plays Olive magnificently. While her son and the other children are played by different actors as they grow older, the adult actors do change, and the changes are less significant for them and can be concealed by makeup – and that is a good thing. McDormand’s real achievement is how she manages in presenting the infuriating character of Olive respectfully and honestly. Even when she is ridiculous, she is not shamed.

Henry, the husband, is also characterized by his deep personality, a character who could easily have been turned into a caricature, as well as the young woman working in his pharmacy, the “mouse,” as Olive calls her, who is so optimistic it is almost to the point of idiocy. Even the characters that enjoy only a small amount of time on screen are a significant addition – the great Bill Murray, of course; but also Peter Mullan and John Gallagher Jr., who plays Olive’s adult son Christopher.

Responsible for all this is the director of the series Lisa Cholodenko, who was nominated for an Oscar for her movie “The Kids are All Right.” Her name also came up recently as involved with the American version of the Australian television mini-series “The Slap,” a project which also

revolves around a small family story. Cholodenko, who at the beginning of her professional career directed episodes of “Six Feet Under,” a family drama that laid the foundations for all those now being shown on television, sets a unique and interesting tone.

Jill Soloway has created another fascinating television series called “Transparent.” Like Cholodenko, she also tells the story of a family over many years (even though most of it takes place in the present) and explains the processes the family and the individuals are going through. Like Cholodenko, at least in the film “The Kids are All Right,” Soloway too deals with a different type of sexuality and modern families.

If in the past the emphasis was on the individual within the family structure and their difficulty is surviving and developing within it, these new series are characterized by a broadening of the historic framework, which describes the dynamics of the framework itself – including those of the individuals and their problems and background.

Olive Kitteridge is not an expression of the fulfillment of a dream, as many American family shows were; it presents less the fulfillment of the dream of the angry family meal and more a piece of life.

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