If you're looking for a likable lead character, you won't find her in "Olive Kitteridge." If you want a lovable lead character, you may well find her in "Olive Kitteridge," an HBO miniseries that is every bit as astringent and intelligent as its title character.
You can guess what Olive herself would think of "likability": She'd probably call it a mushy concept fit only for children and imbeciles. She'd dismiss it with a barely audible sigh.
This flinty Maine schoolteacher, played with precise determination by McDormand, has no time for saps and sentimental types. And yet, as played by McDormand and as luminously excavated in the Elizabeth Strout novel this fine miniseries is based on, we come to know that Olive feels things deeply. She cares -- about people, about animals, about nature, about art -- but she is held back by her inability to convey her thoughts and feelings to other people in ways they can accept and understand.
People frequently flinch and shrink back from her crisp judgments, but she doesn't mind: She'd rather not waste her time with frivolity and attempts to be accepted. Much of the time, you can't blame her for making withering pronouncements, even as you wince a bit at her bluntness. But Olive's assessments aren't often wrong and she's only noting things that others don't have the courage to say.
With grit and pursed-lips intensity, Olive cooks, gardens and teaches the local kids in her small Maine town. Part of the reason she's considered odd is because she is, frankly, very smart, but she also can be self-pitying and cruel. Neighbors around town who want to chat or to offer a kind word are often met with an acerbic comment about their children's intelligence (or lack thereof).
Olive has no time for small talk, but she has a big heart; she feels no need to censor herself, and yet she is keenly aware of what others think of her. Moving with jerky, energetic movements around their small, tidy house or attacking their waterfront garden with verve, Olive takes care of her dwellings and her husband and son in her ways, but her family knows better than anyone else that she can be a lot to take.
In short, Olive is a fantastically complex character, and McDormand asks for no sympathy in her portrayal of the woman, and yet a lump rose in my throat more than once in the final hour of this four-hour miniseries. Olive never tries to solicit anyone's pity, but McDormand, writer Jane Anderson and director Lisa Cholodenko bring Olive's lonely quest for connection to such vivid life that it's impossible not to ache for her before the miniseries is over.
"Olive Kitteridge" needs a little time to draw the viewer in to Olive's world: All of it is worth watching, but I found myself more engaged by the third and fourth hour than the first and second. In those early installments, the cramped confines of Olive's tiny kitchen could feel a little claustrophobic (and that is likely intentional). There are a couple of side stories that don't quite land, most notably one about the son of a troubled woman played with heartbreaking subtleness by Rosemarie DeWitt. We just don't get to know those characters well enough for their fates to have a deep impact, but when the miniseries is focused on Olive and the men in her life, it is often quite absorbing.
McDormand, who is superb in the lead role, is reason enough to watch "Olive Kitteridge." With quiet diligence, McDormand creates a compassionate portrait of a woman who helps her family and neighbors in ways they don't readily appreciate or even notice and asks for nothing in return. She does not expect and would not care much for the understanding of those around her, and yet Olive can be gentle and grateful, even vulnerable at times. McDormand's great accomplishment is showing that there is no contradiction in a character who is kind one minute and capable of wounding the next; we all contain such contradictions.
The supporting cast is a who's who of great character actors. Peter Mullan, playing a very different character than he did in "Top of the Lake," makes a lasting impression as a fellow teacher, and Zoe Kazan, Jesse Plemons and John Gallagher Jr. make the most of their screen time.
McDormand is clearly and rightfully the star of the show, but Bill Murray and Richard Jenkins provide additional reasons to tune in; both bring a warmth and dry wit to a drama whose domestic scenes occasionally veer from awkward to (intentionally) taxing. Olive's prickliness and her husband Henry's passivity make for a difficult relationship, and you wonder more than once how he can stay married to her. But there can be so much meaning in one of Henry's looks; he's astounded by his wife and by his unending love for her. Later in the miniseries, McDormand's scenes with Murray brim with lively camaraderie and combative good humor; those two are simply a treat to watch together.
"Olive Kitteridge" was a passion project for McDormand, who is one of the miniseries' producers, and she and Cholodenko are to be lauded for taking on a whole raft of topics television doesn't take seriously often enough -- among them depression, mental illness, suicide and aging. But don't assume from that list that this is a dark tale, or even a sad one.
"Don't be scared of your hunger," Olive once tells someone, and Olive's hungers are many. Cholodenko shows Olive frequently taking great pleasure from food, and her hands are often full of dishes she's prepared for others. She's not ashamed of her physical hungers, but her emotional ones frighten her. And yet she keeps going, honest and contrarian, caring and selfish, and it's impossible to look away.
"Olive Kitteridge" airs Sunday and Monday at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.