There was once a time when human dramas about the working class had such mass appeal that entire English villages pooled their money to purchase them. Back in 1841, it was a noted practice for poor residents of the British countryside to pitch in on the latest serialized episode of a novel by Charles Dickens. In America, fans of The Little Curiosity Shop were so adamant they lined the New York Harbor to wait for the boat carrying the answer to a burning question—what happened to Little Nell?
Post-recession dramas about socioeconomically ordinary people have become a niche. From The Fighter to Out of the Furnace to Winter's Bone, realist stories have a hard time getting made, not to mention going wide-release. When they do, they're often so tailored to the Oscar audience that they're accused of being misery porn and awards bait—at best an encapsulation of the Way We Live Now, at worst, disingenuously pessimistic and reductively classist.
The niche prestige factor probably helped greenlight Olive Kitteridge, the story of a troubled middle-class family that airs this Sunday and Monday on HBO. Though its setting is a hardscrabble town on the coast of Maine, the source material comes from a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection. Oscar winner Frances McDormand optioned it, and she's shepherded in fellow nominees Richard Jenkins, Bill Murray, and The Kids Are All Right director Lisa Cholodenko. Promising up-and-comers Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights), John Gallagher Jr. (Short Term 12), and Zoe Kazan (What If) also star, and HBO miniseries vets Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman (The Pacific, John Adams, Band of Brothers) executive produce.
This family saga has all the gritty potential to be self-serious, utterly miserable, and well-accoladed. Told in quotidian snapshots, the show captures 25 years in the life of McDormand’s Olive, a curmudgeonly, schlubby seventh-grade math teacher who, in the first few minutes of the series, puts a gun to her head. What drove her to such a desperate point? As the series unfolds, the answers unravel: Olive is haunted by her father’s suicide, her son Christopher (Gallagher Jr.) resents her, her husband Henry (Jenkins) has eyes for his new pharmacist’s assistant Denise (Kazan), and her own extramarital crush died in a mysterious crash that, as a fellow depressive speculates midway through, might have been intentional.
Does the miserable premise live up to its premium-content promise ? In part, yes: Olive Kitteridge delivers on the requisite mythically old-fashioned vision of working-class America, embodied by its gray coastal town—a chain-free stretch of sidewalk shadowed only by a lone Citizens Bank—that is aggressively banal. Yet the mopey verisimilitude is also something of a joke: No town could actually be so bleak. Around every corner, it seems, characters are pondering suicidal thoughts, attempting to commit suicide, or talking about it. Intentionally or not, Olive Kitteridge parodies the gritty prestige-content awards complex that brought it about.
In major contrast to HBO’s relentlessly nihilistic summer series The Leftovers, the obsession with death in Olive Kitteridge is fairly comedic. Unintentionally, Olive keeps stopping people from killing themselves, merely by being her usual unpleasant self. When a depressive complains her son doesn’t love her: “Don’t oblige him,” she says. When her former student says he wants to kill himself in the woods to make it cleaner: “It’s never clean,” she scolds, like he’s back in seventh grade. Olive is like It’s A Wonderful Life’s Clarence Odbody, except she’s telling them all It’s A Miserable Life, and just to get over themselves.
In playing this unlikely guardian angel, McDormand is magnificent. Olive is as unforgiving as the biting winds whipping through her New England hometown. She’s allergic to sympathy by nature, and though her own depression is apparent, she chalks it up to simple "bad wiring." Played with wonderful wind-swept, make-up-free frankness by McDormand, Olive calls everyone out, often at the most inappropriate moments, like at the dinner table. In every scene she creates an emotional climate of extreme austerity, as life-giving and unpleasant as the stew she slops on the plates of family and guests at dinner—it may not be delicious, Olive warns, but it will fill you up.
In the process Olive Kitteridge calls Hollywood out for the way it sentimentalizes real problems for the sake of gravity. There are some of the same awards-season issues here—a depressed character dropped in halfway through feels more cookie-cutter clinical than the rest, and the point-of-view hallucination sequences have a slightly vaudevillian freak show component. But it’s admirable in the way it makes mental illness more than just a secondary character trawling the bottom of human experience, or an obstacle to be overcome, or an effective weapon in the fight against terror. In Olive Kitteridge depression is a human condition. It can make life miserable, yes, but also fulfilling and funny.
With her graying blonde curls and cosmetic liverspots, Olive embodies an unapologetic fatalist. Her negative mindset, she says, gives her distinction in a town of nitwits. “Average people are happy,” she tells Henry at one point. Her husband Henry is, himself, relatively happy—and average. His fleeting, hurtful crushes foster some of the most genuinely cringe-worthy scenes, the ones that make viewers feel for Olive's situation the most. And yet these problems are not socioeconomically specific in the least—they’re the trials and tribulations of your average marriage, exaggerated for dramatic purpose but not exploitative.
In Olive Kitteridge we are, of course, watching another great actress playing working-class, play depressed, play without makeup. But by taking its time to unfold the nuances of who this woman is, this prestige series makes itself more than just misery porn, a greater sum than those production value parts that draw the portrait of a blue-collar Maine town—Olive’s mean donut hole habit, her smoking, the fashionably oblivious long skirts and knit vests that might have well been purchased at the nearby L.L. Bean headquarters if we believed she had the money, or the desire, to wear labeled clothing.
Olive Kitteridge is realist in the best way: not merely as a decoration scheme, or cinema’s equivalent of the vintage Instagram filter, but as an organic element of the story. The story goes overboard on the desolation component, sure, but it’s in the interest of giving the viewer some comedy with their misery.