Conversations about complicated female characters, in books but especially on television, have a tendency to be dominated by one tedious question: Is she unlikable? Hannah Horvath, Mindy Lahiri, Carrie Mathison—all have been accused of being “unlikable women,” as though that’s the worst thing a protagonist can be. In “Olive Kitteridge,” a miniseries airing Sunday and Monday nights on HBO, the actress Frances McDormand makes all these debates seem superfluous: ask her if she is likable, and Olive would probably can you a ninny and belch in your face.
The four-hour miniseries, adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, spans 25 years in Olive’s life. McDormand, one of our great unsentimental actresses, gives Olive a strength and moral grounding, without ever making her warm and cuddly. She’s unpleasant, at times almost unbearably so. Her son (played by “The Newsroom”’s John Gallagher) calls her a horrible mother. A child asks if she’s a witch. “I’m just waiting for the dog to die so I can kill myself,” she tells a neighbor (Bill Murray) she has just met.
In fact, we first meet Olive as she lays a blanket on the ground in the woods, sets down an envelope addressed “To whom it may concern,” and raises a revolver to her head. Though punctuated by dry humor and warm performances, “Olive Kitteridge” never lets go of that early bleakness; there are two deaths in the first hour alone. Strout’s book was a novel woven out of loosely connected stories about Olive and her family and friends, with Olive sometimes hovering on the edges of her neighbors' stories. HBO’s adaptation—directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), who worked with McDormand in 2003’s Laurel Canyon—is more straightforwardly chronological and more tightly focused on Olive’s experience in a town with depression in its fabric. At times, it threatens to become claustrophobic, even as it is brightened by the performances of Bill Jenkins, Zoe Kazan, and Ann Dowd. But at its heart is McDormand, giving a performance remarkably unfussy and unvain.