Television Secret Santa – Olive Kitteridge

Over the holidays we decided to treat ourselves to some quality shows by doing another round of TV Secret Santas. This time, instead of picking shows for each other, we all wrote down the names of various shows (which we had either seen and wanted others to watch or hadn’t seen at all) and did a random blind pick out of a Santa hat (or in our case a Ziploc bag). This week Kerri discusses her pick, Olive Kitteridge. 

1.) What show did you pick? The four episode HBO mini-series, Olive Kitteridge, based on a book of the same name, by Elizabeth Strout.

2.) What did you know about the show before you started watching? I knew that it was based on a book and was about a family. I assumed, semi-incorrectly, that the show was mainly about the character Olive. I also assumed, correctly, that the character, Olive, was played by Frances McDormand. I think, based on memories of Frances McDormand at an awards show, that it was nominated or won a bunch of awards but that may just be because Frances McDormand is always nominated for something at every awards show. I knew that a few people had recommended it to me and thought I’d like it.

3.) What is the show actually about? Olive Kitteridge is ostensibly about the Kitteridge family who live in the fictional town of Crosby, Maine: The mother, Olive (McDormand) a school teacher, the father, Henry (Richard Jenkins) a pharmacist, and their son, Christoper (Devin Druid as a child and John Gallagher Jr. as and adult). The show (and I’m sure the book) spans over 25 years and follows the Kitteridge family through daily life and events big and small. The story branches out, early on, to other folks that also live in Crosby: Denise and Jerry, the young people who work in Henry’s pharmacy, Kevin Coulson, one of Olive’s former students, and Jack Kennison a wealthy man who Olive befriends late in the series, to name a few.

4.) What did you think about the show after the first episode? After the first episode I realized that my assumptions about the show were largely wrong. Although we start on Olive in the woods, set to off herself with a hand-gun, the show does not have a singular focus on her. From here, we quickly flashback to the 1980s. Olive, in flashback, is a school teacher and is presented as abrasive and sometimes outright mean, often to her family. This is in stark contrast to Henry, who is kind and loving, even to Olive who doesn’t seem to reciprocate, at least not in the same way. The first episode does not focus all that much on Olive and is in fact much more of an exploration of the relationship between Henry and his new assistant, Denise (hired on after his first assistant drops dead), and the way that this relationship affects the entire Kitteridge clan. Henry forms an immediate crush on Denise (the amazing Zoe Kazan, a bit of a chameleon here) – she’s kind, sweet, bubbly, much younger – the obvious opposite of Olive. Henry’s crush is, at first, romantic but never acted upon and Olive is very quick to recognize, name and make fun of Henry about it (she also calls Denise “The Mouse”, dismissively).  Henry becomes more paternal when Denise’s husband is accidentally killed by his best friend on a hunting trip.

The first episode also gives us an early glimpse at Olive’s young student, Kevin Coulson, who has a volatile home life and who we and Olive will meet up with again, many years later. Olive, to be kind, is a challenging character but by the end of episode one she is left a blubbering mess, left weeping in her bedroom, mourning the death of Jim O’Casey. Henry may have been having a one-sided emotional affair with Denise but Olive was having a much more intimate relationship with Jim, another school teacher and an alcoholic.

After the first episode I was left with more questions than answers (which is how it should be): if Olive is capable of love, why is she so cruel? Why did Olive and Henry marry in the first place?  (They are so different, they are really from different universes). Why is Olive so drawn to Kevin and Jim? Did Whiskers, the adorable kitten that Henry gets for Denise that she “accidentally” “runs over” with her “car”, actually fake his own death? Olive Kitteridge is a dense show concerned with people’s emotional states and inner lives. The show is as challenging as its titular character and the first episode is not about to ease you in.

5.) How did that change after the last episode? Well, it’s unlikely that Whiskers is alive in Bogota or someplace, counting his money or more likely, if he is, the show didn’t think it was important to tell us (this is in the book, yes? Book readers, help me out? Whiskers is alive right? WAY TO DROP THE BALL, SHOW). After the last episode I still had questions. I don’t think that I ever got a satisfying answer about Olive and Henry’s relationship but the why of the relationship stopped being so important to me. I became much more interested in how the relationship still functioned, even dis-functioned, after so many years.

I loved how, throughout the course of the series, Olive is so rarely on the same emotional page as anyone else and that thought became the lens I viewed the show from after the first episode. In reality no one in the show is on the same emotional plane as anyone else – pretty much ever. They are all coming with their own unique perspectives, with their own baggage, with everything that happened in their day, good or bad, that lead them to an encounter with another person at that given moment. The fact that we as an audience are attuned to these emotional states is a remarkable achievement, that these characters are so well delineated that, although we might not understand them, we feel we can see inside them. There is a moment where Henry cuts some flowers for Denise from a garden outside the Kitteridge house. Olive catches him in the act and she gets upset with him. There is so much going on here: Henry starts happily, thinking that he is doing something nice for someone and that no one will mind, they’re just tulips after all. Olive is frustrated and betrayed not only because Henry cuts the flowers that she planted and wanted for herself but because he’s giving them to someone he likes very much that is not her and that is not like her. The flowers are already cut (dead really) but at this point they carry so much weight that Henry just leaves them behind. No one is ever where anyone else needs them to be, emotionally or otherwise. Until sometimes they are, like in the case of Olive and Jack or Kevin and the young woman who works near the cliffs.

I’ve already written a lot and haven’t even talked about my favourite episode, the second, that explores the troubled mind of Kevin Coulson. Olive has an affinity for folks who are in difficult situations (see Jim, Kevin’s mom, Jack and even Denise, when she returns to the Kitteridge house after she marries Jerry) but none of these relationships is explored as fully and is as artfully drawn as the one with Kevin. I also haven’t talked much about Christopher who gets fleshed out, and grows up, as the series goes along or what happens to Henry at the end of the show. There is a lot to dig through in a mere four episodes. By the end of the series, Olive is still confounded by people and still stuck in a brain and body that won’t allow her to understand them exactly but she ends the series by saying, “It baffles me, this world. I don’t want to leave it yet”.

6.) Who would you recommend this show to? Anyone who likes to read.

7.) Describe this show in one word. Interior.

8.) Any final shoutouts? I’d like to give a shout out to the casting director, who found two very good actors to play Christopher at different ages that look remarkably alike. I’d also like to give a shout out to the highly enjoyable Maine accents that G and I copied ad nauseam (and horribly) throughout our screening of the show. Be thankful you weren’t watching with us, everyone!

Shows not picked out of the Santa Ziploc:
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Show Me a Hero, Casual, Jessica Jones, Master of None, Deutschland 83, Project Greenlight Season 4, Jane the Virgin, Difficult People, Narcos, You’re the Worst, Togetherness, Please Like Me, UnREAL. 

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