Olive Kitteridge November 2 & 3, 9 p.m., HBO.
HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge opens with its title character (played by Frances McDormand) preparing to commit suicide, and things don’t get much more cheerful from there. Based on Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge is a four-hour slog through the everyday miseries of petty, small-minded people, led by the short-tempered, humorless Olive herself. The first hour features three deaths of significant characters (by stroke, hunting accident and car crash), and the specter of death hangs over the entire series, which spans decades in the lives of Olive and her fellow residents in a small Maine town.
Strout’s novel is composed of 13 discrete short stories, but screenwriter Jane Anderson streamlines the narrative, telling it more or less in chronological order, with the focus narrowly on Olive and her family rather than on the lives of a range of town residents. The setting never quite comes to life the way it may have on the page, and the characters play out familiar dramas of resentment and regret without any deeper resonance. The story jumps ahead months or years at a time seemingly without purpose, and instead of getting a full sense of Olive’s life, we only get the sense that large portions of it have been left out.
As befits a prestige HBO production, Olive Kitteridge looks lovely and has a strong cast, but in a way the expansive production values work against what is meant to be an intimate story. McDormand only occasionally gets below Olive’s no-nonsense surface, and Richard Jenkins is a bit one-note as her friendly but long-suffering husband Henry. As Olive encounters one miserable person after another, director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) eventually runs out of ways to approach the same material, and it loses whatever emotional impact it might have initially had.
Bill Murray brightens things up a bit in the final half-hour as a fellow crank who romances the now-widowed Olive, but their story eventually turns sour as well. After four hours of unhappy people living unfulfilling lives, though, even a small bright spot is a welcome respite.