Review: The long and short of HBO’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’

The last time HBO turned a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in Maine into a miniseries, it was 2005's “Empire Falls,” which boasted a star-studded cast but was exactly the wrong length at four hours: too short to properly tell all of the books' stories and give the audience the necessary feeling of living among these characters, and much too long for the thin slice the filmmakers were able to carve out of the book.

HBO's new miniseries “Olive Kitteridge” (it debuts Sunday night at 9) is also adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in Maine, and also clocks in at four hours. And though I haven't read the Elizabeth Strout book on which it's based, it certainly feels like the same mistake has been made about its length.

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”) and written by HBO movie veteran Jane Anderson (“Normal,” “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom”), the miniseries presents vignettes over 25 years in the life of Olive (Frances McDormand), an unyielding Yankee who holds her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins), her son Christopher (played by Devin McKenzie Druid as a kid and John Gallagher Jr. as an adult), and the world at large to a very high standard, and has no problem telling people in the bluntest possible terms how they've failed to live up to that standard. (Christopher grows up to become a doctor, but she dismisses his accomplishments: “You're a podiatrist; it doesn't count.”) She lacks the patience for displays of sentiment – when Henry acts dismayed that she's throwing out a Valentine's Day card that he just gave her, she says, “I read it” – and good manners are what she expects from other people, and not necessarily from herself.

At one point, Christopher understandably objects to how she treats him, and Olive replies with a “Poor you” that sounds very much like it came from the mouth of the worst HBO mother of them all. Tony Soprano once recalled the way his mother treated his father, and marvels that “she wore him down to a nub.” Watching “Olive Kitteridge,” viewers may feel like Henry is suffering the same fate in real time right in front of them.

As Christopher notes, Olive tends to behave more warmly towards people outside her immediate family – a trait she and her husband (who is otherwise her temperamental opposite) share. Olive looks out for troubled kids in school and is attracted to English teacher Jim O'Casey (Peter Mullan from “Top of the Lake”), while Henry has an almost pathological need to rescue the various mousey women who cross his path. (The most prominent, and appealing, of these is pharmacy assistant Denise, played by Zoe Kazan.) The Kitteridge union is simultaneously broken and functional: Olive and Henry don't seem to belong together, but one of the best things the miniseries does is to illustrate the ways in which they do love and take comfort in each other, despite how irritating it is for each to be around the other day after day, year after year.

Along the way, we get glimpses of the other characters who made up the 13 interlocking tales of Strout's book – Rosemarie DeWitt as a mentally ill pharmacy customer, Cory Michael Smith (the would-be Riddler on “Gotham”) as the grown-up son who inherited her condition, Libby Winters as Christopher's bride-to-be – but they're not around long enough to make much of an impact, even as it's clear in each case that there's much more of their stories to be told than the miniseries has room for.

And as great as both McDormand and Jenkins are in the lead roles (both are early Emmy frontrunners), their story ultimately feels too repetitive – the miniseries plays as a collection of anecdotes designed to make the same point over and over and over again – to justify the running time. After a while, one begins to feel trapped in the Kitteridge marriage right along with them; that may be exactly what Cholodenko and Anderson were going for, but unlike Olive and Henry, I had the ability to (frequently) put their relationship on pause to find something less suffocating to enjoy. Things liven up in the final hour, thanks to Bill Murray as a wealthy neighbor whom Olive gets to know late in life, but it's a mark of how dour the majority of the project is that Murray feels like a ray of sunshine even underplaying a depressed character.
So much of Olive's story is about repetition: the routine of a marriage in good times and bad, the way that certain character traits – or illnesses – can be passed from generation to generation. On that level, the structure makes sense, but the mini becomes such a slog to get through – especially with everyone outside the marriage (who could have provided some respite from it) reduced to cameos – that the destination isn't worth the long and difficult journey.

I like the idea of HBO as a place where serious novels can be adapted with top talent, and in a relatively faithful fashion that doesn't have to pander to box office in the way a feature film would. But the next time the channel's execs get their hands on a sprawling novel and designate it for a four-hour treatment, they should think serious about either doubling that time or cutting it in half.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at