The director calls it a "traumedy," a miniseries that "mixes serious drama with dry humour." I would call it a masterpiece. Olive Kitteridge (HBO Canada, Sunday and Monday, 9 p.m.) is perhaps the most urbane, poised and exquisitely delivered drama on TV this year. It is a testament to the power of TV storytelling at its best – intimate and trenchant. It's about a life, a marriage and a community. It's about time passing but leaving bruises that never heal on some sensitive souls.
Based on Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of linked short stories, but crafted to take a sliver of the book and forge it into one substantial narrative, it is about the sometimes tortured, sometimes serene family of Olive (Frances McDormand), a retired math teacher; her guileless husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins), a pharmacist, and their son, Christopher (John Gallagher Jr.), with whom Olive has a heartbreakingly flawed relationship.
Why? Because Olive is a sublimely difficult, complex woman. To call her prickly would be a vast understatement. She is, by turns, manic in her acid-tongued commentary to others and tortured by flashes of awareness about how brutal her candour can be. In the opening scene, Olive, in her 70s, is about to shoot herself, but we don't really know her then. The story then shifts back to several decades earlier. Olive is a schoolteacher, tough on her students, tough on her husband. He runs the small-town pharmacy and takes pleasure in helping others. Unfailingly affable, he is Olive's opposite.
There follows, through the four parts, a rich portrait of ordinary lives. Things happen. In the first hour, there are several deaths and layers of unhappiness are revealed. Henry becomes deeply involved in comforting his newly-widowed assistant at the store, Denise (Zoe Kazan, in a marvellous performance), Olive counts on a fellow schoolteacher to bring poetry into her life. Son Christopher looks at his mother and silently nourishes bleak disappointment at her coldness, her eternally harsh attitude.
There is talk of depression and we learn Olive's father committed suicide. A town woman almost drowns, one of Olive's former students grows to become a man unhinged by unhappiness. A sweet young man who helps Henry at the pharmacy grows up to be a jerk.
Still, life goes on, the rhythm of it sustaining everyone. Olive Kitteridge is about love and acceptance – people are strange, difficult creatures and some we love deeply, unreservedly. That is the best of us.
This deft, understated masterpiece was Frances McDormand's passion project. She optioned the book, hired screenwriter Jane Anderson, persuaded HBO to make it, and inveigled Jenkins (he was the departed father in HBO's Six Feet Under) to play Henry. McDormand persuaded Lisa Cholodenko, who had directed her in the movie Laurel Canyon, to undertake this one.
In the end, though, it is McDormand as Olive, who carries the true weight of the drama. She does it with breathtaking panache, tapping into a deep well of empathy to bring this excruciatingly complex woman fully alive. There is a scene early on, in which Olive sips coffee and butters a slice of bread, her eyes and face reacting carefully to family conversation. And it takes the viewer deep into the character's uncompromising but beautiful soul. Olive is a woman with a depth of feeling that is unfathomable. And she can be funny, too. A scene at her son's wedding is achingly droll.
What we have here is a work of finesse and nuance. A fiercely compelling story about the tiny joys of ordinary life, the delicate comprises and the large losses that must be overcome. And yet, it is seemingly drawn from the mundane. Watching it unfold, I was reminded of a poem by the Irish writer Patrick Kavanagh. In it, the poet complains that, while the great world's big events unfolded, he was stuck in an obscure village. The most dramatic scene he encountered was two farmers fighting over the measurement of a piece of land being bought or sold.
The poem ends, with this evocation: "Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind./ He said: I made the Iliad from such/A local row. Gods make their own importance." Small lives, it says, are the basis for epic, unforgettable stories, as Olive Kitteridge is.
Also airing this weekend
The Rise of ISIS (CBC NN on The Passionate Eye, Sunday 10 p.m) is what aired on PBS's Frontline earlier this week. A must-see if you missed it – a background investigation on the Islamic State. It lays blame without outright condemnation, but the conclusions made – blame is laid at the feet of Nouri al-Maliki, who was prime minister of Iraq from 2006 until 2014, and the Obama administration, which dithered while the conditions for the Islamic State to flourish unfolded.
Ediitor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Elizabeth Strout. This version has been updated.