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With 'Olive Kitteridge,' HBO does what PBS should be doing

HBO again does the kind of great American drama PBS should be doing.

HBO's "Olive Kitteridge" opens with an older woman walking into the woods on a fall day. She is carrying a blanket, radio, envelope, revolver and one bullet.

She spreads the blanket on the ground, turns the radio to a classical station and places it on the blanket along with a sealed envelope that is addressed "To Whom It May Concern." Then she puts the bullet in the cylinder of the gun and looks up at the vast, distant, cold blue sky.

If this description of a possible suicide is turning you off, I can tell you right now "Olive Kitteridge" is not for you. Maybe something along the lines of "Family Guy" or "Sunday Night Football" would make for happier viewing.

But you should still know that "Olive Kitteridge" is the deepest, richest and most daring miniseries on American TV since "Mildred Pierce" in 2011 and "John Adams" in 2008. And as fine as the lead performances were by Kate Winslet in the former and Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney in the latter, none approaches the transcendent turn by Frances McDormand as Olive Kitteridge, the woman viewers see walking into the woods at the opening.

You should know as well that those two benchmark series also premiered on HBO, with "John Adams" produced by the same company that made "Olive Kitteridge," Tom Hanks' Playtone.

Those are not insignificant facts. They prompt a big question that has been rattling around in my head since I finished viewing the four-part miniseries: Why are great American stories like these being told on HBO, one of TV's most expensive subscription services, and not PBS, which is supposed to be the free public channel of American life?

A society is only as good as its finest stories. They embody and celebrate what is best about the culture and stir our collective imaginations as to what might be possible for us as a people. They also warn us about our worst tendencies and imagine the kinds of nightmares to which we might be collectively heading.

For all the change wrought by new media, TV is still the principal storyteller of American life, with prime-time audiences measured in the millions. And while PBS keeps its big-series focus on stories about British history and life, like "Downton Abbey," HBO has become our Theatre of Dionysus — for those who can afford the price of admission.

Hopefully, HBO's recent announcement that it plans to start streaming content, making it available to nonsubscribers, will result in some of the channel's programs being accessible to more Americans. But no digital business model, let alone one from a media corporation like Time Warner, is going to give great and exclusive content away for free, and "Olive Kitteridge" is in a league by itself when it comes to TV miniseries.

The two-night, four-hour production that airs Nov. 2 and 3 covers 25 years in the life of a middle-school teacher, Olive Kitteridge, and her husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins), a pharmacist in a small coastal town in Maine. They have one son, Christopher (John Gallagher Jr.).

The miniseries, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Elizabeth Strout, focuses on the marriage, a few locals like a young woman who works at Henry's pharmacy (Zoe Kazan), and a history of depression that runs through the Kitteridge family and the lives of some of their neighbors.

You might think of it at first as a New England version of Anne Tyler's "Breathing Lessons," but you'll quickly see that this HBO adaptation is far darker and deeper than the rendition of Tyler's book done in 1994 for "Hallmark Hall of Fame."

There is no leading character in this miniseries for whom life is a breeze or a joy. Everyone has dark nights of the soul, and the great undercurrent of dramatic tension in their lives is whether they will keep the demons at bay — or be led into the woods by them one fall day carrying a blanket and a pistol.

Exploring this slice of American life is rare enough for American TV. But building a four-hour production around a character like Olive is truly extraordinary. She is described in HBO press material as a woman whose "wicked wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart and staunch moral center."

That's true, as far as it goes, but she can also be downright unlikable, as when she slaps a 4-year-old boy in the face, steals one of her daughter-in-law's earrings on the young woman's wedding night, or tells her grown son, a podiatrist, that he's "not a real doctor." Brace yourself.

The one line that best embodies the essence of Olive comes in the last hour of the film when she meets a similarly depressed man (Bill Murray) while walking her ancient dog through the woods.

"I'm just waiting for the dog to die so I can shoot myself," she says by way of introduction. And how are you?

What fascinates me about Olive is her absolute refusal to tell herself or anyone she knows any pretty lies about their lives. There is no B.S. about her, and social niceties seem like something she's never considered.

The one bit of self-deception she allows herself is in her feelings for a fellow teacher at the middle school, Jim O'Casey (Peter Mullan). He drinks too much, chain-smokes and introduces his adolescent charges to lines of poetry like "Save us from shotguns & fathers' suicides" by John Berryman.

O'Casey is the more dangerous sexual path she didn't choose in life, but she's attracted and even flirty in her own no-nonsense way with him — even at school. Yet as she repeatedly mocks her kindhearted husband for his attraction to a young woman who works in his pharmacy, she never acknowledges her feelings for O'Casey while he's alive.

Ultimately, for me at least, the most attractive thing about Olive is how much she is unlike almost every other middle-aged and older woman on American TV. She wears no makeup or adornments, makes no effort to be liked, and seems not to care a whit about being fashionable or in the media know.

She makes Alicia (Julianna Margulies) of "The Good Wife" seem positively superficial, self-absorbed and sexually obsessed. She's a Puritan stranded in our media-saturated, plastic-surgery-loving, here's-my-latest-selfie world. Jane Anderson's screenplay and Lisa Cholodenko's direction skillfully delineate this difference in a series of wedding scenes that highlight the contrast between Olive and the phony, glossed-out California mother (Patricia Kalember) of the bride, who patronizes Olive at every turn.

McDormand, one of the finest actors to ever work in television, turns in the performance of her life. Joanne Woodward was outstanding in "Breathing Lessons," but even as she soared in the role, you felt you were watching an actress — albeit a great one — in a role.

Less than two minutes into McDormand's performance, you will forget about the actress altogether and start believing in the flesh-and-blood reality of Olive Kitteridge. Near the end of the film, you will feel as if you are walking into that woods with her — and that you understand, perhaps for the first time, what it is that leads some to want to take that walk.

I wish this kind of elevated TV experience with its keen insights into American life could be seen by everyone next week instead of only subscribers to premium TV. I wish we weren't such a TV nation divided by income and class.

For the record, a PBS spokeswoman answered my inquiry about American drama with an email saying that on the last two press tours, "PBS CEO Paula Kerger has made reference that PBS would like to add an American drama to the schedule, but we've not officially announced any productions."

If wishes were horses.

PBS can have Lady Mary and a good, long, continued wallow in Anglophilia forever and ever, amen. I'll save my praise for Olive Kitteridge and this splendid adaptation of a novel that speaks to the American soul, as dark as some corners of it might be.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

"Olive Kitteridge" airs at 9 p.m. Nov. 2 and 3.

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ON TV

"Olive Kitteridge" airs at 9 p.m. Nov. 2 and 3.

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