One of the best devices for a TV series (or film, or book, or play, or any other thing one must sit through for longer than a few minutes) is that of the will-they/won’t-they. It’s a timeless dynamic. It provides the backbone for shows in ways we expect, like on Cheers, The Office, Friends, and in ways we don’t expect, where an action implies something further between two characters we didn’t think would ever be linked in that way — I think of Will & Grace, a show about two best friends, a gay man and a straight woman, who over the course of the series share such intimate moments that they create and then inhabit a grey area. I absolutely believed they would get together by the end, despite all evidence to the contrary.
And so what happens when the will-they/won’t-they is over long before the series begins? What happens when we follow a married couple?
There are a few ways to make a relationship and / or marriage interesting. I think of Mad Men, where the relationship between Don Draper and Betty Draper is rocky from the start, and we wonder how bad it might actually become, or of The Americans, two Russian spies, forced to marry to blend in with other Americans, even though there’s no love there. The Americans is kind of a cheating case though, because once we learn the two are in a loveless marriage — not one that had love and lost it, but one without from the start — we wonder when that aspect will enter into it.
Inevitably, no matter how good the writing, the marriage versions of the will-they/won’t-they compared to the single versions always come up short; disappointing, deflating.
I felt all of this nagging at me as I finished the first episode of the incredible HBO adaptation Olive Kitteridge. Luckily, almost as quickly as the questions had come, they were answered. The relationship must not only have problems, but it must be complex, and it must be played by actors capable of layered performances, given a lot of room to breathe and stretch their legs.
The titular Olive Kitteridge (played by the perpetually underrated Frances McDormand) is simultaneously cold, messy, and proper, and she makes for a compelling character considering how poorly she treats those around her, especially her husband, her other half, the one that balances her mercurial personality with a steady, calming voice, and a face capable only of expressions of quiet understanding, forgiveness, and gratitude.
While McDormand has an affinity for playing fast talking, well-meaning but ultimately damaging maternal figures (think of her in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous), the characters usually come off as grating; the way she strains her voice, keeps her cards close to her chest… but McDormand is capable of more, really the opposite. Think of — SPOILERS — the tender end of Fargo, where she nestles under the sheets next to her husband, still so, so pregnant, and we drift off into the credits, leaving the characters to wonder on the next two months before delivery.
Here, McDormand uses the traits found in her Fargo and Almost Famous performances to create her most challenging, absorbing character to date; however, without actor Richard Jenkins, it may have gone to waste.
Jenkins’ character, Henry Kitteridge, never strays from his marriage to Olive. He’s a good man. He makes it his business to help people, even strangers — to a fault, in Olive’s opinion. These differences in beliefs are why this marriage is so compelling. They fill in spots in personality for one another. We learn a lot more about Henry when Olive does something than when Henry does something, and vice versa. It’s the reactions to decisions, big and small, that are the most telling.
Too often married couples become one, indistinct mega-character. Although it may be unfair to compare such a serious project as this to a comedy, I think Lily and Marshall from How I Met Your Mother are an example of a failure to keep a TV marriage interesting. In the first two seasons, the couple experiences problems that stem organically from their individual selves, but later they become so inextricably tied to one another that it becomes a running joke — which is one way to deal with a shortcoming, I guess.
Luckily, here, the writers don’t have to resort to that. The four plodding, hour-long episodes of Olive Kitteridge span decades, and allow McDormand, Jenkins, and the writers to craft a relationship with so much depth that series with multiple seasons pale in comparison.