Frances McDormand Frances McDormand

To know Olive Kitteridge is not easy. Many would likely argue it's not worth the risk of being exposed to her harsh, judgmental New Englander's scorn. Suffer fools gladly? Not this curmudgeonly math teacher who, when her husband insists she's not depressed, snaps back, "Yes, I am. Happy to have it. Comes with being smart." Prompting her long-suffering son to wonder, "Is that why you're so mean all the time?"

And yet, in HBO's oddly moving and melancholy-shrouded two-night adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer-winning novel Olive Kitteridge (Sunday-Monday, 9/8c), a remarkable Frances McDormand makes Olive a fascinating, tragicomic study in human stubbornness, contrariness and contradiction. Suspicious of anyone's happiness, let alone her own, she is to be feared, but also maybe pitied — though heaven help you if you show even a trace of patronizing compassion.

Director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Emmy-winning writer Jane Anderson (The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom) take their time, over four engrossing episodic hours, to create a full, believable world around Olive. It's like an astringent Our Town in a coastal Maine hamlet, viewed through a misanthrope's prism. [Thinking back over HBO's recent miniseries history, I wish they'd given this project six hours and cut the plodding Mildred Pierce back to four, if that.]

McDormand is wondrous, matched by a splendid supporting cast. As Olive's kindly pharmacist husband, Six Feet Under's Richard Jenkins is heartbreakingly affecting, especially when he dotes on a naïve employee (touching Zoe Kazan) whom Olive considers a pathetic mouse, and The Newsroom's John Gallagher Jr. scores as her estranged son. They're Olive's greatest victims, often neglected while she nurtures her garden and tends to the town's most damaged souls (including Rosemarie DeWitt and Gotham's Cory Michael Smith in haunting cameos).

Toward the end, Bill Murray shines as a widower who attempts to befriend the similarly lonely Olive. Anyone expecting a traditional sentimental ending will be, in Olive's words, "in for one big fat disappointment." Which Olive Kitteridge, for all of its strange and sad prickliness, is anything but.

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THE TRYST:
Showtime's mesmerizing The Affair takes a leap forward and tweaks its he-said/she-said format in a pivotal fourth episode (Sunday, 10/9c) that focuses entirely on Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson). They've been dancing around their dangerous mutual — and extramarital — attraction for some time, but the opportunity to enjoy a day trip together on Block Island, a ferry ride away from Montauk, allows them to learn much more about each other while deciding how far to take their secret relationship.

Psychologically acute, emotionally revealing, and very well acted, this extraordinarily (and sometimes uncomfortably) intimate hour unfolds in a more linear fashion than in previous episodes. Instead of repeating the same events from his and her angles, the action is continuous, although again divided between Noah's and then Alison's perspective. Since we already know we can't entirely rely on their memories (which don't always match up in the retelling), it's especially startling when during one of many fraught moments, Alison erupts in a rant: "Trust you? Are you insane? Why would I do that? You're a married man with four kids who's cheating on his wife!"

The Affair never pretends this situation isn't complicated, or messy, or free of ambivalence and pain even when the participants succumb to torrid passion and need. Neither lover is under any illusion that they'll leave their spouses because of this transgression, and as Allison ominously informs Noah, "I won't rescue you from anything. You're going to be sorry you ever met me." (The police interrogation that provides the show's framework reinforces her dour premonition.) Where this Affair is actually heading is anyone's guess, but the journey has so far been wonderfully provocative.

THE WEEKEND GUIDE: One of the most gorgeous performance spaces in all of New York City has reopened, and PBS's Michael Feinstein at the Rainbow Room (Friday, 9/8c, check tvguide.com listings) celebrates that event with an hour of American Songbook classics interpreted by the pianist-singer and guests including Christine Ebersole, Cheyenne Jackson and American Idol's Jessica Sanchez. ... NBC's Constantine introduces the demon-fighting title character (likeably scruffy Matt Ryan) to a new female ally, Zed (Angélica Celaya), as he protects a Pennsylvania mining town from an ancient Welsh spirit. (Ryan being Welsh may give him an advantage this week.) ... Beware the Cybermen, as BBC America's Doctor Who (Saturday, 9/8c) airs Part 1 of its season finale, concluding next week. ... Starz's The Chair (Saturday, 11/10c) is also nearing its end, with the rival filmmakers entering the editing phase of their movie projects in the penultimate episode. A winner will be announced next Saturday. ... Major headliners on NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30c), as Chris Rock returns to host after 18 years, with Prince as musical guest. ... Making a most welcome return to TV on a deservedly great series: Frasier's David Hyde Pierce, starting a recurring role on CBS's The Good Wife (Sunday, 9:30/8:30c) as a TV legal analyst who may become a factor in Alicia's campaign for State's Attorney. Hard to predict which of these great talents would get my vote.

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