NBC’s new eight-hour miniseries The Slap, based on an Australian miniseries of the same name that itself was based on a book by Christos Tsiolkas, is both encouraging and disappointing. It’s an ambitious leap for the network not only in its miniseries format, but also in the quality of its cast and direction. The biggest compliment it can be given, truthfully, is that it doesn’t feel like a broadcast series at all. At least, to a point.
The Slap follows the build-up to and repercussions of an event that occurs at a party: Hector (Peter Sarsgaard) is turning 40, and his wife Aisha (Thandie Newton) has organized a get together at their Brooklyn home that combines Hector’s close-knit Greek family, as well as the couple’s bourgeois friends.
Tensions are already high between Hector’s rich, hotheaded cousin Harry (Zachary Quinto) and their starving artist friend Gary (Thomas Sadoski), but that reaches a fever pitch when the proverbial slap takes place. Gary and his wife Rosie (Melissa George, reprising her Australian role) have a wild and completely out of control son who (after a number of transgressions throughout the afternoon) finally starts waving a bat around, which prompts Harry to grab him and deliver that slap, partially to protect his own son. From there, everything spirals even further out of control.
It’s a rich premise that has a lot of promise, especially in its desire to explore the parameters of what constitutes abuse, while also addressing class, background, and parenting. Unfortunately, the actual execution is not quite as solid. In each episode, The Slap takes on a different POV, in a desire to give deeper insight into each major character. The inaugural episode starts with Hector, going through a midlife crisis and contemplating an affair with a very willing (and very underaged) babysitter. In the second hour, the slapper, Harry, is shown to not just be a parent at his wit’s end, but a sleaze with a number of violent, quintessentially alpha male tendencies.
That doesn’t necessarily exonerate him or condemn him regarding his action, as Gary and Rosie are just as bad on the opposite side of the spectrum (Rosie breast-feeds the five-year-old child like Lysa Arryn from Game of Thrones; the kid even essentially gives us a “let the bad man fly!” line.) It’s just that all of these traits add up to a group of really unlikeable people, none of whom are particularly compelling. Though there is potential with some of the side characters (including Aisha and Anouk, played by Uma Thurman), The Slap also further muddies the waters by including a verbose and faintly amused narrator, who adds nothing, but detracts mightily from the experience.
Though the acting is excellent, and Lisa Cholodenko‘s (Olive Kitteridge) direction is gorgeous, the dialogue, coupled with the strange narration, starts to negate those positives. One can also feel the palpable fear of a broadcast exec who read the script and gave notes that, “things are too subtle! Make it more obvious!” That’s how we get lines like Harry’s lawyer telling him he won’t go to jail because “This is not how it works, my fellow one-percenter.”
Despite some of that heavy-handedness, the conversations and interactions are more often comfortably banal (and even recognizable within one’s own family and friend groups), which gives viewers a kind of fly-on-the-wall feeling; and there is a lot of value to be found in that kind of naturalistic storytelling. On the other hand, it can be incredibly irritating and tedious, especially when infused with baited drama — enough so that it’s timely to consider slapping just about everyone. Still, there’s something intriguing about The Slap and what NBC is trying to do with it, even if it’s not quite hitting the mark.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
The Slap premieres Thursday, February 12th at 8 p.m. on NBC.