NBC’s new limited-run series, The Slap is an uncomfortable show about unpleasant people dealing with an unfortunate situation. It’s a tense show to watch, too, but it’s not without its merits. After one episode, it’s also done a remarkable job of dividing audiences fairly evenly, not by creating characters who are equally sympathetic, but by creating characters who are symmetrically loathsome.
You might, on first blush, completely dismiss the series based on the premise — how are they possibly going to build 8 episodes around a single slap? — but it is based on a very well-received novel and Australia has already produced the same series, which received acclaim in both Australia and several other European countries where it’s already aired.
Crucial to its success, I think, is the casting of Melissa George as the mother of the slapped in both the Australian series and, again, in the American one. All things considered, she doesn’t have a huge role in the pilot, but it is a pivotal one: She’s the type of permissive mother that’s hard not to dislike. Her child has never been disciplined in his life, so the kid has no reluctance about throwing an IPad when he doesn’t get his way, about digging up a garden when he’s bored, or about carelessly swinging a baseball bat around when other children are present. And what does his mom do when he acts out? She nurses him. He’s a five or six year old kid, so seeing his outbursts mollified in such a way is obviously going to push some buttons for some people, for better or worse.
On the other hand, there’s the slapper, a temperamental, jocular asshole played by Zachary Quinto. He is disagreeable, and has fundamental philosophical differences with the father of the slapped (played by The Newsroom’s Thomas Sadoski). Still, when the bratty child kicks Quinto in the shin for taking the baseball bat away from him, there’s a split-second where we in the audience feel some sympathetic satisfaction: That goddamn kid deserved it. But it lasts only a split second before we’re overcome with shame and self-revulsion.
That’s the difference between those of us in the audience and Zachary Quinto’s character, however. He has no regrets. He shows no remorse. He doubles down, yelling at the wailing mother that the kid deserved it, and that it was her fault for being a “hippy pig” that raised such a permissive child.
And so our allegiances might shift back to the mother, if not for the fact that she treats her child — who isn’t seriously harmed by the slap — like a blameless victim who was simply minding his own business. It’s true! No kid should ever be slapped! But it’s also true that her child is a monster and there is no one to blame but the shitty parents.
It’s that slap that sets the stage for the family drama that will unspool over the next seven episodes, as mother of the slapped presses charges against the slapper and the family members take sides. The dividing point is not likely to be “Did the child deserved to be slapped?” but does the Slapper — Zachary Quinto’s character — deserve to go to prison for it? I don’t know that he does, but he’s such a reprehensible asshole that it wouldn’t upset us if he were.
Meanwhile, the slap itself is just the powder keg that sets off a war among family members, who are already ill at ease with one another. This first episode is seen from the perspective of Hector (Peter Sarsgaard), whose 40th birthday party is the setting for The Slap. Hector seems to have it all — the perfect wife, two great children, and a financially secure job — but he’s having a sort of mid-life crisis. He’s infatuated with the teenage babysitter with whom he nearly has an affair, but he is rescued from himself by The Slap. That which motivated him to nearly step outside his marriage, however, is not likely to go away, nor will the tension between him and a wife (Thandie Newton) that he often finds too controlling, too overbearing.
There are other factors at play here, as well. Uma Thurman’s character is dating a man much younger than her, played by Penn Badgley, who may have a thing for the same babysitter that Hector nearly slept with. The meddling old-school Greek parents are also likely to further divide the family in order to protect their son.
What’s interesting is that the series is shot by director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright, Laurel Canyon) in bright lights to look something like an episode of Parenthood. The family structure is also similar to that NBC family drama, and if these characters were warmer, more compassionate people and the soundtrack featured more Ray Lamontagne, it’d be easy to confuse the two shows. But where Parenthood is about good people trying to do good things, The Slap is about an unlikable family trying to get away with their shitty, narcissistic behaviors. It’s an interesting series, but it’s not an enjoyable one.