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The Slap makes you want to slap it and every character that’s a part of it. That can’t be the strategy, can it?
NBC’s big swing of a miniseries has a lot of superb actors and a wonderful director, and it’s hoping to re-create the success of the book by Christos Tsiolkas and the Australian series of the same name, but there are egregious problems at the core of the first two episodes that NBC sent to critics. It’s an agitating piece of work by design, hoping to prompt conversation and create first impressions that it might later be able to subvert, but the takeaway is that none of the characters are particularly likeable, a large portion of the audience will probably want to slap the kid in question before he actually gets slapped and the voiceover narration is so god-awful it seems like a prank.
Yes it’s an all-too-easy joke but, holy hell, you really do want to slap the crap out of so many of these characters and, three or four times in rapid succession, the narrator.
In fact, I made the conscious effort to watch the first two episodes on separate nights just in case whatever irritations of life I’d experienced on the day I watched the first episode were missing the following day and thus might change my view of the show.
A perfectly normal low-stress second day was met with supreme irritation upon watching the second episode — and the cheesy, overbearing narration that ends that particular episode created a near apoplectic reaction.
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But maybe that’s the plan? Maybe Jon Robin Baitz (Brothers and Sisters), who wrote the pilot, wanted to stir things up because the entire miniseries only runs eight hours and things have to move briskly? There’s certainly a short-cut mentality that plagues The Slap, which is that characters seem fully formed to push particular buttons. But this heavy-handedness doesn’t just cement a character’s traits, it hardens the audience against them.
The Slap centers around Hector (Peter Sarsgaard, Blue Jasmine) and his wife, Aisha (Thandi Newton, Beloved). He’s a civil servant working in New York and she’s a doctor. They have kids. They seem normal and happy. In the first few minutes, all we know is that he didn’t get a promotion he was hoping for and she’s very busy at her new clinic, but not so busy that she can’t throw a big party for his 40th birthday.
(Granted, the nosy narrator is telling viewers more than this, but his overwritten, flowery take on the action onscreen will cause eye-rolls as you listen.)
At Hector’s birthday bash are his mostly overbearing Greek parents, Manilos (Brian Cox) and Koula (Maria Tucci); his cousin Harry (Zachary Quinto) and Harry’s wife, Sandi (Marin Ireland); friends Rosie (Melissa George) and Gary (Thomas Sadoski) and their incredibly annoying and poorly behaved son, Hugo (Dylan Schombing), who will be the one on the receiving end of that slap.
Also in attendance are longtime friend Anouk (Uma Thurman), her boy-toy boyfriend Jamie (Penn Badgley), plus babysitter Connie (Makenzie Leigh) and her photographer friend, Ritchie (Lucas Hedges).
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It’s a big party. There are others. But these are the main players. Thanks to the narrator, we know that Hector has been having some dirty thoughts about Connie, the babysitter, who also happens to work at wife Aisha’s clinic. The two are flirting pretty openly at the party when Hugo, busy swinging a baseball bat at other kids, is confronted by an angry Harry. Hugo kicks Harry, Harry slaps Hugo, and we have our title.
Now, it’s important to know what The Slap has done to this point before the powder keg explodes because it tells you a lot about the hard sell coming up.
The series paints Harry as a rich jerk with a temper problem. He freely calls himself a “1 percenter,” because don’t they all? We see Hugo doing all kinds of annoying crap like taking Hector’s beloved jazz albums and using them as Frisbees before going out in the backyard and literally ripping up all the plants. Meanwhile, his mother Rosie does nothing except breast feed him despite his advanced age. Gary, the father, tries to tell Hugo not to, you know, be a spoiled prick, but he says it all weakly and Hugo ignores him and is rewarded with more mother’s milk in front of everyone.
Ah, but before Harry takes matters into his own hands, we have to learn that Gary, an artist, can’t stand Harry because he’s rich. How we discover this is no credit to Gary, whose holier than thou attitude toward Harry only reinforces the notion that both men need a good hard slapping, or punching, of their own.
Having not read the book or seen the Australian version, I can’t say whether deliberately making everyone a jerk is a new twist. But Baitz sure does make everyone a jerk, and drops an anvil on our heads in case their jerkiness is not clear. In the early going, few of the main characters are allowed to be sympathetic. Sure, Harry’s turning the big 4-0 and he just missed out on a promotion, but that’s not enough cause to screw the babysitter, right? So we need to see that Aisha might be a little overwhelmed with her new job and thus is not putting out. And when Hector’s parents buy everybody tickets to Greece so the kids can see the homeland before it’s too late, Aisha throws a very loud tantrum about not being able to go and how she should have been asked in advance, etc. And maybe she has a point, but this otherwise loving and nice woman has to explode and set Hector’s party on edge because how can we otherwise go along with Hector having eyes for young Connie?
Everything about The Slap feels manipulated — you can smell the smoke off the puppet strings as the characters are jerked into being jerks. And that’s just the pilot.
The anvil drops more often and with more velocity in the second episode, whe we learn that Harry not only yells at his kid during sports (to be more selfish and go for the kill, of course) but also has given Sandi reason to fear his wrath — he even starts choking her when he’s upset. Also, he’s having an affair.
Pushed by Hector to meet with Rosie and Gary and the brat Hugo to offer up an apology he doesn’t want to give — so as to avoid a lawsuit and a headache for the family — Harry then becomes the good guy (or the good enough guy), sucks it up and apologizes to Gary and Rosie. But — you knew there would be a but — Rosie become an unreasonable crazy person and lashes out at Harry after mocking his apology. She’s an awful person, too, of course, and with the aging Hugo still being breastfed in front of Harry, Rosie accuses him of beating his own kid and his wife, too.
It’s right about here — right before the narrator comes on to hammer down the last few nails — where you’ll want to leave all of these stupid people to their trumped-up drama and move on. It’s manipulative nonsense at this point. Maybe the number of over-the-top reactions will drop as the other six episodes unspool, but there’s not an ounce of an indication that’s likely to happen.
And then the voiceover kicks in, so utterly out of place and thematically wrong, and all you want to do is slap the unseen man’s mouth so that he can’t speak another idiotic word.
Whatever The Slap may have been in previous iterations, it’s flat-out annoying in this one. And if you’ve got eight hours to waste on it, you’re a Zen master.
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