February 13, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “The Slap”


THE SLAP:  Thursday 8PM on NBC – Potential DVR Alert

THE SLAP is strikingly different from everything else on broadcast television–it’s unusual even by cable standards, with an indie film, non-genre mindset that brings little to mind beyond Showtime’s The Affair and HBO’s Togetherness (and even The Affair has its flash-forward murder plot to help carry it along).  It’s admirable that NBC ordered the 8-hour miniseries, although it’s fairly clear the network doesn’t really know what to do with it now:  it’s been shoved into an 8PM slot beside two thrillers, The Blacklist and Allegiance, with which it has little compatibility.  You can’t really blame NBC, though, since it would be hard to find a place on any network where a dissection of family, class and manners like The Slap would belong.

The project, based on an Australian novel and TV series, has pedigree to spare.  The US version has been co-created by playwright Jon Robin Baitz (who was also briefly the creator/showrunner of Brothers and Sisters) with movie producer Walter F. Parkes, and it’s been directed by Lisa Cholodenko, whose films include The Kids Are All Right, and whose last TV work was the exquisite HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge.  There’s not a weak name in the cast, which includes Peter Sarsgaard, Zachary Quinto, Uma Thurman, Brian Cox, Thomas Sadoski, Melissa George, Thandie Newton, Marin Ireland and Maria Tucci (with narration by Victor Garber).  All of this firepower may lead viewers–however many there may be of them–to expect a depth and intensity that The Slap, at least in its first hour, doesn’t quite provide.  Nevertheless, the opening installment is intriguing enough to be worthy of a return visit.

Cholodenko’s work on Olive Kitteridge was a masterpiece of tone, bringing so many nuances of drama and comedy to the small story of a New England schoolteacher and her family that its six hours positively took flight.  The Slap is similarly confined to domestic matters, but it doesn’t kick off with that same sense of control.  The basic premise is not dissimilar from the recent Tony-Award winning play God of Carnage (filmed by Roman Polanski simply as Carnage).  The cosmopolitan setting this time is gentrified Brooklyn, where a group of friends and relatives have gathered for mid-level city official Hector’s (Sarsgaard) 40th birthday party.  A multitude of tense undercurrents flow throughout the supposed celebration, not least of them from morose Hector, who is dallying with the youthful Connie (Makenzie Leigh) almost under his doctor wife Aisha’s (Newton) nose, and who found out in the opening minutes–but hasn’t told Aisha–that he didn’t get the big promotion he was expecting.  Add to that the macho aggression of Hector’s car salesman cousin Harry (Quinto), the stress between Aisha and Hector’s old-school Greek mother Koula (Tucci), the arrival of genially stoned TV producer Anouk (Thurman) with her latest boy-toy Jamie (Penn Badgley), and the smarmy hipster mannerisms of painter Gary (Sadoski) and his wife Rosie (George), and–well, it’s not a party until something gets broken, and in this case it’s everyone’s composure, when a party guest has finally had enough of Gary and Rosie’s bratty son and, you know, slaps him.  That slap, as you’d expect, it meant to send ripples throughout all the characters and the entire series.

What The Slap lacks, at least in its opening hour, is a clear point of view–and since the show’s concept is that each episode will focus on a different character, that’s a problem that may not end up solved.  The premiere is meant to be Hector’s hour, but despite Baitz’s intelligent writing and Sarsgaard’s expert performance, the birthday boy is never terribly interesting, and even with the spare commentary of the narrator (more smug than satiric), it’s difficult to tell whether we’re supposed to see Hector as a relatable portrait of angst or a figure of fun.  His mid-life lech for the hot young girl comes closer to cliché than the titular relationship of The Affair, in which both the lovers have plenty of baggage.  Characters like the patronizing artiste and the grandmother who speaks mostly in subtitles (like the one on Jane the Virgin) are overly broad and familiar as well.  While the schoolyard fight that provoked the action in God of Carnage was meant to comically unleash the savagery barely concealed within its pair of sophisticated, civilized couples, here the slap is in danger of leading to nothing but low-key soap opera.

Despite the limitations of its first hour, The Slap is very watchable, and something almost never seen on network television:  brave.  It certainly deserves the chance to prove that its affectations will be justified by substance, and that its splendid cast will have a significant amount to do.  For that matter, the network that ordered it deserves that as well.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."