When NBC announced plans for “The Slap,” it sounded like a joke, or possibly a James Franco art installation. A miniseries revolving around a man who slaps someone else's child at a backyard barbecue? That's the whole thing? Even upon learning that it was based on an Australian miniseries, which was in turn adapted from a book, it was hard to imagine that this was an actual thing the NBC television network was trying in the year 2015. On-air promos for the miniseries (which debuts tomorrow night at 8) play more like “SNL” parodies than ads for a real show.
Well, I am here to tell you that “The Slap” is not a joke. It is humorless, pretentious, a waste of a number of good performances, and about as subtle as its title action, but it is also very real.
Adapted from the Aussie miniseries by playwright and “Brothers & Sisters” creator Jon Robin Baitz, “The Slap” wants to be many things: a provocative discussion of modern parenting styles, a multi-layered character study, a commentary on marriage and economic inequality and the shortcomings of our legal system. But it approaches all these subjects in the loudest, most cliched and obnoxious way possible, so that the whole thing just becomes noise.
Each episode is told from the point of view of a different character, and we are first introduced to Hector Apostolou (Peter Sarsgaard), frustrated civil servant going through all the requisite motions of TV mid-life crises, short of buying a vintage sports car from his wealthy cousin Harry (Zachary Quinto). He's distant from his wife Aisha (Thandie Newton), flirting with their teenage babysitter Connie (Makenzie Leigh), and disappearing whenever possible into the sounds of his jazz record collection.
Sarsgaard is such a good actor that he nearly makes this collection of tropes work despite themselves, but as he listens to the jazz and we hear the ponderous, over-explanatory narration from actor Victor Garber, it becomes too many tics to ignore at once. The first episode suggests the jazz might simply be our way into Hector, but the soundtrack and overall presentation are identical in the Harry-centric second episode.
What's remarkable is that Hector is one of the show's more sympathetic characters. Harry's a smug rich guy with anger issues and a myopic worldview, while the hippie parents of the child he winds up slapping (played by Thomas Sadoski and, in a reprise of her performance from the Australian “Slap,” Melissa George) are such horrible, shrieking caricatures – George's Rosie still breastfeeds their horrible, undisciplined son even though he's of elementary school age – that the only thing to root for is for an outside party to come in and repeatedly slap all of them.
Obviously, there has to be some level of ambiguity for the story to work. If Harry strikes someone else's kid for no good reason, then he's just a monster and there's no show. But Baitz (and/or the source material) pushes things so far in the other direction that the question becomes less “Was he justified in slapping the kid?” than “Is this the single worst collection of human beings presented on network TV?”
In theory, telling each episode from the perspective of a different character allows the show to go deeper, and to question the assumptions we might make about a Harry, or a Rosie, when we see them initially through Hector's eyes. But the second episode pulls off the impressive feat of making Harry somehow more loathsome and less complex than he appeared as a supporting character in Hector's story. That episode, the last sent to critics, filled me with dread about what it might be like to sit through the inevitable hour about Rosie, and made me wonder if watching more of the show would make me turn against the few relatively innocuous characters like Aisha or her TV producer friend Anouk (Uma Thurman).
Between the narration and the ham-handed dialogue, Baitz makes sure no thematic point can possibly be missed. When Harry consults a lawyer about potential jail time from the slap, he's assured, “This is not how this works, my fellow one-percenter.” Later, Harry paints the whole situation as an indictment of America itself, ranting, “What's wrong with this country? The weak suing the strong?”
Baitz and director Lisa Cholodenko (“Olive Kitteridge”) have assembled a strong cast, and they get good performances out of them, even as each actor has to deliver lines that have been metaphorically highlighted, underlined and written in all caps, lest the audience risk not following. The first episode has some interesting moments, but also many annoying ones, and the second episode doubles down on the bad while leaving behind most of the good.
If there's ever an actual parody of “The Slap” – which would first require the show to be successful enough in a difficult and inappropriate timeslot (it's much more of a 10 o'clock drama) for someone to want to spoof it – I might want to check that out. The actual thing is too unpleasant to sit through unless Baitz borrows the slap countdown clock from “How I Met Your Mother” and promises us exactly when it will be each character's turn.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org