With “The Slap,” a star-studded miniseries intending to provoke thought and incite debate, NBC has thrown their hat into the “prestige limited series” game currently dominated by HBO (“Olive Kitteridge,” “True Detective”) and SundanceTV (“Top of the Lake,” “The Honorable Woman”). It stars, among others, Uma Thurman, Peter Sarsgaard, Zachary Quinto and Thandie Newton; is directed by Oscar nominee Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”); and is adapted from an acclaimed Australian series (of the same name) by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, who also created ABC’s soapy family drama “Brothers and Sisters.” That mix seems an ideal basis for a well-acted, perceptive family drama, or in other words, exactly what “The Slap” wants to be.
Baitz’s adaptation shares the same structure, characters and thematic underpinnings as the original Australian production. In his opening episode, family and friends gather for Hector’s (Sarsgaard’s) 40th birthday party, with adults swigging wine and children playing in the backyard. When Hugo, the misbehaving child of pacifist parents Rosie (Melissa George, reprising her role from the original series) and Gary (Thomas Sadoski of “The Newsroom”), begins to recklessly swing around a baseball bat, Hector’s cousin Harry (Quinto) races down to put a stop to it. Hugo kicks Harry after being scolded, and Harry nastily returns the favor with a vicious slap across the face. From there, “The Slap” kicks off a contemporarily-focused study of family, class and parenting, with each episode centering on a particular character as Rosie and Gary prepare to sue the man who hit their son.
It’s a provocative, salable premise for NBC to work with. Last spring, the network reworked the horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby” as a prestige miniseries, with Zoe Saldana starring and Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland (“In Darkness”) directing. It was NBC’s first attempt at the limited run in quite some time, and the results were rather disastrous: The mini earned a pitiful 31 perecent score on Rotten Tomatoes, and barely touched a 1.0 ratings share in the key 18-49 demo.
“The Slap’s” premiere slightly edged out “Rosemary’s Baby” in terms of viewership and critical acclaim, but reception in both areas remains tepid when considered in a broader context. It’s not a critical darling or awards player like “Olive Kitteridge,” nor is it even close to being a commercial hit. Rather, “The Slap” is hovering awkwardly, and sort of lifelessly, in the middle: it’s a firm example of broadcast’s failure to imitate cable.
An immediate divide between “The Slap” and other highly-touted miniseries of its kind comes through when focusing on respective levels of subtlety and nuance. Though essential to the qualitative value of limited series such as “Olive Kitteridge,” “Top of the Lake” and Starz’s “The Missing,” these storytelling elements were thrown around by reviewers in a negative context when writing about “The Slap.”
“[It’s] provocative, all right,” began James Poniewozik’s review for Time Magazine. “But it’s as subtle as a smack across the chops.” He’s not wrong. The way Baitz frames Hector’s midlife crisis, or Harry’s entitlement, or Rosie’s hands-off parenting style is all so stiff and obvious that even actors as talented as the ones here fail to extend beyond the archetypes drawn out for them. Who is to blame, exactly — either Baitz, NBC or some combination of the two — remains to be seen, but there is one blameless actor: the original miniseries.
As noted earlier, the two productions are ostensibly quite similar. Baitz’s alterations are less overarching and more specific. The “slap” delivered in the Australian version is about one-third as intense. Victor Garber narrates over the NBC production, a device borrowed from the original but used far more frequently and less elegantly here. The setting goes from suburban Australia to bourgeois Brooklyn. The initial conception of Harry (played originally by Alex Dimitriades) is still a puffed-up hothead, but unlike Baitz’s version, he’s not going around ranting about the one-percent and the Iraq War and the Nazis; rather, he’s wrestling with his father’s ghost and his own internal demons.
A particular example of this phenomenon surrounds the first episode’s narrative: though the primary conflict begins and ends in the same place, the two versions take very different journeys. Hector’s wife Aisha (Newton) is introduced in NBC’s adaptation as profoundly, sexually distanced from her husband; the Australian Aisha (a superb Sophie Okonedo), conversely, is open, her exhaustion and prickliness balanced by an emotional and sexual connection to Hector. And though Sarsgaard’s Hector has just lost out on a big promotion, the original material situates him comfortable in all areas of his life, without any mention of work or sexual frustration.
In both accounts, we begin by learning that Hector is having an affair with a 17 year-old. But while the original material keeps the circumstances and the psychology ambiguous and interpretive, Baitz lays out a series of indicators for his audience — wife sexually uninterested; kids constantly fighting; work taking him for granted — as if he’s building to a, “So, that’s why he’s having an affair!” moment. In other words, the exterior of the first episode is no different between the two miniseries; it’s in the level of trust with the audience where the adaptation goes astray.
Broadly, Baitz’s version of “The Slap” takes a look at a particular moment in our country, analyzing our current relationships to various nationalistic values. It’s a more direct conceit than what the Australian version contends with, and it’s ultimately a less fruitful one. Everything here is calculated and styled to fit the theme. Consider Harry’s ridiculously hammy line of dialogue to his lawyer: “What’s wrong with this country? The weak suing the strong for being strong!” Or how Harry and Rosie are introduced: Harry is discussing the necessity of the Iraq War by his third line of dialogue, while Rosie is publicly breastfeeding and isolated from the party before even getting a chance to speak. They fit into the conflict, rather than into characters. It’s particularly interesting to watch George since she’s playing the same character through two different visions. She’s afforded more humanity in the original, with Rosie introduced first as a close friend to Aisha, gossiping and helping with the food. The bones of her character remain the same, but Baitz renders her behavior more severe and less complex. In effect, we’re meeting a caricature, not a person.
“The Slap,” in its original form, tells its story in part through the profane language and sexual relationships of its characters. These elements give us a more holistic grasp on the world and its inhabitants, an instant advantage over a broadcast network like NBC. But, frankly, it’s the least of what is missing here.
A huge creative change comes in episode two, as Baitz decides to double-down on the rigid conflict he’s laid out by pushing ahead the episode that is told from Harry’s point-of-view. Originally, the subsequent episode examines Anouk (the brilliant Essie Davis of “The Babadook” in the original; Thurman in NBC’s), a close friend of Aisha and Rosie’s who works as a television writer. Here, the Australian “Slap” aggressively changes gears, with mentions of the pilot’s events only sporadic. It’s a beautifully-executed character study, digging deep into an ordinary person’s life as she juggles a demanding job, a much-younger boyfriend and a sick mother in need of her care. Not only does it substantially expand the scope and reach of “The Slap,” but it casts Rosie in a completely different light as she looks after Anouk’s mother and confides in her friends and family.
NBC’s adaptation may faithfully redo this episode later on, but it barely even matters. Their second episode only makes the lawsuit more of a focal point, pitting the “one-percenter” Harry against the hippie-ish Rosie and Gary with more force and (even) less subtlety. It casts both of them in an irredeemably unsympathetic light, with Harry monstrous on one end and Rosie cartoonish on the other.
Quality cable television is provocative and often very current, yes, but it also understands the value of nuance and character. NBC gives a group of great actors room to chew on big moments, and they all do so with aplomb (Quinto, in particular, is impressively transformative). But Baitz and the network have essentially adapted a plot-light study of character, culture and family, and turned it into a – as NBC’s promotional material suggested – “Who’s side are you on?” conversation piece. Part of this problem traces back to Baitz’s past work – his most recent play, “Other Desert Cities,” consists mainly of Republican parents simplistically arguing with their New York-liberal daughter, while “Brothers & Sisters” is more obviously no bastion of restraint either.
But it’s also a pervasive problem with broadcast network drama. There’s a lack of trust in ambiguity, and a forcefulness in the conveyance of ideas. Recently, Fox failed to deliver on its remake of the hit British series “Broadchurch,” while CBS failed on all counts with “Hostages,” a limited-run political thriller starring Toni Collette. These shows, and so many others like them, are injected with traits of a cable drama – esteemed cast/crew, limited run of episodes, potent thematic premise – but ultimately flail under the broadcast model where edges are softened. The hour-long programs succeeding creatively on networks right now are subverting genres that have long been associated with broadcast: the night-time soap (“Empire”), the legal procedural (“The Good Wife”), the young adult drama (“Jane the Virgin”).
“The Slap” is NBC’s latest stab at a prestigious, cable-like series, but the Peacock’s drama department has been especially creatively and commercially misguided of late, from “Allegiance” to “The Mysteries of Laura” to “State of Affairs.” It’s understandable why they’d want to give this a go, even after the “Rosemary’s Baby” fiasco. But time and again, we’re reminded that shows of cable-level complexity, ambiguity and serialization don’t translate to the broadcast model. “The Slap” isn’t terrible, but it’s hardly what it could or should be (or was, originally), and the mixed critical reaction and lukewarm viewership numbers affirm that. It’s not what NBC needs. They wanted to put out a show that got people thinking and talking about real people, but by intently focusing on “The Slap”‘s tantalizingly sellable premise, Baitz and NBC have removed the element most essential to its value. That’s the tragic irony: “The Slap,” in broadcast form, is an exercise in humanism without the realism.