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Nobody is All Right: Lisa Cholodenko’s ‘The Slap’

Nobody is All Right: Lisa Cholodenko's 'The Slap'

After I got done making fun of its title, I finally sat down and watched the first two episodes of “The Slap,” a new NBC show which answers the question: What if somebody made a version of “Parenthood” where every single character is an asshole?

But wait — that somebody is Lisa Cholodenko, director of many good things, like the miniseries “Olive Kitteridge,” and “The Kids Are All Right,” and “Laurel Canyon,” and “High Art.” Pretty much everything Cholodenko touches ends up delightful, so I came to “The Slap,” which she executive-produced and directed the first episode of, with relatively high expectations. It’s adapted from an Australian miniseries based on an award-winning novel by Aussie author Christos Tsiolkas. The central premise: What happens, in modern society, when a man physically disciplines a child who is not his own? Given Americans’ never-ending and frequently rancorous debates over various schools of parenting, it certainly seems like a rich subject for adaptation over here.

The first episode, “Hector,” does not start out promisingly. A voiceover by Victor Garber and melancholy jazz music evoke “American Beauty”: “On the day before his 40th birthday, Hector Apostolou had only one thing on his mind: Connie.” Connie is not Hector’s (Peter Sarsgaard) wife, but their high-school-age babysitter. He’s thinking about having an affair with her. OH HOW ORIGINAL.

Hector’s wife, Aisha (Thandie Newton), is busy preparing his birthday party while he’s daydreaming about the teenager. Soon, their house is filled with family, both the actual and chosen sort. There’s Harry (Zachary Quinto), Hector’s hot-tempered cousin, and his wife and kid, as well as Anouk (Uma Thurman), Hector’s sister, and her younger actor boyfriend (Penn Badgley).

And then there’s their close friends Rosie (Melissa George) and Gary (Thomas Sadoski), the kind of couple who absolutely epitomize shitty Brooklyn parenting. Their child, Hugo, is a terror, trashing the house and yelling at the grownups and, finally, swinging a wooden bat menacingly at Harry’s son. (Plus, he’s in the four-year-old range and still nursing. Don’t get me started.)

Anyway, the Slap:

It’s to Cholodenko (and the source material)’s credit that there is no comfortable side to take in the aftermath. Quinto is jacked-up and terrifying — and a long way from Spock — as the hair-trigger Harry, and when Gary asks him, “Do you hit your wife?” it’s not hard to imagine the answer might be yes. And fundamentally, I imagine most of us come down more or less where Louis C.K. stands on the subject of whether parents should ever hit their own children. But still, that kid — what a terror. And we know these parents, especially if you live in the same precious NYC borough as this fictional family. We have all loathed them at one time or another, in a nice restaurant or on a plane or, if you’re really unlucky, in your own family.

But everything is so over-the-top in “The Slap” that I began to wonder whether it was actually intended more as dramedy than drama. Garber’s voiceover feels almost self-mocking, like something out of a Wes Anderson movie. The post-slap histrionics border on camp, and tonight’s episode, “Harry,” follows Quinto’s character as he goes through a day of being a jerk of cartoonish proportions to everyone he encounters: his wife, his son, his employees, his cousin, the parents of the slap-ee.

I’m glad to see next week’s episode will revolve around Uma Thurman, a talented actress in her forties who has openly said she’s not getting enough work. I’d like to see more of her character, a TV director (I think?) who’s involved with one of her actors and seems unfazed by the hoopla surrounding the main event.

Structurally, each episode of the eight that constitute this miniseries will follow a different character, and Cholodenko has certainly curated a watchable cast. Sarsgaard in particular brings as much nuance as he can to a cliched midlife crisis. But on the whole, the series seems, disappointingly, more cynical than her previous work. Even (or maybe especially) “Olive Kitteridge,” in its portrayal of a woman who refuses to dumb down her harsh observations of the world around her, humanized a type usually discarded by Hollywood as marginal at best.

Here, we see a cast of recognizable characters — all of us, I’m betting, know somebody who fits into one of these broad types — who never quite relax enough into being real people for us to sympathize with any of them. They’re unlikable people made more so upon further inspection, and the theatrical way they speak doesn’t help. As “Olive” demonstrated, a series doesn’t have to make its central characters nice or likable in order to succeed — but we do have to feel we can to some extent understand their actions. So far, “The Slap” just makes you want to… well, you know.

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