When I say my TV prayers, I ask for domestic dramas and low-concept series about more or less ordinary people and regular experiences — no sheriffs, no vampires. In that sense, my prayers have been answered with The Slap. But the TV gods are cruel and pedantic, and The Slap is a reminder that when you ask the universe to send you something, you have to be a little more specific. Send me something better next time, TV gods. Amen.
The show, premiering tonight on NBC at 8 p.m., gets its endlessly ridiculed name from a slap at a 40-year-old's birthday party. One overly indulged child is swinging a baseball bat and his drip parents don't respond, so the meanest dad from the rest of the bunch takes it upon himself to smack the kid, which is of course bad news all around. The moment is actually pretty well done, deeply evoking that awful desire many of us have had to strike a child — I'm not saying I ever would, and I don't think anyone ever should, but … let's not pretend the fleeting desire doesn't exist. I take the bus. I used to teach swimming. I've seen things. Kids are devils. And the kid character here who gets slapped is as awful as they come, plus his parents are all woo-woo Brooklyn bullshit, so it took all my strength not to reach into my TV and slap them myself. And I am a lover, not a fighter. (Am I even a lover? Mostly I sit still.) The moment of the slap comes as the party is just sucking and everyone is grumpy, and no one really wants to be there, and the one guy is having an affair, and the grandparents are too much, and the funky friend is over it, etc., etc., etc. I was impressed by how strong a get-me-out-of-here reaction the show was able to provoke in me. Chalk it up to director Lisa Cholodenko's knack for depicting the claustrophobia of polite socialization. It's very effective.
Less effective is everything else. Peter Sarsgaard stars as Hector, a city employee married to Thandie Newton's Aisha, a doctor; they have two kids, and their relationship is okay if stressed. It's partially stressed by Hector's dalliance with their teenage babysitter. Not cool, Hector. Hector's cousin Harry (Zachary Quinto, very scowly) is the brute of the family, and he's nasty to his wife and young son and everyone else around, so you know he's a genuine jerk. Uma Thurman is the artsy friend Anouk, who's a TV producer. Melissa George plays the slapee's mother Rose, reprising her role from the Australian miniseries on which the show is based; Thomas Sadoski is her husband Gary, and they are the extremely righteous, lethally irritating, doting bougie parents. Do you feel like you have a handle on the characters from these very brief descriptions? Well, guess what, you do! Because in the first two episodes of the show, everyone is exactly how they seem. He seems mean? He is mean. She seems naïve? She is naïve. They all seem like the kind of folks that make you want to burn rich-people Brooklyn to the ground and salt the earth so that nothing may grow? They are. Boy, oh boy, they are. The show's additionally hindered by a pointless voice-over and the kind of well-trodden clichés that turn characters into caricatures. Oh, he smokes cigarettes? Probably because of how sad he is. Let's listen to jazz.
This should all add up to a show I hate. And yet … I sort of like The Slap. It's not fully good by any means, but I will watch more episodes, and I'm interested how everything will get resolved. I'm more curious about the characters of The Slap than I am about the characters of, say, The Affair. I like the tension of domestic misery, and I like a show gutsy enough to be comfortable with viewers openly loathing most of its characters. I get why many people will straight-up abhor the show, and I don't begrudge them their hate boners for a second. But this is the kind of show I wished for, and even if a it's superficial and ultimately just so-so, it's a step/slap in the right direction.