Saturday, February 21, 2015

Slap-Happy: NBC's The Slap

Zachary Quinto in The Slap.

The Slap is a title that gets right to the point of a limited-run NBC series – only eight episodes – about the dysfunctional dynamic of several families gathered for a Brooklyn birthday party. Perhaps this new drama should be called The Blink, as in blink and you’ll miss it. Which would be a shame, given the stellar cast and a timely premise: In an age of permissive helicopter parents, what happens when a child of about six, still being breast-fed and bearing the burden of a name like Hugo, is disciplined by another kid’s father for unruly behavior? That slapper is Harry (the always fascinating Zachary Quinto), a working class guy with a short fuse. He’s the cousin of Hector (Peter Sarsgaard, also a gem of an actor), an urban planner who is turning 40, has not gotten an anticipated promotion and is experiencing a mid-life crisis mostly geared to fantasies about a flirtatious teenage babysitter, Connie (Makenzie Leigh, Gotham). His wife Aisha (Thandie Newton) is a doctor; they have two biracial children. Add to the mix a Greek immigrant generation, a paternal grandpa and grandma portrayed by Brian Cox and Maria Tucci, critical of their daughter-in-law’s 21st-century feminist ways. The slapped brat in question (Dylan Schombing) is coddled by his dad, Gary (Thomas Sadoski, The Newsroom), a struggling artist type resentful of Garry’s nouveau riche status thanks to a lucrative high-end car dealership. The nursing mom, Rosie (Melissa George, The Good Wife) seems to think of Hugo as a misunderstood genius.

Other friends at the festivity include a TV writer, Anouk (Uma Thurman, causing a media stir because her looks may have been altered by plastic surgery). She’s accompanied by a thespian boy toy, Jaime (Penn Badgley, Gossip Girl on the CW network). The babysitter shows up, as well, with nerdy Ritchie (Lucas Hedges), who happens to have a camera quickly commandeered to take photos of the partygoers. Will those snapshots document the one-handed slap-shot and later be considered evidence? Harry’s impulsive actions are slated to become the focus of a criminal lawsuit as the abbreviated season continues. This remake of a 2011 Australian TV program, itself adapted from a 2008 novel by Christos Tsiolkas, is written by Jon Robin Baitz (Brothers and Sisters, ABC). Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright, 2010) directed the pilot, when it quickly becomes clear that everyone at the backyard barbecue will be caught in between the Harry-Gary feud and feel pressured to choose sides. At Hector’s urging, Harry tries to make peace, an effort that badly backfires because none of the antagonists are willing to let go of their recriminations. Rosie, previously soft-spoken, suddenly emerges as a nasty piece of work. So it’s not just the macho imperative at fault. (Melissa George inhabited the same role in the Aussie production.)

Thomas Sadoski, Melissa George and Thandie Newton in The Slap.

The Slap bears a strong resemblance to Yasmina Reza’s Gods of Carnage, a Broadway production with James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis that earned Tony awards for best play, director (Matthew Warchus) and actress (Harden). That, in turn, was adapted as a movie, Carnage, with Roman Polanski at the helm. The cinematic version presented four people – Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet – who descend into fury while trying make amends for the rage of their respective offspring involved in a playground squabble. The Slap has many more characters but both are set in the same New York borough. Oh, Brooklyn! You are such a breeding ground for American angst, Girls on HBO being another prime example of how humanity can disintegrate in the paradise of hipsterville. And only a decade ago Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) on Sex and the City expressed such dismay about being exiled to the Clinton Hill neighborhood when Manhattan was still considered the only cool place to live.While a resident of Clinton Hill in 1885 poet Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, including this passage: “Stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!/ Throb, baffled and curious brain!” Baffled and curious brains abound in The Slap, as events spiral out of control due to folly, ego, envy, misplaced trust and too much distrust.

As of this date – February 21 – the first two installments of the eight-hour series have been broadcast. Each week zeroes in on the perspective of a different character. So far, it’s been Hector and Harry. The latter man is a frightful hypocrite, bullying his timid wife and sleeping with a lascivious employee. With a goal in life is to win at any cost, physical intimidation is his strong suit. “Nothing gets resolved by talking,” he insists. It’s enjoyable schadenfreude to witness self-destructive impulses and feel safe in the belief it could never happen in your own world. Except, such madness is actually commonplace. Everyday people are prone to extraordinary stupidity. The New Yorkers on the small screen every Thursday night have no special hold on ruination. And that’s what makes The Slap a powerful cautionary tale for those who are likely to push each other’s buttons.

But there’s one truly annoying aspect of the series: A periodic voiceover, in which the telling obscures the showing. And the unseen narrator, Victor Garber, is surely unreliable. At one point, after a cathartic scene, he says: “Harry felt a calm that he hadn’t felt in days. His confusion was gone.”

Really? Methinks that baffled and curious brain still throbs in the beautiful hills of Brooklyn.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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