Once you get past the title and the simplistic premise touted in the dramatic promos — a man slaps another man’s child — everything about NBC’s The Slap screams “prestige television event!” The eight-episode miniseries, which premieres tonight, follows the chaotic aftermath of a single event. Like most recent prestige dramas, The Slap harps on the darkness that envelops unhappy (and well-off) middle-aged adults with pent-up anger or wandering eyes, as shown through multiple relationships all in different stages. The characters discuss everything from cultural politics to ethical dilemmas. The show boasts an impressive roster of talented actors: Peter Sarsgaard, Uma Thurman, Thandie Newton. The pilot will be a conversation starter, especially for parents, who will no doubt debate the moral issues behind the titular slap. It sounds intriguing on paper, but in execution The Slap is a messy, condescending, and misguided drama that will do little to help NBC compete with prestige cable offerings.
This isn’t to say that NBC will never find a way to compete with those shows — after all, the network has effectively ended its long-running Thursday comedy night, opening up the schedule for drama. The problem is that The Slap is not a good place for NBC to start building prestige, though I can understand why the network chose it: a remake of a well-received Australian series which was based on an award-winning novel, it has all the trappings of a successful and thought-provoking drama. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t translate.
The haughty nature of the series becomes evident in the pilot’s opening scene as we hear the voice of a narrator (Victor Garber): “On the day before his 40th birthday, Hector Apostolou had only one thing on his mind: Connie.” Connie (Makenzie Leigh) isn’t his wife; she’s Hector’s (Peter Sarsgaard) love/lust interest, the high schooler who babysits his children. It’s not just the overdone plot about a married man’s flirtation with a young temptress that is frustrating here, but also the narrator’s very existence, and the unnecessary way in which he explicitly explains what’s happening inside of the character’s minds instead of trusting that viewers are smart enough to figure it out. This narrator pops up throughout the series with increasingly irritating and obvious remarks: “He luxuriated in the meaning of her”; “His reverie shattered, Hector took solace in the clarity of his life’s limits.”
The Slap meanders on as it follows our yuppie antiheroes. No one in this ensemble is particularly likable, and the vast majority are so grating that you’ll grind your teeth whenever they loudly proclaim their political stance, or when Hector’s Greek father (Brian Cox) instructs his son to control his wife. Despite Sarsgaard’s best efforts (he’s as great here as he always is), Hector falls flat on the screen. He’s upset about the things that most 40-year-old white men on TV and in the movies are upset about: He’s getting older; he is not allowed to have sex with a teenage girl; his beautiful and successful wife Aisha (Thandie Newton) doesn’t have sex with him because she’s too busy planning his birthday party. Life is rough for Hector and Aisha, who wallow in their own misery after receiving a free trip to Greece. Imagine, for a moment, having the sort of life where a free trip to a foreign country is the worst of your problems. That is what we’re in for.
The pilot episode centers on Hector’s 40th birthday and takes its sweet time inching towards the slap. Harry (Zachary Quinto), the series’ villain (though all the characters are villains in their own way, of course) and king of the assholes, slaps an obnoxious and exasperating child, setting up a chain of events that runs throughout the series. Each episode places the focus on a single character, and while the second, which centers on Harry, is somewhat more interesting than the pilot, it’s also harder to watch because Harry is such a terrible person and such a desperately written bad guy. As for the others — the child’s parents, including the mother who breastfeeds him though he’s obviously too old; and TV producer Anouk (Uma Thurman), who shows up with her much younger boyfriend (Penn Badgley, welcome back to TV) — they range from aggressively boring to positively infuriating.
In fact, that goes for the entire show. From scene to scene, it’s either boring or infuriating, but rarely anywhere in between. If this is NBC’s attempt at competing with the best cable has to offer, they have a lot of work to do.