Feelin’ Like a Punch in the Nose

NBC’s The Slap is based on a very important novel, and if you weren’t aware of that already, you will be within two minutes of the first episode.  The ponderous voice-over — by Victor Garber, no less! — drops with a thud, delivering lines like “For a moment, Hector luxuriated in the memory of her”; that’s the kind of thing that might work in the context of a novel, but at the start of a television drama crashes on the viewer’s sensibilities like a sack of concrete.

The voice-over may or may not be forgivable; it certainly adds nothing but an unsubtle reminder of The Slap‘s literary origins, and is more distracting than useful.  But it’s not the only problem the show has, and while any one of them might be easy to overlook, there are so many of them and they’re so egregious that it all adds up to one of the most profoundly silly would-be ‘event’ shows of the year, made all the more so by the fact that it takes itself so very seriously.

I have neither read the novel The Slap is based on, nor seen the Australian mini-series that inspired it, so maybe they constitute something more than an extremely overripe hunk of cheese.  But the American version just sits on the plate, daring party guests to do something other than pretend it isn’t there.  The premise is relatively simple:  at the 40th birthday party of a seemingly successful city official whose life is predictably coming apart, his cousin slaps the face of a misbehaving kid that does not belong to him.  The kid’s parents predictably flip out, and the event becomes the impetus for a vast unraveling of all their lives.

This is supposed to tell us something deep and meaningful about The Way We Live Today, and the show’s creators have shored up the cast with a multicultural melange of solemn-looking heavy hitters to make events seem oh so modern and diverse:  Hector is the son of Greek immigrants, his wife is an Anglo-African doctor, his friends are either charmingly bohemian or aggressively successful or both, and their kids are an adorable bunch of cocoa-colored do-no-wrongs.  Unfortunately, not a single character in the cast is even remotely likable.  This may be by design, and of course, likability isn’t necessarily important if your characters are compelling enough, but this lot manages to be loathsome and boring at the same time.

The script never met a predictable character it didn’t like:  Hector is the all-too-familiar (thanks, American Beauty) archetype of the middle-aged guy who’s successful but not quite successful enough, and who expresses his existential angst by getting a boner for a teenage girl.  His wife is a hyper-competent ice queen; the parents of the kid who gets slapped are a couple of alternately overinvolved and underinvolved artistic knuckleheads; the cousin who does the slapping is a raging type-A shithead and his wife is a personality-free doormat; their friend is a cynical, self-involved woman who, naturally, works in television.  Even the two most sympathetic characters — Hector’s loving father and doting mother — are complete cardboard cutouts; the father is a Thessalonian Tevye so utterly saintly he’s the least believable element of the plot, and his wife is an equally loving, but conveniently pragmatic and sensible, voice of reason who makes you want to take a long nap.

If the characters weren’t such egregious stereotypes, and so detestable in a very upper-class New York way, the story might be a bit more compelling.  But then again, maybe it wouldn’t.  The script, for one thing, absolutely never lets you miss an implication; the rich asshole cousin, who owns an exotic car dealership, is greeted by his sleazeball lawyer with the soubriquet “my fellow one-percenter”.  The whole story revolves around the fairly obvious notion that the relatively minor event of the kid getting slapped might cause everyone’s relationships to one another to spiral out of control, which, just in case you didn’t get it, will become clear when Uma Thurman’s character comes right out and says “this is just a minor thing, but it might cause our relationships with each other to spiral out of control”.  And, in case you were getting snacks when she said it, she helpfully says it again.

Beyond its obviousness, The Slap ladles out a heaping helping of creamy corn with everything it serves. Everyone has a crush on the deeply unpleasant Hector, including his hot babysitter’s pointlessly gay friend; Zachary “Mr. Spock” Quinto actually calls the artist father of the kid he slaps a “lazy hippie” without irony despite the fact that the show takes place in 2015, not 1968.  All this hoke helps to waste a lot of talent:  Thandie Newton is so tightly wound that it looks like her head is going to topple off at any moment; Uma Thurman seems like she’s channeling a character from Valley of the Dolls; Peter Sarsgaard is only allowed to downshift from introspective to beleaguered; and poor Brian Cox, who I’d pay money to see slapping everyone else in the cast including that snot of a kid, is stuck being so morally pure that he is seen giving money to a homeless man for no other reason than to establish what a swell guy he is.

If there was any perspective outside of this gaggle of well-to-do Fort Greene navel-gazers, the message of the series might be that these people have a lot of trouble seeing past their own noses considering how progressive and diverse they all are.  But there is no one to yell at these people to get over themselves, no one to stop the portentous glances exchanged before every commercial break, no one to, well, slap some sense into them.  There’s several episodes still to go, but the best actors have already had their turns and it’s unlikely that things will improve from here.  Whoever greenlit this par-boiled nonsense must have thought the thing was a bankable quality, but at this point, all it’s going to leave behind is the memory of some overpaid Brooklynites scowling at each other, and the vague, nagging feeling that in the end, there just wasn’t enough slapping.

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