TV shows are getting better at the modern ways of trolling, which, after all, is an ancient and perhaps fundamental feature of drama — the ability to stir emotions, get goats and raise hackles. Provocative characters make terrible decisions to draw us into their moral quandaries. How flattering that we each get a reserved seat in the judge’s chair.
But “The Slap,” NBC’s heavy-hearted (and heavy-handed) drama based on an Australian series (which itself was based on a novel by Christos Tsiolkas), trolls a little too hard, knowing that our culture today is quite easily baited on matters of parenthood, coupling and modern manners. The result is a depressing — if engrossing — rehash of arguments found every day online.
Ably directed and co-produced by Lisa Cholodenko (“Olive Kitteridge”), “The Slap,” premiering Thursday and running for eight half-hour episodes, is the story of a Greek American family that comes unglued after an incident at a 40th-birthday barbecue party, in which Harry (Zachary Quinto), the hot-headed cousin of the guest of honor, Hector (Peter Sarsgaard), slaps another couple’s young son after the child dangerously swings a baseball bat at other children.
By the time “The Slap’s” slap occurs near the end of the first episode, the show has effectively fomented its audience, exploiting every stereotypical detail it can muster about the slap’s recipient, who is a stand-in for today’s overly coddled child: His name is Hugo (cue: What kind of parents name their kid ‘Hugo?’); Hugo’s father (Thomas Sadoski) is an artist (artsy-fartsy Brooklyn hipsters, that’s who!) and Hugo’s mother (Melissa George) still breast-feeds him (the kid’s gotta be at least 5!).
All we see of Hugo, initially, is that he’s an undisciplined screamer who can be tamed only by mommy’s milk. Leading up to the slap we see Hugo remove vintage jazz LPs from their sleeves and hurl them across a hardwood floor (a crime against all humanity); he slams an iPad against a coffee table (strike two); he rips perennials out of the backyard garden bed . . . you get the picture. For some viewers, “The Slap’s” slap can’t come soon enough. For others, there is the horror of seeing anyone hit a child, ever.
During a news conference last month with “The Slap’s” actors and producers, it became clear that critics and reporters who had seen the show had lingering concerns for the young actor, Dylan Schombing, who plays Hugo. That worry is a testament to the power of the scene. Did Quinto — a.k.a. “Star Trek’s” latter-day Mr. Spock — really slap the boy? Well, of course not.
“Obviously, we had to do [the scene] repetitively, but we isolated the moment of the slap,” Quinto said. “There was really clear communication with the kids, and then all of the explosive anger and emotion that exists around that actual incident was all done without the kids there, of course. So I think it was really well-handled, really well-executed, and, oddly, for all of us, because we spent so much time shooting that sequence, kind of enjoyable. . . . Even though it was in the context of this horrific act, we all had as good a time as we could.”
(No one asked the obvious follow-up question about the breast-feeding scenes — how do you prep a child actor for that?)
It’s interesting that “The Slap” arrives in the wake of the recently departed (and adored) family drama “Parenthood,” which was pure marshmallow compared with “The Slap’s” bitter taste. “The Slap” is an experimental choice for NBC; in tone and its vaguely “Rashomon”-like structure, it’s got a lot in common with Showtime’s “The Affair.” That’s a programming shift I’m inclined to encourage, despite “The Slap’s” initial flaws. Some will find it too blunt and upsetting; others may wince at the slightly florid narration (supplied by the voice of Victor Garber, it turns out) that lends the story a nagging air of homily.
Yet there’s something quite absorbing about the show, particularly as each episode deals with a different adult participant, illuminating the character’s reaction to the slap and its aftermath and also chipping away at their own private shortcomings as spouses, lovers, parents, children, siblings, cousins. If everyone in “The Slap” was a blogger, their comments fields would be filled with angry and probably unwanted advice.
Sarsgaard is in his moody, doleful element as Hector, an urban planner who is passed over for a promotion and is contemplating an affair with a college student (Makenzie Leigh) who works at a health clinic run by his wife, Aisha (Thandie Newton). Quinto is eerily on-point as Harry, a successful vintage-auto dealer whose increasing anger at the world becomes abusive, particularly toward his wife (Marin Ireland).
Uma Thurman co-stars as Hector’s sister, Anouk; Brian Cox and Maria Tucci play Hector’s parents, Manolis and Koula. Ethnicity and cultural tradition clearly want to be an element to this story, too, although it’s difficult to tell from two episodes how, exactly, the family’s Greek heritage comes into play. What a viewer will see, immediately, is a story relevant to all cultures nowadays and the sense that, when it comes to relationships and tolerance, we’re all living much too close to the powder keg. Everyone here, not just Harry, is ready to explode.
(30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC.