Hauling off and hitting someone else’s kid is unacceptable. Barbaric. Ill-advised. But a TV show about it? Really quite enjoyable.
NBC’s “The Slap,” starting its eight-week run on Thursday, knows exactly what it’s doing, with every political squabble, marital white lie and recreational dose of Valium.
You’ll know exactly which kid is going to get slapped at the first episode’s backyard barbecue, which is like the Family Melodrama Olympics even before the blow lands.
It’s a shocking moment, but the real sting comes afterward, with a loose collection of friends and family taking sides, calling the cops and trying to make it all go away.
The original version of “The Slap” was an Australian production, cataloging clashes of class and race in ways that don’t directly translate to yuppies in Brooklyn. But NBC’s only-in-America version features tradition-obsessed, boundary-trampling Greek immigrant elders, a drunken mom breast-feeding her 5-year-old and obnoxious one-percenters looking for sympathy. (“Guys like me, what chance do they have?”)
Director Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right,” “Olive Kitteridge”) is establishing herself as a master at depicting the intricate sparring that makes sense only within the families at hand.
“The Slap” begins with a party, but Hector (Peter Sarsgaard) doesn’t feel like celebrating. It’s more like he’s trying to cram an entire midlife crisis into his 40th birthday weekend. He makes passes at the teenage babysitter, lies to his wife about a promotion at work and self-medicates with whatever he can get his hands on.
Moments of reflective voiceover take the show that extra step over the top. “The slap had saved him from a disastrous mistake,” actor Victor Garber’s voice intones, “a mistake he would have regretted forever.”
We’re reading Hector’s mind the first week, but every episode will take us inside the head of a different character as the story moves forward in time.
The second week focuses on Zachary Quinto’s character, Hector’s cousin Harry, a man whose intensity creates a minefield for everyone around him. His adolescent son, Rocco, isn’t even allowed to pause an online chess match to drink his breakfast smoothie.
“You want me to forfeit?”
Quinto is remarkable in the first two hours of “The Slap,” but the other great actors in the cast will get their chance. Thandie Newton is Hector’s wife, Uma Thurman is a family friend, and Australian actress Melissa George (“The Good Wife”) reprises her role from the original.
“The Slap” is rare TV, depicting the kind of drama viewers might find themselves caught up in. It’s nice to see a show shamelessly go about doing its manipulative business.
To reach Sara Smith, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.
WHERE TO WATCH
“The Slap” premieres at 7 p.m. Thursday on NBC.