Books / television

A Tale of Two Slaps: Making Sense of NBC’s Novel Inspired mini-series ‘The Slap’

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Last night marked the end of the NBC event The Slap. Although the mini-series about how eight lives change after an adult slaps a child shares the name and plot of the award-winning Christos Tsoilkas novel, it does not take the same thrilling risks of the international bestseller. The result is a timid story lacking much of the satisfying complexity and the cultural relevance of the novel.

The book expertly allows nationalism and religion to color how each character interprets the slap. The result is a rude, irreverent, explicative-laden chronicle that boldly defies our supposed color-blind, politically correct society. The novel’s taboo conversations about race and religion play perfectly into America’s current political struggles with racism and Islamic terrorism.

The miniseries by contrast placed Tsoilkas’ characters in an economic class struggle that borrows heavily from the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. Four years ago, allowing this theme to play out on television would have been edgy. But in today’s political climate, the classism theme fell flat.

At the start of the miniseries Harry Apostolou, a successful dealer of rare cars played by Zachary Quinto, is introduced as a defiant member of the one percent. He is proud of his wealth and flaunts it with his gleaming gray Land Rover and ultra modern house. When he falls into trouble after slapping young Hugo Wessler, Harry truly believes he can pay his way out of the situation.

However, the portrayal of the one percent versus the 99 felt forced or worst, trite in more than a few scenes.

When Harry and bohemian artist Gary Wessler (Thomas Sadoski) argue about wealth at the barbeque, portions of the discussion sounded too familiar — like the debates of Wall Street greed that played out in media following the 2008 financial collapse.

When Hector played by Peter Sarsgaard tries to talk some sense into his well-off cousin in Episode 2, Harry launches into a speech about “the weak suing the strong” that is so ridiculously tone deaf that is completely unbelievable that anyone would speak that way. The same could be said about attorney Thanassis’ rant about “the weak and the powerless.”

And again, when Harry’s first attorney Jay Goldman refers to his client as “my fellow one-percenter,” it just seems too obvious that the writers wanted this theme to be an important part of the series.

That’s sad because even with all of that effort, highlighting the character’s economic differences did little in the way of character development. Highlighting Harry’s wealth made him into little more that the stereotypical privileged, rich white male who abuses his wife and pushes his son too hard.

Recreating Hector into the public servant foil to Harry’s overt entitlement turned him into a stereotypical bleeding heart. That was abundantly clear when Hector uttered this awkward line: “If I can convince a Manhattan developer to put aside a few floors of low-cost housing in his golden tower in the Hudson, I can probably convince Rosie and Gary Wessler to accept your apology.”

The writers should have taken more of a risk and chosen the religious theme so boldly present in the novel over the tired classism message of four years ago.

What makes Harry’s character dynamic in Tsiolkas’ page-turner is his dogged worship of the Panagia in spite of his hot temper, his fowl mouth, and his adultery. He is a hypocrite for sure. But his hypocrisy allows readers to gain insight into a warmer, more human side of Harry – the side where a desperate husband prays to the Virgin Mary for a child after three painful miscarriages, where Harry regards the birth of son Rocco as a miracle, where he is so thankful for his family that he becomes fiercely protective.

Without the focus on economics, Hector too becomes more complex. He has passions – women young and old and staying in shape. He has misgivings about the disingenuous, new age Rosie and the alcoholic Gary. (“That guy Gary is an arsehole,” he tells Harry.) And, he allows himself to lose control.

In the series Hector is a shell – an empty man who is little more than a walking, talking bundle of repressed desires and longings whose too afraid to take any action.

Where the writers afraid of challenging Judeo-Christian beliefs by presenting a religious, yet worldy Harry? Where they afraid that adapting the book’s religious talk would force them to include some of the characters’ sharp objections to Islam’s tenants? (Aisha, for example, while reflecting on a veiled guest at the barbeque,  says “I hate it when I see women covered. I detest it. It makes me furious that they let men do that to them.”)

With great risk comes great reward. One only needs to look at “The Slap” ’s competitor ABC’s “American Crime” to see this point. The drama jumps head first into discussions of illegal immigration, race and Islamic faith. Though both series have suffered due to what the Hollywood Reporter calls “the daylight savings hangover,” “American Crime” garnered a 1.4 rating among adults ages 18 to 49 in past weeks while “The Slap” held a 0.6 rating in the same age range.

Although the miniseries writers missed an opportunity when they chose to champion the Occupy Wall Street’s message, they regained their footing with the parenting theme.

It was brilliant how the series revealed how many of the adults who claim to be acting in the best interests of their children are really wrapped up in their own egos.

Melissa George’s Rosie wants desperately to be the momma bear that protectively cleaves to her cub Hugo that she pursues punitive action to detriment of her marriage, friendships and her child’s development.

The trial reveals that Rosie it is out of touch with what it really takes to properly care for her child.

While Harry claims he intervened in Rocco and Hugo’s game to protect his son, the trial reveals that Harry is not in this to defend his son but rather to crush his enemies.

Their skewed motivations ended up putting all the children around them in danger: Hugo’s behavior problems grow, Rocco sees his angry father abuse his mother and Lucas Hedges’ Ritchie (spoiler) nearly kills himself.

While Rosie, Gary and Harry continue to argue, it is  the child-phobic writer Anouk played by Uma Thurman who teaches Hugo in the series’ final moments how to be gentle and kind.

Unfortunately this stroke of genius only revealed itself towards the end of the series.

I really wanted this series to be great. It has an all-star cast and everyone demonstrated such dept of emotion as the story progressed.

Quinto, although handicapped by a dated story line, really showed through facial expressions Harry’s conflicted emotions about the twists and turns of the trial.  Uma expertly channeled the frustrations of the growing dispute. She also showed the purity of parenting with your child’s interests in mind. Hedges’ performance was remarkably mature. I hope to see more of him in the future.

But I strongly believe the writers really tamed an explosive and complex story with the wrong theme.

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One thought on “A Tale of Two Slaps: Making Sense of NBC’s Novel Inspired mini-series ‘The Slap’

  1. Pingback: New Series ‘Heartbeat,’ a Drama Worthy of Women’s History Month? | Flawless Media

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