The Slap debuts tonight on DirecTV’s Audience network at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The eight-episode Australian miniseries The Slap is based on an acclaimed novel by Christos Tsiolkas, and the first thing the show wants to make clear is that it’s a literary adaptation, not just some tacky TV drama. At the beginning of the first episode, we see a man greeting the day and hear a disembodied voice saying, rather smugly, “For a moment, Hector luxuriated in memories of her, but then made his resolve ‘to sort things out.’” Hector (Jonathan LaPaglia), whom we meet on the day before his 40th birthday, is a comfortable Melbourne suburbanite with pushy Greek immigrant parents, a beautiful wife (Sophie Okonedo) who runs a veterinary hospital, and a couple of kids. It’s a pretty sweet life, but a midlife crisis has started clawing at the side door, and the person Hector needs to sort things out with is Connie, a blond 17-year-old who works for his wife and sometimes babysits their kids and who impulsively kissed him once when he was driving her home.
Unspoken tensions increase to a boiling point by the time of Hector’s backyard-barbecue birthday party, and pretty soon, Hector, feeling cheesed at his wife, Aisha, retreats to corner of the house for a few seconds of private time. His sanctuary is invaded by the disembodied voice, which one pictures belonging to someone who wears a felt hat and a gray goatee, who twirls a diamond-handled walking stick. “Hugo fantasized about flying to Latin America, without even leaving a note,” says the voice, adding that, on reflection, it would be better to leave a note, telling Aisha how mean she’d been to him and how she’ll probably be really sorry now that she’s gone, that’s for sure.
The good news about the voiceover passages from the book is that they fade away by the end of the first episode. They don’t figure at all in the second episode, though having only seen these two, I can’t say whether this is because the series only uses the voiceovers at the start, to try to establish a tone and a link to the novel, or if it’s because the second episode centers on Aisha’s friend Anouk (Essie Davis), who is both more verbally expressive and more scintillating than the childish Hector. The novel consists of eight chapters, each of which is written from the point of view of a different character who happen to be present when, at the barbecue, Hector’s self-made asshole of a cousin, Harry, impulsively wallops a 3-year-old boy whose uncontrolled misbehavior has been driving everybody crazy.
Both of the first two episodes were directed by Jessica Hobbs, and both of them are smoothly well-made and expertly acted. But the second episode is a lot more involving than the first, partly because the thoughts and feelings that Essie Davis gets to express, and the ways in which she gets to express them, are a lot more camera-friendly than Hector’s mulish self-absorption. And Essie Davis has a character that she’s able to make seem worth an hour of TV time. LaPaglia does a fine, skillful job with what he has to work with, delineating Hector’s weak-willed shallowness and short attention span without any self-protective contempt for the character. Still, you can’t shake the feeling that he’s there to kick off the proceedings not for his virtues as a character, but because he can seem to represent everything that’s shaky and hollow about contemporary suburban life. (I’m not sure I’m looking forward to the episode centering on Harry, who makes Hector look like St. Thomas Aquinas.) Not all the major events of the story are directed related to the incident at the party, and The Slap isn’t some Rashomon-like competing-narratives game about how everyone remembers the whole thing differently. But no one’s reaction to it is exactly the same, and the ages, genders, and ethnic and economic backgrounds of the characters are cunningly spread out so that they all make up what Sherwood Schwartz used to call “a social microcosm.”
In general, the women are conceived as stronger than the men, and for the first two hours, the actresses have an easier time of transcending the literary conceits carried over from the book. That includes Sophie Okonedo as Aisha, the stable, capable businesswoman and wife (and long-suffering best friend) who’s capable of ferocity, and Toula Yianni as the mother-in-law who can match her, blow for blow. (Hector’s parents piss Aisha off at the party by gifting the family with a trip to Greece, timed to coincide with the trip to Bali that they had already made plans for. All you need to know about Hector’s approach to a difficult situation is that he tries to keep the peace by cheerfully announcing that, of course, they can somehow manage to take both trips.)
It definitely also includes Melissa George, who plays Rosie, the mother of Hugo, the boy who got slapped. Rosie is married to Gary (Anthony Hayes), but Gary, a touchy drunk, is such a weak presence that she has developed the desperate resourcefulness of a single mother. George has come across as a wooden plank in some of her more thinly written movie roles, but as she got to show on In Treatment and in such unlikely places as the unhinged time-warp horror movie Triangle, she has a special gift for illuminating the strength in people who feel so needy and desperate that they have to find hidden reserves of toughness in themselves just to keep from giving themselves up for dead. She only needs a few minutes of screen time before she has you imagining a whole back story for Rosie, a lifetime of bad choices and disappointments that have narrowed her options down to doing right by her son. So when Harry the lout knocks Hugo down, this bedraggled woman, who looks as if she hasn’t slept or had both hands free to dress herself since her son was born, becomes ferocious too. She and Gary, who himself tries to rise to the challenge of responding angrily and threateningly to Harry’s act—it’s like looking in the rear view mirror and seeing road kill giving you the finger—are, of course, the angriest about the slap, daring to take the whole mess public by getting the law involved. And she’s horrified when her friend Anouk tells her that she’s over-reacting, and that Hugo has been allowed to run wild and that it was about time somebody slapped him.
Anouk is pretty hard-nosed and not one to pass up the chance to say something shocking, but she’s really talking about her own situation, because she’s spending the day reeling from the discovery that she’s pregnant by the much younger man with whom she has been enjoying calisthenic sex on the couch. (The Slap, I am not unhappy to report, is very big on calisthenic sex. Hector, who masturbates standing up when he’s frustrated and moody, does it with his wife in the kitchen after he and Connie have “reached an understanding”—i.e., that what was never going to happen in the first place definitely won’t—in order to celebrate his realization that, as the disembodied voice puts it, “the slap had saved him from a disastrous mistake, a mistake which he would have forever regretted.”)
Anouk’s boy toy is the star of the TV soap opera that she works for as head writer. There may be another literary conceit lurking in the juiciness of Anouk’s story—something about the soap writer caught in one of her own plot lines—but the way Essie Davis plays it, you don’t watch her and think about the library. (Her woes include a sick mother who’s such a nightmare that she keeps driving off the people Anouk hires to look after her. With a wig balanced precariously on her head, the mother is like a symbolic representation of terminal illness, and there’s a darkly funny moment when her daughter accuses her of traumatizing her as a child by lecturing her on the importance of breast cancer awareness “before I had breasts.”) Anouk’s big guilty daydream is to do the "real" writing that her job at the soap is keeping her from doing, and it may be meant as a rare hopeful moment when she sits down at the end of her episode and says to herself, “Fuckin’ write, then.” (Unless she actually says, “Fuckin’ right, then.” Without subtitles, it’s hard to say.) But if The Slap itself sometimes feels more like a ripping soap opera than a contender for the Booker Prize shortlist, that’s still nothing to slap your dish provider over.