“The slap seemed to echo. It cracked the twilight. The little boy looked up at the man in shock.” —Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
When a grown man smacks a kid that doesn’t belong to him at Sally Draper’s birthday party in the first season of Mad Men, none of the cocktail-laden adults so much as blink an eye. In The Slap, NBC’s star-studded miniseries set in present-day Brooklyn, that very same action has seismic implications for every guest—and launches a lawsuit to boot. My, how far the bourgeoisie has come. Written by playwright and Brothers & Sisters creator, Jon Robin Baitz, the show preserves the structure of Christos Tsiolkas’ 2008 Australian novel of the same name; each of The Slap’s eight episodes favors the flawed perspective of a different character bringing into sharp focus the extent to which parenting is one giant grey zone.
It’s a beautiful day for a barbecue in Brooklyn—the kind of crisp autumn afternoon where everything is naturally softened by the season’s golden light—but Hector Apostolou (the always excellent Peter Saarsgard) needs a Xanax to ease the stress of his 40th birthday party. Aside from the sullen thoughts that would plague any man ushering in a new decade, Hector has just been passed over for a promotion at his government job and, as Victor Garber’s superfluous but soothing third person narration tells us, he’s consumed by his lust for Connie (Makenzie Leigh), the 17-year-old baby sitter he’s just begun an affair with.
Adding to the tension of the big day are his two bickering children and his wife, Aisha, a doctor played by a radiant Thandie Newton, who does little to hide her annoyance that Hector’s overbearing Greek mother has upstaged her in her own home, arriving with enough food to feed a small island on the Aegean Sea.
Also partaking in the festivities is long time friend, Anouk (Uma Thurman), a writer and the only childless grownup of the group; Hector’s alpha male cousin, Harry (an intense, perpetually gum-chewing Zachary Quinto); and Rosie and Gary (Melissa George and Thomas Sadoski), the bohemian couple responsible for the little long-haired hellion, Hugo.
Over the course of the party, we see Hugo throw an iPad, put his sticky hands all over Hector’s precious collection of jazz records, and uproot the plants in Aisha’s garden. The only thing that seems to placate the 5-year-old is his mother’s breast, which she whips out with frequency much to the silent judgment of the other guests who think him well beyond breastfeeding age—he’s about to start school, after all. By the time Hugo is throwing his third tantrum of the hour—this time with a baseball bat in hand—viewers may feel he deserves what’s coming. It’s Harry who delivers the titular slap: “You two don’t know how to raise a child,” he yells, after Rosie and Gary accuse him of being a monster.
Tsiolkas, who, like the Apostoulo cousins, is the son of Greek immigrants, has cited an interaction between his own mother and a pesky 3-year-old as the inspiration for the novel’s inciting incident. As the author told the BBC’s World Book Club, the child was relentlessly rustling pots and pans underfoot while his mother was cooking and when the older woman gave the boy a light pat on the bottom, he responded defiantly: “No one has the right to touch my body without my permission!”
More comical than anything else, it was the gaping disconnect between the generations that struck the author as particularly interesting. The little boy had clearly never experienced a disciplinary act in his life and his mother could never in her wildest dreams have imagined words so self-assured—even if clearly being parroted from the child’s parents or teachers—emanating from such a small creature. Tsiolkas has upped the stakes (and the violence) of the event to create a compelling work of fiction, but the questions the action raises surrounding the evolution of child-parent boundaries are nevertheless central to the story.
Although The Slap was the book that launched the Australian author to international acclaim, he was not envisioning an American readership while writing it. The novel was intended to hold a very specific (and specifically unflattering) mirror up to Melbourne’s middle class—“Neighbors on acid,” as he describes it. And it did: The book garnered a slew of literary awards and nominations and spawned a miniseries Down Under (which also featured Melissa George as Rosie) in 2011.
But with a few minor adjustments—notably expanding the legal proceedings into a dominant through line—the story is seamlessly transplanted into the bougie Brooklyn milieu. With the series premiere dovetailing February’s vaccine debate, the subject matter feels especially timely for American viewers, particularly the way in which it explores child-rearing methods as an extension of class, politics, and social status.
If the characters on the show are recognizable types, the homes in which they raise their kids are carefully designed to reflect their respective worldviews. Harry is a self-made man and the first member of his family to obtain real wealth. The American dream incarnate, his gargantuan Manhattan home—built primarily of glass and steal—gleams with indestructible newness. An individualist to a fault, he chides his son Rocco for passing the ball too much during a school basketball game: “There’s a difference between being on the winning team and winning,” he says. To Harry, Gary’s laissez-fair attitude toward parenting is not only un-masculine, it’s fundamentally un-American: “What’s happened to this country?” he asks, appalled when Hector suggests he apologize to Rosie and Gary in the hopes of preventing legal action before it starts.
To Rosie and Gary, however, Harry represents everything that’s wrong with America: crass manners and uncontested entitlement of the super wealthy. The couple lives in an open plan apartment that doubles as Gary’s art studio in what looks like Bushwick. Silky curtains replace all doors and Hugo, fittingly, runs around free in a world without clear boundaries. “We talk to him like an equal,” Rosie tells Harry, demanding his half-hearted apology be directed at the suckling child.
Holding down the middle ground between these two extremes is Hector. Residing in the eye of the storm, he withholds his opinions and tirelessly mediates between all parties in an effort to keep the peace. Due in no small part to Sarsgaard’s nuanced performance, Hector is a much more appealing character in the series than he is in the novel—flawed, to be sure—but an even-keeled and very recognizable everyman: He makes sure his kids do their homework, but reluctantly allows them to eat sugary cereals for breakfast. His and Aisha’s home, with folk art on the walls and dishes in the sink, has the warmth of a lived in mess: comfortable but not indulgent.
Are any of these models correct? Or, perhaps, are all of them wrong? In the novel, Tsiolkas eschews a finality of judgment in favor of a multitude of perspectives, and it will be interesting to see which direction Baitz takes the series in the final episode this Thursday. Last week’s chapter, which belonged to Rosie, ended on an attempted cliffhanger as to which way the testimony of the final witness will go. But while the lawsuit may be a useful (if at times painfully overwrought) narrative device with which to test allegiances, reveal secrets, and unearth back stories, to hinge on a verdict seems to be missing the point entirely.
There’s a telling conversation in the novel in which Hector and Aisha argue over whether or not the world has in fact become a more dangerous place than the one they grew up in, or if they’ve merely grown overprotective. It’s a question every parent will grapple with for generations to come. As Gary drunkenly (but wisely) espouses in the pilot episode: “Our children are mysteries beyond our wildest comprehension.”