Adapted from a novel turned into a compelling Australian series that received sparse U.S. exposure via DirecTV, “The Slap” arrives on NBC with a sensational cast and ambitious premise, following the repercussions of one impulsive act from multiple perspectives as it reverberates through numerous lives. Novelistic in its approach — with a sober narration that brings to mind the movie “Little Children” — it’s the kind of admirable experiment that, for broadcasters, has seldom paid off. Hewing closely to the earlier program at the outset, “The Slap” will need good fortune to make a mark in this inhospitable Thursday timeslot.
Certainly, the logline is calibrated to entice viewers: An adult slaps an ill-behaving child who is not his own at a birthday party, sending shock waves through the assortment of friends and relatives on hand.
The eight-episode event series, however, unfolds from the singular perspective of different characters, meaning the story doesn’t play in completely linear fashion.
Things begin with Hector (Peter Sarsgaard), the 40-year-old birthday boy, whose seemingly ideal Brooklyn existence is filled with complications, from being denied a promotion at work to having a flirtation with the 18-year-old babysitter (Mackenzie Leigh) that, he realizes, will jeopardize his marriage to Aisha (Thandie Newton).
Sarsgaard is always interesting, and he fully capitalizes on this showcase, painting a subtle portrait that’s the epitome of midlife crisis and unfulfilled dreams. Moreover, he perfectly captures the central conceit, which is to cause one’s perspective to shift uncomfortably, since all of the players are flawed, and none wholly sympathetic, even as the stakes and tension escalate.
The entire cast is first-rate and loaded with ready-for-primetime players, including Zachary Quinto as Hector’s hot-headed, financially successful cousin; Thomas Sadoski (“The Newsroom”) and Melissa George as a pair of arty New Age parents; Uma Thurman as Aisha’s friend; and Brian Cox as Hector’s dad.
Written and directed by Jon Robin Baitz (“Brothers & Sisters”) and Lisa Cholodenko (fresh off HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge”), the premiere crisply races through the dizzying roster of characters, while focusing squarely on Hector’s predicament. And frankly, the shifting lens no doubt helped account for the splendid casting, which advances the story in almost anthological fashion.
“The Slap” comes at an interesting moment, with networks trying some big-swing concepts (ABC’s “American Crime” being another) that come closer to territory generally associated with cable. Alas, those projects not only have a mixed track record, but need more care and feeding than an 8 p.m. Thursday slot is likely to provide. On the plus side, as adaptations of prestigious imports go, “The Slap” is a lot more appealing than Fox’s “Gracepoint.”
Based on two episodes, it’s premature to give the show an unqualified endorsement. But it does represent the kind of drama that should appeal to a sophisticated palate if the ongoing quality justifies first impressions.
Granted, the birthday celebration within “The Slap” is the awkward sort that everyone dreads, but give NBC credit for taking a crack at a show that’s partying like it’s 2015, not 1999.