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'The Slap' review: A worthy effort

From left, Thomas Sadoski as Gary, Peter Sarsgaard

From left, Thomas Sadoski as Gary, Peter Sarsgaard as Hector in NBC's "The Slap," episode 101, "Hector." Photo Credit: NBC / Virginia Sherwood

THE SHOW "The Slap"

WHEN | WHERE Thursday night at 8 on NBC/4

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Hector (Peter Sarsgaard) is a top official with the New York City Planning Commission, and -- on the eve of his 40th birthday -- is having a midlife crisis. He's torn by guilt for having a crush on a very young woman who works in his wife's medical clinic. His wife, Aisha (Thandie Newton), meanwhile is busy planning his 40th birthday party.

Ah, yes, about that party: His sprawling Greek-American family arrives, and when the child of one couple, Rosie (Melissa George) and Gary (Thomas Sadoski), acts out, Hector's cousin, Harry (Zachary Quinto) disciplines the brat. This eight-part series explores the ramifications of that single act. The show is adapted from a hit Australian miniseries based on a book by Christos Tsiolkas.

MY SAY Is there such a word as "cable-y?" (Or a term like "cable-y show?") For the sake of argument, sure.

 So what then is "cable-y"? Well, it's a show that's on cable (goes without saying), and  preferably on some critically esteemed cable network like FX or HBO. This show is "meta" -- also goes without saying -- which means that what's on-screen reflects some deeper, richer, and more nuanced meaning off.

It's usually "ironic" in tone, "postmodern" in approach, and might even use words like "postmodern" in the dialogue.

A lot of these types of shows seem to also be set in Brooklyn or at least in some of the cooler ZIP codes in Manhattan.

"The Slap" is  "cable-y." But it's also on NBC. That means anyone expecting  "Chicago Fire" or "The Blacklist" will sprain their clicker thumbs in the haste to move on. No "Empire" numbers here.

That's not to mean that "The Slap" isn't good, interesting or worthwhile -- the first two episodes indicate otherwise. But it is different, eccentric and arty. It's the wannabe hipster who's wandered into the two-kegger jock frat party.

 Networks have preached the "cable model" for years: Short-run series are cheaper, overwhelmed viewers face a lighter time commitment, and it's (in theory at least) an opportunity to take creative chances. 

"The Slap" is a chance, and a worthy one, too. Written by Jon Robin Baitz ("Brothers & Sisters"), the pilot is directed by executive producer Lisa Cholodenko --well  on her way to building one of the great careers in film and television. (She directed and produced HBO's magnificent "Olive Kitteridge," which also, coincidentally, had a slapping scene that was a huge plot point.)

Why "The Slap" -- as opposed to "The Punch" or "The Beating" or "The Spanking?" The title's of course  ironic, about how something trivial can explode into something non-trivial. 

Baitz and Cholodenko dump us into these urban lives with their affectations and dreams and forbidden desires, then use a little slap at a barbecue to expose what's really going on  underneath the veneer (which may just be more veneer.) 

Sorry --  getting all cable-y on you --  but will the ride be worthwhile? The first two episodes are odd, off-putting, exotic,cliched, plodding, and strangely relentlessly watchable. So I'll put down a  "yes.",  

GRADE B+

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