Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Slap

Yes, I miss Edward Zwick 
and Marshall Herskovitz too

     The Slap started a couple of weeks ago on NBC and I keep hoping it will be better each episode than it turns out to be.  Focusing on eight characters connected through family or friendship ties, it examines the aftermath of an aggressive rich man slapping the incredibly ill behaved five-year-old son of people he doesn’t know well.  From a birthday backyard
barbecue for a man facing middle age to a professional single woman facing an unexpected pregnancy to the threat of lawsuits and the hovering miasma of parental relations, The Slap tries to take on middle-upper-middle classvGeneration X in New York City and its surrounding environs.

     Thirtysomething (1987 – 1991) and Once and Again (1999 – 2002), both created by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, covered similar territory with the Baby Boomers as their main focus.  The primary difference (there are others I’ll deal with later) is that they delved much more deeply into their characters.  Part of that gap is due to the narration at the beginning and end of each episode.  The tone could be considered ‘satirical’ or ‘sardonic’, but it puts down the characters.  Cheever could get away with it for decades because a writer lays down the narrative groundwork, while the readers builds the story through imagination.  

Zwick and Herskovitz
     By providing the first impression through spoken narration, the characters are not freshly discovered by the viewer.  In media like film or video, the primacy of the visual cannot be overstated.  The tone has to be shown through cinematography and art direction and the punctuation provided by editing.  Dialogue is tertiary and narration is a distant fourth.  Relying on it punches up what isn’t happening through the other elements.  Zwick & Herskovitz (Z&H) employed various narrative strategies to involve the viewer with the characters as well as to step back and observe the characters in Thirtysomething.  They went further by having the characters speak directly to the viewer, revealing their feelings and commenting upon their actions in Once and Again.  

A New York Backyard?
     New York seems overdone as a setting.  We know how New Yorkers act and feel through countless other movies and TV shows.  Again, Philadelphia and Chicago figured in the earlier series; the only Z&H series that failed after a year was Relativity (1996 – 1997) and it may have been because it was set in L.A., already an unbearably light and overused location.  The Australian original was set in Melbourne, not Sydney, and I wish an American corollary could have been found – San José, Seattle, Austin?  

     An Australian with Greek immigrant parents wrote the source novel and that cultural identity has been retained.  It’s intriguing to focus on a group rarely shown on TV.  However, the stand-in characters for those parents sort of came across as if they had only gotten off the boat about a decade before, which didn’t seem that realistic.  Classy veterans Brian Cox and Maria Tucci as those parents did a fine job and brought some much needed gravitas to the first episode.  Following in Hollywood’s eccentric ethnic casting history, none of the Greek characters are played by anyone actually Greek.  

Blythe Danner and Uma Thurman
     Uma Thurman and Zachary Quinto have been the strongest actors so far, though she had the good fortune to play some excellent scenes with Blythe Danner as her English mother.  Danner nailed the accent, pronouncing ‘forehead’ perfectly, and made me regret she didn’t get the parts she deserved in her 30s and 40s.  Melissa George nails an American accent playing the drearily suffering mother of the little brat she continues suckling.  George was on The Good Wife for a couple of seasons as Peter’s Ethics Advisor.  She looks and behaves completely differently in this show, but her voice is still the same.  It sounds like someone trying to be sexy or hoping to sell a second rate perfume.  Peter Sarsgaard seems weak and tired as the pivotal character so far; if only he could have brought some of the perverse undertones he’s found in past roles.

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