With a tagline like ‘Whose side are you on?’ you'd expect new ABC series The Slap to tug on your empathetic heartstrings at every turn. Not so – at least not in the opening two episodes. Despite a stand-up cast and an all-star team of writers and directors, this adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’s award-winning novel of the same name falls somewhat short of its source material.
Tsiolkas’s portrayal of middle-class Australian suburbia is a serious page-turner. For one, its premise is a firecracker: a birthday barbeque turns nasty when a kids’ cricket game escalates into a fight and the child at the centre of the conflict is physically repremanded by a man that is not his father. The consequences of this event ripple through the group of family and friends that witnessed the slap over the course of the narrative. Chapter by chapter, in gripping prose, Tsiolkas focuses on a different character to reveal a new side to the slap.
Similarly, the eight-part television series focuses on one character per episode, but Tsiolkas’s inclusive charm and shocking candour is diluted on the screen, making it difficult to relate to the morally objectionable protagonists of the opening episodes.
We begin with birthday-boy Hector (Jonathan LaPaglia). He's turning 40 and navigating some kind of mid-life crisis, compromising his marriage to doting wife Aisha (Sophie Okonedo) for an affair with 17-year-old Connie (Sophie Lowe), an employee at Aisha’s veterinary practice. Over the course of the barbeque Hector’s efforts to spend time with Connie are curtailed by arguments that break out between Hugo, the four-year-old son of Aisha’s friend Rosie (Melissa George) and the other children in the group. Hector’s frustration, coupled with Hugo’s intolerable behaviour and the parents’ divergent views on education, wealth and morals builds tension that explodes during a backyard cricket game.
In the second episode we take a breather from the central incident to focus on Anouk (Essie Davis), Aisha’s best friend and The Slap’s only childless adult. Anouk is focused on her demanding writing gig on a local soap opera and her toyboy lover, and her choice not to have a child has estranged her from Rosie and Aisha. It also becomes a governing factor in her choice not to side with her friend in the politics of the slap, and she chooses instead to ignore the situation. This is turned on its head by the episode’s conclusion, but like in episode one, leaves the viewer watching an hour of morally questionable antics unfold.
The Slap will no doubt rate well for the ABC. The novel sold more than 200,000 copies nationally and the series is vastly more complex and clever than your average Aussie soap (something it outwardly acknowledges through Anouk’s professional frustrations). There’s drinking and drug taking, the raunch is almost as intense as in the novel, and there’s a guaranteed crisis in each episode to keep the pace rolling. Despite the not-so-relatable characters, The Slap is definitely worth a look; just don’t expect to find yourself taking a side.
The Slap screens on ABC from Thu 6 Oct at 8.30pm.