The Slap, Pilot, “Hector”.
Thursday, 8:30pm, ABC1.
Stream on ABC’s iView

The Slap is a very organised show, it’s like catching a glimpse of the iCal of a person I can’t quite relate to. There are 8 episodes, each representing the 8 characters who appeared in the 8 chapters of the book set around a very… significant… event (Hint: it’s hidden in the title of the show!).

The first episode focuses on Hector, a young married Greek man with two children, and a network of family and friends spanning the entire ancestry section of the census form. Much like chronology itself his story unfolds chronologically, and we meet him at the moment chronology is least able to be ignored: his birthday. A birthday is another handily artificial organising device – it’s only this character’s birthday because the writer made it his birthday. Hector’s DOB is 1st minute/1st page/1st draft of the script. We don’t have a sustained relationship with this character and we’re not attending his party as someone who cares about him. We’re zoomed out, combing the scenes for clues of the sort of awkward vulnerabilities that arise when you throw an unlikely group of future character arcs in a room and make them be festive with each other.

The Slap is efficient at telling us lots about Hector – he’s an ineffectual but well-meaning father (his Zyzz-esque physique goes some way towards explain his priorities). He literally and figuratively spends a lot of time chafing against his beautiful but headstrong wife. And he easily engages in various deceptions – he has a quick swim with his cousin to bypass helping set up for the party, he’s having a lusty (and I would argue not entirely repugnant) affair with a high school girl who works at his wife’s veterinary practice. Oh and he casually racks up in the upstairs bathroom. Happy b’day Hector!!!!

Stephen Baldwin’s Jonathan Lapaglia’s performance as Hector is a well-conveyed portrait of a man who is super aware of Steve Biddulph’s role in cultural discourse – IE: his manhood is under siege. This is a guy whose intentions don’t always match up with his actions, and like Bill in “Big Love”, he earns our empathy because we can see he’s really going to need it. His life is simmering.

Thankfully sidestepping the lingering-way-too-long-on-the-brutal-landscape trope favoured by Australian directors, the camera moves around constantly, moving on to the next moment as soon we’ve understood the one preceding it. But we imbibe data about him so quickly, and there is little dramatic payoff for any of these plot points. It felt a bit like binge-reading a Wikipedia page about some guy Hector.

I think this has something to do with the architecture of this episode and the way it is constructed as an onward march towards ‘the slap’ – it is intent on fulfilling its own brief. They are in such a hurry to bore on with the conceit they don’t particularly lovingly render the world they’re living in – how does the kitchen smell? Why are there no close-ups of the yummy Greek food? No character seems to experience embarrassment or hesitation – they just loudly establish their widely diverging points of view.

The fact that the drama arises out of such a heavily bolded and underlined event makes the reactions of the characters feel a little overdetermined – like a role play of stakeholders in a boring uni group assignment. This brought to mind the gold standard in Australian Drama, Love My Way, also essentially a show about one game-changing event. But Love My Way artfully built the world before tearing it down.

The show The Slap most reminds me of most of is SBS’s Go Back To Where you Came From – a staged exploration of a complex hot topic, featuring a cast of ethnically diverse people with different viewpoints. It exists largely as a vehicle to generate discussion. Both shows are also extremely inclusive and affectionate towards their characters, everyone is anguished and overtired and really trying hard. Perhaps it’s just a slightly more compelling theme when the characters are real.

‘Whose side are you on?’ was the cunning tagline devised by the team behind the terminally long publicity drive for The Slap. And all the usual suspects conducted their very own festival of dangerous ideas about the issues around parenting, discipline, violence and child abuse.

The strategy is – this show is about you, this is about your life. So instead of getting lost in the story I found myself sitting there deriving satisfaction from the bits that rang true (yep, Hector would totally be wearing a long sleeve shirt and shorts to the BBQ! That’s exactly what dudes like Hector love to wear!). The show’s claim to realism is also what gives rise to people complaining about stereotypes. But of course they had to shift the focus to us. We’re not trading Breaking Bad-style suspense here. This plot is in the title of the show and the title of the show has been the title of a book for at least 4 years.

There’s just something a little exhausting about being debated to.

Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, the birthday gift was the real headline story. Early on at the barbecue, Hector’s elderly Greek parents proudly handed him a slim blue plastic wallet. Inside were 4 tickets to Greece. The poor things had trotted off to a travel agent and forked over their savings to buy the whole family a holiday to the homeland. But wait: Hector and his wife had already planned a childless anniversary trip to Bali at… exactly the same. The pathos of your parents buying you something really expensive that you don’t really want is probably the most divisive and poignant middle-class issue I can think of. The real slap.

Words By Sophie Braham