ICYMI: Before Its American Remake Became a Joke, Australia’s The Slap Was One of the Best Series of 2011Photo Courtesy of ABC1 TV Features The Slap
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As someone who writes a lot about single-season episodes of television—though, admittedly, they don’t tend to be envisioned as such—I can, without a doubt, say that one of the best single-seasons of television that I have ever had the pleasure of watching was The Slap. No, not the 2015 American miniseries on NBC, but the original, 2011 Australian version. And back in 2011, my enjoyment of the miniseries was a complete surprise even to me, because the only reason I watched it was because I found the synopsis so absurd that it would have to be a good ironic viewing:
“[The Slap] explores what happens when a man slaps a child, who does not belong to him, at a suburban barbecue. Each episode is based upon the viewpoint of different adults who attended the barbecue.”
Even in hindsight and in 2019, I’m not quite sure how anyone could read that synopsis and not consider it a joke on some level. But then an even funnier thing happened: I watched it, and it ended up being one of the absolute best things I’d watched all that year. And I watched a lot of TV that year. I’d argue—and have, on official ballots—that The Slap is still one of the best miniseries of the past decade. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the original version of the series and why it worked so well, especially when NBC’s American remake simply did not. In the case of the latter, it wasn’t even just an example of American audiences mocking it too much without actually seeing it, it was just disappointingly bad on multiple levels. Having recently rewatched both versions of the series, I can now confirm what and where those problems and disparities were.
One of the major and most obvious issues is one that sets up the entire framework and infrastructure for both series: While the series synopsis suggests that the slap is the single most important aspect of all of these characters’ lives all of a sudden, in the original version, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, it’s actually brilliant just how much no one wants to be part of the slap conversation and subsequent case in the original, while the American version (and its promotion) would have you believe that the slap is all that matters … which is really just as stupid as it sounds. (Compare the American promo to the Australian promo, which introduces the slap early on and then moves on to the rest of the actual series.) While both versions of The Slap centered on different characters who were in attendance at the party where the slap occurred, the Australian series did everything it could to make the audience aware that this isn’t some Vantage Point-style series about the relatively miniscule event.
Based on the 2008 novel of the same name by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap begins with a party that culminates in the eponymous slap and then progresses forward with each episode focused on one of eight individual characters. In the first, Hector (Jonathan LaPaglia) is about to turn 40, and his wife Aisha (Sophie Okonedo) throws him a party at their home. Hector and Aisha are the perfect married couple, except they have to deal with Hector’s Greek parents always overstepping their (and especially Aisha’s) bounds, their son Adam’s (Adrian Van Der Heyden) overeating (which is especially a sore spot for Hector, who is aggressive in his exercise regimen), and the fact that Hector—at his most obviously mid-life crisis-y—wants to sleep with Connie (Sophie Lowe), Aisha’s 17-year-old receptionist at her veterinary practice. But it’s Hector’s cousin Harry (Alex Dimitriades)—who is more like a brother to him—who ends up doing the slapping at the party, on the untamed Hugo (Julian Mineo), son of drunk struggling artist Gary (Anthony Hayes) and helicopter mom Rosie (Melissa George), still breastfeeding the boy long after he should need it. Hugo runs around and speaks in complete sentences… and also never suffers any repercussions for his actions at the party: Breaking the shared videogame controller on purpose because he loses, smashing cake into Hector’s CD collection, ripping Hector and Aisha’s flower beds out of the ground, swinging a cricket bat uncontrollably because he refuses to accept he’s out. That last one is what brings Harry his way, worried that he’ll end up hitting his son with the bat. Harry takes the bat away and then Hugo kicks him in the shin—then SLAP. It’s absolute pandemonium in the seconds after this (which is something undersold in the remake), but that’s also the first and last time every single character reacts to the event like that.
The Slap’s episode order is really quite important to truly explain what the series is, as the original version smartly follows up Episode One (“Hector”) with an episode focused on Anouk (Essie Davis), a character who didn’t see the slap at all, as she had clocked Hector’s obvious flirty (or something more) relationship with Connie. Instead, Episode Two reveals how the series called The Slap can exist without being about “the slap” at all. The episode is all about Anouk’s career as a showrunner of a night-time soap (that Gary drunkenly, openly insult to her and her star’s face at the party), her relationship with 17-years-her-junior Rhys (Oliver Ackland)—the star of her series—her attempts to take care of her sick mother Rachel (Gillian Jones), how she doesn’t have enough time to do everything she needs to do at work and exist, and how she functions as the “single” friend with no children. The only two scenes about the slap in this episode are either about how she didn’t see it or how she honestly doesn’t care. The following episode, “Harry” has Harry trying to bribe Anouk—and it’s a nice writing touch that Harry has to ask Hector for Anouk’s number to even contact her—to get her on his side (which she technically is), but again, she wants absolutely nothing to do with this. And Rosie (like Aisha) is admittedly like a sister to her—she just knows Rosie’s son is an absolute nightmare.
The American version switches the character episode order quite a bit, but the choice that affects the rest of the series the most—and right away—is the one to put “Harry” as Episode Two, right before “Anouk.” The original “Anouk” is an episode completely devoid of Harry, which is a bold choice considering what one would assume about the aftermath, but it segues quite well into original “Harry,” as it’s not until 30 minutes into “Harry” that the series officially confirms that Harry is abusive. Even then, it provides reasonable doubt, suggesting that this is a one-time thing due to stress—as it continues to reveal how he holds in all of his rage throughout, not acting on it like he wants to—before a later-episode reveal that this is not the first or only time he’s gotten physical with his wife (or anyone). Before we see how violent he can be to his wife and cruel he can be to anyone who’s not blood-related, the episode absolutely reveals him as a philanderer and a jerk but it very pointedly doesn’t reveal just how evil he is, even though there are hints that only become clear in hindsight.
In the American version, Zachary Quinto might as well have had a sign on his head that said “menace” or “SLAPPER,” as he never even once played the character with the upsettingly-not-that-fake charm that Dimitriades’ version has, so it’s not even slightly a surprise—because as much as Harry is a bad guy, the episode keeps having moments where he’s sweet with his wife or where he defends his black cousin-in-law—when he turns his rage at his wife or reveals his actual racism. (And the narrator even reveals Harry’s racism early on when he talks about how Harry doesn’t care about “the towel heads and the Jews;” but it’s passive compared to when he angrily calls Aisha a “stuck-up black bitch.”) In both versions of The Slap, he’s the guy who slaps a little kid, but at least in the original there’s some space to believe that another character could’ve been the slapper.
In the remake, the subtext is all text, with the slap being all that matters, with Harry attempting to drag Anouk into this almost immediately. So a character who was originally interesting in small part because she wanted nothing to do with the slap and had no stake in it—Anouk is just a cooler and more fascinating character than the others—becomes part of the slap saga in the American version, because the show’s called The Slap. It doesn’t help that, as a character choice, Uma Thurman played Anouk way too cool, as opposed to actually being cool, like Essie Davis’ version (and Uma Thurman outside of The Slap). It’s kind of unfair, though, as Davis’ performance as “Anouk” is so great that the original series, as good as it gets, is never asgreat as the bar she sets.
Like the remake, the police get involved post-slap, there’s a court case, and yadda yadda yadda. But The Slap (AUS) is not about a fucking slap and never ultimately is. It’s about those adult “friendships” that are really only held together by being forced together. It’s about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. It’s about the toxic generational weight passed on and the greater weight that comes with trying to avoid repeating the same mistakes as your parents and their parents (and yet still falling into those traps). It’s about how Hector is more openly loving toward his son than his father was to him, but how he’s still verbally abusive and disgusted by him. It’s about how Anouk, who has no business being a mother, considers being one just to write the wrongs of her own. (Mid-life crises are mentioned multiple times in the series, but they’re ultimately just excuses.) It’s about how Connie’s mother attempting to be her best friend has Connie pretending she’s much more mature than she actually is. It’s about Harry looking like he has everything put together, yet repeats the cycles of his own abusive, dead father and keeps so much of it inside. It’s about the old guard continuing to push these toxic viewpoints on their children (and their children’s family) while their children push back yet continue to do the same. The Slap (USA) is about… Well, there were big-time movie actors in the cast, and the characters brought up… um… the cultural persecution of the One Percent in Brooklyn.
The biggest dropped ball from the Australian to American remake—and one of those things that shows how a remake can get so lost in translation even when the original is also technically in the same language—comes from the largest driving force of the original series: pervasive race and culture issues. That is especially relevant within the Australian setting and it is pretty much just gone (or at least impossible to replicate) in the remake. While the remake continues to make Hector, Harry, and Hector’s parents Greek, the cultural ramifications that exist in the original (with Australian anti-Greek sentiment, including use of the slur “wog” from characters who aren’t inherently “evil,” like Gary) don’t exist in 2015 Brooklyn. And it doesn’t focus as much on the anti-black aspect of it all—which at least would’ve worked—as the original does either. The remake, unfortunately, had no depth past the slap, and even that was made as shallow as possible.
As a network series, and especially an NBC network series, the American version of The Slap was unnecessarily fast-paced, never letting anything breathe, unlike the original. Again, going back to “Anouk,” instead of letting the audience realize Anouk is pregnant, the American episode provides no signs, yet has her mother (Blythe Danner, doing … some accent) saying, “maybe you’re pregnant.” In the original, the word “pregnant” isn’t even uttered until right as she tells Rosie right before she gets an abortion. Because it doesn’t need to be, because it doesn’t think the audience is stupid. It’s not stupid. (The American version has Uma Thurman’s Anouk keeping the baby and ends with her giving birth, with the sign of great growth for all—but Harry—coming in the form of her allowing Hugo to hold her newborn baby. Seriously. In the original, Hugo remains a little monster because Rosie and Gary still refuse to change, even though they pretend for a bleak moment that they’ll get a fresh new start.)
The remake was, unfortunately, stupid. At the time, when the remake was announced and ordered by NBC to series, I considered the casting pretty perfect, though I did write: “You all should (finally) watch the original version of The Slap now, so when NBC peacocks it up, you’ll have something to look back on fondly.” For frame of reference, that TV season (2014-2015), NBC had also picked up the following dramas to series: Allegiance (an American adaptation of an Israeli series), American Odyssey, Aquarius, Constantine, The Mysteries of Laura, and State of Affairs. Only Aquarius (David Duchovny) and The Mysteries of Laura (Debra Messing) made it to a second season, before they were also canceled. And all of those shows were, simply put, also stupid. But the most obvious reason The Slap failed—even though it succeeded in airing all eight episodes produced—is that it should have been a cable series, not a network series. Not that that would necessarily mean it would be a perfect remake, but it would mean it wouldn’t be beholden to the network rules of trying to make appointment television out of a slow-simmering story. The American Slap doesn’t have patience because its television home didn’t have patience, plain and simple. So instead, it ended up being the kind of NBC thing that 30 Rock would make a joke about. Or maybe it shouldn’t have been remade at all, but re-aired in America on a cable network people actually watched—however, it re-aired on Audience, home of You Me Her, and previously-established shows like Friday Night Lights and Damages.
Thankfully, the Australian version is currently available on Amazon Prime; the American version is, of course, also easily found. But the bottom line is that the past is the past, and at the end of the day, the original version of The Slap was just a better executed version of the same initial story. It’s just too bad it got lost in the conversation and translation.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.
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