NBC explores parents and children in 'The Slap'

NBC risks blowback from parents with 'The Slap,' a limited series on corporal punishment and child discipline

Parental discipline has long been a familiar subject in the living room, the classroom and even, in the case of a certain NFL player, the courtroom.

What it has rarely been is the stuff of mainstream entertainment. The issue has an everyday relatability, yet broadcast networks tend to treat the topic of a misbehaving child as the stuff of comedy — if they treat it at all.

NBC will seek to change that on Thursday when it debuts "The Slap," a limited series that uses a recalcitrant youth and one adult's aggressive reaction to him as the jumping-off point for a rarely held discussion.

In one of the more improbable pairings to hit network television in recent memory, NBC has enlisted the playwright Jon Robin Baitz, the veteran movie producer Walter Parkes and the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko — along with a top-tier cast that includes Uma Thurman, Peter Sarsgaard, Brian Cox and Zachary Quinto — for "Slap," which is adapted from an Australian bestseller and TV series. (Baitz is the lead writer, and he, Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and Cholodenko are executive producers. Cholodenko also directed the pilot.)

The result is the dramatic fodder and upscale personalities of pay-cable transplanted, riskily, to broadcast prime time.

In "The Slap," a child named Hugo acts out at a family gathering, prompting a hot-tempered man who is not his father (Quinto) to smack the child across the face. The act reverberates both with the boy's bohemian parents (Melissa George and Thomas Sadoski) and the larger Greek American family to which many characters belong. Over the course of its eight episodes, "The Slap" puts a spotlight on a world where parents are at once more attentive to their children and more overwhelmed by outside pressures.

"There's an undercurrent of profound distraction in these characters," said Baitz, the acclaimed playwright behind familial powder kegs such as "The Substance of Fire" and "Other Desert Cities." "This show is an implicit investigation into what our culture does with itself, distracts itself to death so that you forget to pay attention to what's happening around you."

"The Slap" features the kind of intimate psychology and character deep-dive more reminiscent of an HBO show like "In Treatment" than most offerings on a major network. Even NBC's recently ended "Parenthood," which also examined real-life problems across an extended family, is more conventionally structured.

But rather than cut between friends and family members, "The Slap" spends each episode chronicling the action from the point of view of one person.

In the debut, the action centers on Hector (Sarsgaard), whose birthday party is the site of the slap. As he turns 40, Hector grapples with work frustrations, tensions between his wife and parents (Cox, Greek-accented, stars as his father) and temptation with a college student. In the second episode, the action shifts to Harry (Quinto), a man with a philistine streak who takes an old-world approach to discipline.

"We started to realize at the end of each episode that we had a short story about a character," said Parkes, who has written on a number of episodes. "It's not 'Rashomon.' It's the effects this event had on the lives of each of these people."

The intense nature of the subject is the sort that engenders debate — George, who reprises her role as Hugo's mother from the Australian show, says she can't attend a party or meet up with a friend without the conversation starting anew. Quinto said that he'd "like to think that everyone watching the show will relate to one of the characters — whether it's positive relatability or negative relatability."

He and Sarsgaard note the show's newfound topicality, with the controversy over Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson bubbling up in the fall. (The star running back pleaded no contest in November to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault after allegedly beating his 4-year-old with a stick.)

"I got the craziest reactions talking to people about this. I was so sure everyone watching it would say it's wrong, and they haven't," Sarsgaard said. He paused. "Hopefully most people think it's wrong. But how wrong it is, what the right punishment is, what the best way to resolve something like that is — that's what we want to explore."

Despite the timeliness, the show remains a chancy proposition for NBC. The network is asking viewers to invest deeply in characters they'd never met, shift their interest every week and generally pay attention to a lighting-rod topic. "Do people sitting at home at night, given the chance to space out and the chance to think and feel something, choose the latter?" Sarsgaard asked. "I think a lot of them will space out. But hopefully enough people also choose think and feel."

"The Slap" isn't just a gamble for the network, which is looking for event series to complement its live musicals and Olympic telecasts--it's also a roll of the dice for Baitz, a Tony nominee and Pulitzer finalist.  The writer worked in television before — he created the family ensemble "Brothers & Sisters" at ABC, enjoying critical acclaim but a rocky relationship with the networt, a series of events that led to him exiting the show early in its run.

The experience stung him — he left Hollywood in 2007 and created the well-regarded Broadway drama "Other Desert Cities" in response.

Baitz said he approached a return with caution but was reassured by the wide berth NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt afforded him and Parkes; he also appreciated the more economic storytelling of a limited series. "I'm still basically the same playwright with the same misguided management skills," he said, with a laugh. "But I think I've learned a little more how to cross disciplines and how to shift weight."

He said he was also encouraged by the subject, which allows for rich exploration.

"It's about a lot of different things — fidelity, honesty, the contracts we make, the lies contained within those contracts. The slap is a slap, but it's only a slap."

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'The Slap'

Where: NBC

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-DSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, sex and violence)

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