The Sad Case of The Slap

How a show with so much potential became the least likable series on TV.

The Slap.
Zachary Quinto and Marin Ireland in a scene from NBC’s The Slap.

Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC

In the final courtroom scene of NBC’s The Slap, as judgment was being passed down in the case of Unsupportable Hippie Stereotype vs. Glowering Brute, the judge took the time to admonish the entire gathered cast of characters for essentially wasting the court’s time on a case this trivial and for being so unpleasant as to drive a teenage boy nearly to suicide. Far be it from me to read too much into things, but I’m not sure that “This was all an unconscionable waste of resources” is the metatextual note that any show wants to go out on, much less a miniseries that got knocked around as much as The Slap did. That said: The judge pretty much nailed it.

Sure, the plot of the eight-episode series was resolved for the most part in this finale. After an hour’s worth of using poor Richie in a tug-of-war (which turns out to be especially bad when we find out Richie’s tragic backstory), Harry is found guilty and sentenced to time served, and Rosie and Gary get a lecture from the judge about drinking wine while you’re breast-feeding, paying attention to your rotten kids at parties, and wasting teachers’ valuable time. But while the plot may have gotten tied up—plus a dispatch at the end from the near-future, when Anouk has given birth to her baby and the warring parties learn to coexist again—the question of what kind of show The Slap actually was remains.

From the beginning, The Slap was something that should have worked in theory, with so much talent on board, but it never came close to pulling it all together. Tonally, the show was a disaster, caught in a no man’s land between all the different kinds of shows it was imitating. Take that Victor Garber narration, clearly reminiscent of the movie Little Children and indicative of the fact that somebody once thought this show was going to be a satire. But it’s not camp, of course. Nothing that’s been carried out as solemnly as this show could be. And in the absence of any irony or perspective, The Slap struggled to decide what it wanted to be, beyond a provocation to parents and people who like to judge parents. It often played like an extended, Brooklyn-set episode of that ABC gotcha series What Would You Do?, only one where the answer to that question is to run as far away from these people as you could possibly run. At times, the show has appeared to endorse the notion that it’s Brooklyn that’s making everybody crazy, which Uma Thurman’s Anouk basically said out loud last week. It was the closest The Slap ever came to a point of view.

The fact that the season culminated in a courtroom is a perfect example of the show’s struggles. The simple fact is that The Slap is entirely uncompelling as a legal drama, because the stakes are hilariously low, and the characters are monstrously unlikeable. We don’t care if Harry’s reputation is ruined by abuse charges; it probably should be. We don’t care if the Weshlers are painted as hysterics; they probably are. (Rosie definitely is.) We don’t care if this group of family and friends is torn apart by the Slaptermath because it’s really only Harry and Rosie and Gary who are at odds, and as far as we can tell, they were never friends in the first place. At worst, Hector and Aisha were pulled in both directions a few times, and Manolis had some indigestion about the whole thing. What have we been doing all these weeks?

And Thursday night’s finale was a particularly off-putting way of ending things. Every episode in the series has been filtered through one specific character, and in the finale, that was Richie, the teen baby-sitter and photographer who had taken photos of the slap but then deleted them because he wanted nothing to do with the court battle (tough to blame him). And although the choice to run the finale through the character who was least involved in the inciting incident may have seemed like the appropriate distance from which to see the whole landscape of the show, the specifics of Richie’s story sabotaged that effort.

We found out that Richie and his mom came to Brooklyn after having fled upstate, where Richie and his boyfriend were cyberbullied into a pair of suicide attempts, one of them unsuccessful. The specifics of Richie’s backstory, particularly the part about photos and video of him and his boyfriend being disseminated, plus the manner of the boyfriend’s suicide, strongly recalled the 2010 death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. Perhaps it’s because Richie was the only character on this entire show that I actually liked, but I found it all kinds of cheap to push Richie to the point of another suicide attempt—not to mention rip Clementi’s story from the headlines—in order to better prove to these unlikeable adult characters that they should be kinder to one another. “Nothing matters but the slap,” Rosie and Gary’s lawyer says in the early going of the episode, and by the end that’s made all too clear.

Of course, it feels silly to take umbrage with a show like The Slap. Nothing this inert could ever really be offensive. Mostly, it’s a missed opportunity for network drama to reclaim a bit of its luster. We could diagnose The Slap all day—it should’ve been a farce. It should’ve been a play. There are a dozen or more parallel universes in which The Slap is a hit. Of course, if it had been a hit, NBC might have picked it up for a second season. Yes, the show is classified as a miniseries, but tell that to Under the Dome. Honestly, the best thing about The Slap is that it’s ending, and I don’t even (entirely) mean that as a backhanded compliment. Nothing ever ends anymore on television. The one victory of the low-rated show is that it actually gets to write its closing chapter. The Slap’s closing chapter was, as Willa Paskin said of the premiere, fairly graceless. But it was an ending. Sometimes that’s enough.