The American Remake Of ‘The Slap’ Is Kind Of Terrible
Americans remaking Australian TV shows. When will they learn.
Back in 2008 Australian author Christos Tsiolkas released his novel The Slap, to bucketloads of controversy and debate. Set in suburban Melbourne, the titular “Slap” referred to the book’s main plot point: the moment Greek man Harry hits four-year-old brat Hugo — a boy who is not his child — during a cricket game at an everyday Australian birthday barbecue, with the fallout constituting most of the book’s narrative.
Aside from being nominated by the UK’s Literary Review for the Bad Sex in Literature Award (which is totally justified) and Tsiolkas accused of being “unbelievably misogynistic” (also justified), the novel took a hard look at the cultural changes in contemporary Australia, multiculturalism and, mainly, the moral questions of slapping a child that is not your own, something that has changed over the years.
Naturally a TV adaptation was imminent, and the 2011 ABC miniseries continued to polarise viewers as it did readers. Still exploring the contentious issues of fidelity, racism and classism, the miniseries did not avoid the themes of the book, still focusing on critiquing middle-class Australia, domestic violence and the place of migrants and migrant families in a culturally aware society. At the time the series had near-universal acclaim, with The Age saying that the pilot was a “deftly written 55 minutes of television that keeps faith with Tsiolkas’ desire to portray today’s Melbourne” and Film Blerg calling it “captivating and hard-hitting television that took an unflinching look at contemporary Australia.”
Lost In Translation: An Australian Story In An American Setting
Taking into account the nature of the plot and the fact that the novel was able to capture specific parts of Australian society and culture that hadn’t been properly explored before, it’s no surprise that the new Americanised series, which premiered last week on NBC, has received mixed reviews. Having reviewed the pilot “Hector” and the sophomore episode “Harry”, The Atlantic called the series “a work of ostentatious faux-prestige” and a “yuppie hellstorm,” while The Hollywood Reporter said: “Whatever The Slap may have been in previous iterations, it’s flat-out annoying in this one”. The AV Club said that it felt “more like a cable show that made a wrong turn at Albuquerque” while Time said the show “has the ideas and the assembled talent to make a better, subtler character exploration,” but suffered from “hamhanded characterisation.”
Unfortunately, the critics aren’t wrong. Many things have changed in the move from Australia to the US. The first major one is moving the action from suburban Melbourne to Brooklyn, New York, which clouds the fact that the opening environment where the slap itself occurs is quintessentially Australian. The barbecue, the backyard cricket, the extensive alcohol and the simplicity of an outdoor summer birthday are lost in translation when the setting is moved to Brooklyn, with the replacements being a baseball bat and some all-American wine – not exactly the best American equivalent of an Aussie BBQ.
Among the hip brownstones of upper middle-class Brooklyn, multiculturalism and cultural changes are very different to the suburban Melbourne of the original Slap. Instead of the clawing aspirational suburb-dwellers of the original, hipsters reign supreme. Lower class “bogans” Rosie and Garry are re-imagined in the series as New Age yuppies (Garry is an artist now…what?). Harry is more socially Darwinian than ever and openly makes comments about invading Iraq again, becoming the Republican the audience is already meant to hate, rather than present him as a more nuanced character. In fact, judging by the “newly imagined” characters in this American adaptation, it seems as if the only city livers who are friendly with lots of multicultural friends and hold outdoor parties are the attractive hipsters of Brooklyn, never mind the middle-aged, bored, financially insecure characters The Slap was originally about.
Migrants And The Middle Class
Promising to be “far more psychological” than the original, the series deviates from focusing on the social and cultural change facing contemporary society and the ethical questions at play throughout, instead centering more on the more intense drama of the slap and its consequences. It probably doesn’t help that despite the American script being almost identical to the Australian counterpart, the action unfolds in 43 minutes rather than the hour we luckily have on our network (thanks, Aunty).
At the heart of the issue of this failed conversion is that television executives do not trust American audiences to watch something to which they cannot relate, and based on the countless remakes of international series that the US has seen and rejected, they are right. There’s no doubt that the Australian version nailed it in terms of family tensions, and unsettled some viewers because the arguing was too close to home rather than wholly implausible. But this sort of confrontation gets downplayed in the opening episode of the remake, and likely in the episodes to come. Though not a single plot point was skipped in the pilot, many other changes were made that will overall change the philosophy of the series and how characters develop and are perceived. For example, exchanging Hector’s cocaine for marijuana is meant to make him more likable.
The producers have hyped up the show to soap opera levels and reverted many of the diverse characters into stereotypes to make them easier to digest. This focus on plot over characters is further emphasised by the move of the episode “Harry,” which takes up the third slot in the Australian version, to the second episode. Instead of screening the “Anouk” episode, which follows longtime friend of slapped-parent Rosie as she navigates her stressful job, younger boyfriend and her decision to have an abortion, NBC’s second episode will focus on the slapper Harry himself as he tries to stop Rosie and Garry charging him and his own personal demons, clearly much meatier and plot-driven than the ethically ambiguous “Anouk” episode.
The Slap may include one of the best lineups for a miniseries in NBC’s history, but the content of the original will not be successful in its new context. Unlike Secrets & Lies, which will be making a debut on American ABC and is also based on the Australian series of the same name, The Slap is very geographically, socially, culturally and politically specific for Melbourne after the Howard years, and was as much about observing the reality of twenty-first century, multicultural, suburban middle-class Australia as it was about the slap itself. While it will be interesting to see what the show will leave out or dumb down in the future weeks, all we can do is hope that American TV will show the Australian version and show NBC’s audiences how it’s done.