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Friday, 7 October 2011

Broadcaster ABC's new series The Slap packs a punch

It was a no-brainer for me to buy Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap when I saw it high up on a shelf yesterday at a local second-hand bookshop. I'm an avowed long-time fan of Tsiolkas and Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe were all reviewed on this blog in early 2006, when I quickly made up my mind that Tsiolkas was one of Australia's best writers of fiction.

So when the ABC decided to commission a drama based on his latest book, and then started saturating their program ad breaks with trailers for The Slap filled with scenes of dramatic intensity that are overlaid with atmospheric music, I decided it was a duty to watch the first episode. I needn't have worried. The ep is good, offering plausible characters - none of whom, not even young Adam, Hector and Aisha's son, are denied agency and depth - as well as tight scripting and sound acting. As for action, the canonical moment  - the moment of the slap - is so meaningful because of what proceeds it and because of the rich tapestry of relationships that is woven through the characters and their interrelationships over the preceeding hour or so. Yes, the ep is an hour long but there's so much happening in this extremely average household that it seems to be much shorter. ABC managers should be pleased with the result. In my mind The Slap is a strong program and should do well in the ratings.

It's a bit difficult to say too much about The Slap in a review of this kind because you don't want to give away any surprises, so this post will not be overly long or detailed. Suffice it to say that the primary protagonists in this first ep are Hector, played by Jonathan LaPaglia, and his wife Aisha, played by Sophie Okenedo. Hector's turning 40 and today is his birthday party. Friends are invited. Aisha has been up since six making preparations and Hector is trying, without much enthusiasm, to give up smoking. Hector's family - mother, father and cousin - are arriving. The tense relationship between Aisha, fussing and burdened by her responsibilities as host, and Hector, who is busy with his own plans, furnish the ep with its core focus. There's also Hector's relationship with his son, Adam, who feels that his dad is too strict on him. Hector's mother and father arrive bringing presents and food (Aisha thinks her own preparations are sufficient for purpose), giving the birthday boy and his family air tickets to Greece, his country of origin, but Aisha and Hector had plans to get away as a couple to Bali. This event is typical of the way small details add further to the gamut of forces acting upon the couple.

Then there's the small matter of enjoying your birthday party while looking after a house full of kids, one of whom, Hugo, the son of Aisha's old friend Rosie and her husband Gary, is a real handful.

Tsiolkas and the program writers have efficiently drawn their characters with enough detail in order to give the episode's main point of drama - the slap - the impact it requires in order to generate the resonance it will have during the remainder of the series, and the book. Without knowledge of Hector's complicated relationship with Aisha (what marriages aren't filled with this kind of routine, quotidian drama?) and his philandering, the slap would not carry the load that it does. And Hector's friends are all drawn accurately to type so that you have the successful businessman (Hector's cousin Harry), the Muslim couple happy with small things, the combative bogan Gary, and Aisha's old friend Anouk, who works in TV and arrives with Rhys, a soap opera actor. The ep is mainly set in Hector and Aisha's kitchen and backyard, giving it a satisfyingly claustrophobic intensity. While Hector can escape to the upstairs bathroom to dose up and grab a quick smoke, in the main everyone is always watching everyone else; even Hector checks out the action downstairs out of the bathroom window. There are few secrets, it turns out.

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