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Miniseries Explores The Ugly Fallout Of A Disciplinary 'Slap'

Rosie (Melissa George) and barbecue hostess Aisha (Thandie Newton) comfort Rosie's 5-year-old son (Dylan Schombing) after another parent hit him.
Virginia Sherwood
Rosie (Melissa George) and barbecue hostess Aisha (Thandie Newton) comfort Rosie's 5-year-old son (Dylan Schombing) after another parent hit him.

For a lot of parents, spanking your kids isn't an option. But not too long ago, many a child's bottom met the occasional switch. And while attitudes about corporal punishment have changed, it's still a provocative issue — one NBC is taking on in The Slap, a new miniseries that premiers Thursday.

The show's big event takes place in the first episode at a barbecue in Brooklyn. Family and friends are milling about, and one of the little boys, 5-year-old Hugo, is a terror. He throws someone else's iPad on the floor and digs up the host's garden, and his parents — hippies who like to drink — pretty much do nothing to stop him.

At one point, Hugo swings a baseball bat dangerously close to the other kids. His dad doesn't seem too concerned, but when the bat nearly hits another boy, that boy's father storms toward Hugo and takes him by the shoulders. Hugo kicks him in the shin and the man slaps him, setting off a firestorm of reactions. Hugo's mother is distraught, the slapper's wife is mortified and the slapper's 73-year-old aunt is old school: "The brat deserved it," she says.

The show has a dream cast that includes Peter Sarsgaard, Thandie Newton and Uma Thurman. The two main characters — Hugo's mom and the slapper — are played by Melissa George and Zachary Quinto, and each brought their personal feelings about corporal punishment to their performances. Quinto says when he was a kid, his parents were not against physical pain.

"We called it the stick," he says. "And the stick was brought out in extreme cases of infraction. I didn't grow up in a household that was in any way damaging to me. I hated it and it terrified me, but it also instilled me with a sense of what happens when you break the rules."

But George says, "To me, no one has the right to punish someone else's child."

Harry, the slapper, definitely has anger issues. He's a self-made man who's rigid and has high expectations for his son. On the other extreme, Rosie, Hugo's mom, is a free spirit. She hates violence, wants to shelter her son from the Harrys of the world and doesn't believe in giving her son too many boundaries.

"Like her house that they live in — he can draw on the windows because she thinks it's [an] expression of his artistic abilities," George says. "You know, they say that he was swinging the bat, and what she says is ... 'Every child misbehaves.' "

Quinto and George say they brought their own experiences of either parenting or being parented into the roles. And because those experiences vary, The Slap brings up stuff that a lot of people are afraid to talk about, like the stress of balancing a job and a marriage, and being a parent.

"It is important to show this today because it puts in our faces what's happening in many households on a daily basis," says psychologist Lesley Sanders.

The series also looks at how older generations disciplined their kids 15 to 20 years ago, when things were different. "There was a sense of community, a sense of, you know, 'it takes a village to raise a child,' " Sanders says. "So ... it was OK to discipline a child that was not your own."

The Slap was originally a novel that was first adapted into a miniseries for Australian television. The American version was written by playwright Jon Robin Baitz. He says one reason he was drawn to the story was that it begins at a barbecue, a fairly routine setting.

"There's an idea in playwriting that, you know, the drama begins once ritual is broken," he says. And the drama isn't just the slap itself; it's also the ugly repercussions.

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.