Australia’s moment: why NBC didn’t need to make ‘The Slap’

On Thursday NBC premiers a bold new domestic drama: The Slap. I can tell you it’s worth watching. It’s a brilliant story about discord within the family we are given and the family we create. I know because I saw The Slap three years ago when the original series aired on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The premise is this: during a family barbecue (um… cook-out), a five year old boy starts trying to hit the other kids with a cricket bat (big piece of wood). The dad of one of the other kids intervenes and slaps him. That one action, the slap, sets off ripples that reveal layers of complexity amongst these average middle-class Australian people.

The Slap holds an important position in Australia’s television cannon. Adapted from Christos Tsiolkas’ award-winning novel, it reveals hidden truths within a family and its friends living in Melbourne’s suburbs. It is bold, impeccable in its production and speaks in an Australian voice unique to its time and place. The Slap is an Australian story, a Melbourne story, a Greek migrant story. There is so much richness to be lost in translation.

While some Australians take NBC’s adaption of The Slap as proof of the original’s worth, now that I’m living in America I’m less enthused. For me, it’s another example of America looking in on itself when it could be looking out.

Unlike network TV in America, Australian TV is diverse. We import so much TV from Britain and the USA that the government sets a minimum number of hours for local content shown on Australian channels. The Special Broadcasting Service is a publicly subsidized network dedicated to international and non-English language content. Our box-watching habits force us to recognize the diversity amongst us and outside us.

America’s naval gazing ways, while great for the domestic entertainment industry, can make it hard for people like me, and harder for immigrants of color. Rarely a day goes by without someone informing me that I’m strange. Whether it’s the well intentioned “Where are you from?” or the more accusatory “Hey! you’re British” Midwestern Americans seem perplexed by even a modicum of difference.

Unsure what “Australia” means as a concept, most Americans I meet equate it with Britain without knowing the broad cultural make-up that makes my country unique. I feel the urge to boost Australia up, to inflate it in my conversations until it resembles its true size and shape. Make your kangaroo jokes if you must, America, but can I teach you some of the Indonesian words I learnt at school? Can I tell you about how Sydney has some of the best dim sum the world can offer?

In many years when the bureaucratic nightmare is over, I will tell you just how hard it was for me to move here and establish myself. I’ll tell you about how people have told me they don’t consider me a real immigrant because I’m willing to work (read: white). I’ll tell you about the time a waitress yelled at me because of the way I pronounced “water”. I’ll tell you about all the times I’ve had to point out Australia or New Zealand or Malaysia on a map. With immigration reform on the table America is having a national conversation about what it means to be American. Overwhelmingly, this conversation is about how immigrants can integrate into America rather than how American culture can shift to include its immigrants.

But rather than take the opportunity to show excellent foreign content, NBC has decided once again to translate it. The list of foreign adaptations is long and full of casualties. While Mike Shur’s version of The Office is arguably an improvement on the original, most series fall on America’s airwaves like a song sung in the wrong key. (Just look at the trailers for Coupling or The IT Crowd for six minutes of cringe.) In an era when television networks are being rewarded for taking risks, it’s disappointing to see NBC make a series in the safest way possible.

The Slap came to NBC already written and audience tested. In fact, Australian-American actor Melissa George came pre-cast in the role of Rosie. A show that’s packaged up and ready to shoot would have been an easy sell to risk-averse producers. It’s a sad reality that in America adapting foreign content is seen as safer than airing a foreign English language series. This continuous pilfering of other countries’ cultural product is done not only at the expense of the original series, but also America’s own story tellers. Maybe showing programs such as the Australian version of The Slap would make American networks more receptive to airing content that reflects America’s population.

And while Netflix increases America’s access to foreign content (can I recommend Broadchurch and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries?) it is also complicit in this habit of adaptation. The ‘Netflix Original’ The Killing was first a Danish production shown across Europe and Australia. It is beautiful, disturbing and, to my eyes, quintessentially Scandinavian. Netflix’s adaptation looks like any other American crime drama.

It is patronizing of networks to assume that a kid swinging a cricket bat instead of a baseball bat makes a story less accessible. In recent years a number of series have shown that there is an apatite for international programming. The BBC/PBS co-production Call The Midwife was watched by 3.6 million Americans last year. And the Melbourne-based comedy Please Like Me staring Caitlin Stasey has demonstrated that the Australian sense of humor can travel.

Every time we watch a story that isn’t ours, our world gets a little bit bigger and a little bit warmer. Foreigners become a little less strange. The Slap is Australian-made HBO quality drama and I really think you’d like it.