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NBC's The Slap kick-starts the network's seriously dramatic, totally revamped Thursday night lineup


Well, this looks like lots of fun. The cast of The Slap. NBC photo

Premiering: Thursday, Feb. 12th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Thandie Newton, Uma Thurman, Zachary Quinto, Melissa George, Makenzie Leigh, Marin Ireland, Thomas Sadoski, Brian Cox, Dylan Schombing, Maria Tucci
Produced by: Jon Robin Baitz, Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Lisa Cholodenko

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Some backhanded praise for The Slap.

It’s involving but also tends to shortchange its risks by taking too many well-worn paths.

Avoiding the overall sappiness of Parenthood, it’s a fractious family drama that arguably offers reasons to dislike just about everyone involved.

Seemingly worried that too many viewers actually might empathize with a onetime child-slapper, it strains to make that same character a brutish adulterer and cutthroat businessman.

Still, The Slap commands attention as a broadcast network drama with more bite than most. Adapted from a same-named book and Australian TV series, it’s the final midseason piece of NBC’s completely altered Thursday night lineup. But it might be too “adult” to serve as a prime-time lead-off hitter followed by The Blacklist and another new drama, Allegiance.

Eight episodes are scheduled, and NBC sent the first two for review. Each is immediately compromised by intrusive setups from an unseen male narrator. But enough of him.

The Slap’s principal couple is Hector and Aisha (Peter Saarsgard, Thandie Newton). He heads the New York City Planning Commission but has just been passed over for a big promotion on the eve of his 40th birthday. She’s a doctor running a small health clinic. They have two constantly arguing pre-teen kids, and Hector is struggling to extricate himself from an affair with a nubile babysitter named Connie (Makenzie Leigh).

A birthday party is planned for Hector, who doesn’t much want one. But it gives The Slap an opportunity to assemble all the other main characters under one roof, including Hector’s short-tempered, rich cousin, Harry (Zachary Quinto), and his well-kept wife, Sandi (Marin Ireland).

Harry turns out to be the slapper after the very bratty son of party attendees Rosie and Gary (Melissa George, Thomas Sadoski) proceeds to constantly misbehave. Hugo (Dylan Schombing) looks to be somewhere between the age of 3 and 5, but is still breastfeeding. And his ultra-coddling mother pays no mind when the kid dangerously begins swinging a wooden baseball bat near other children before kicking Harry in the leg when he yanks it away from him. This triggers “The Slap” and several other domino effect events.

Uma Thurman is also in the mix as a TV writer/director who of course prefers the company of younger men. She doesn’t figure too prominently in the first two hours, but Episode 3 is subtitled with the name of her character, Anouk. The Greek Hector’s tradition-minded parents, Manolis and Koula, are played by Brian Cox and Maria Tucci. Manolis appears to be the best-adjusted, most decent character of the bunch. But his wife is a carping meddler who insists on bringing her “Athenian Feast” to what’s supposed to be a barbecue before springing a big surprise gift that Newton’s Aisha wants no part of.

Aisha is called upon to glare disdainfully several too many times in Thursday’s premiere episode. Meanwhile, husband Hector is something of a nebbish who tells Connie the babysitter at one point, “I’m just losing control of the elements.” For no particular reason, the narrator also drops in a line about Hector being an atheist.

Hugo’s parents both seem in need of a good throttling before being taught that caring parents don’t have a license to let their kid run amuck. But lest anyone be inclined to applaud Harry’s action, he’s reduced to a crude intimidator -- with his wife and others -- before whining to Hector in Episode 2, “What’s happening to this country? The weak suing the strong for being strong. The victims always finding an angle. Guys like me, what chance do we have?”

Harry’s lament doesn’t really have a chance, though. After all, here’s a guy who resides with his wife and cowed son in a beautiful lakeside property; sells rare luxury cars to the rich and famous at greatly marked-up prices; and is screwing his top saleslady on the side.

To its credit, The Slap keeps percolating, though. It’s well-acted while at times also being mis-directed in terms of storytelling and too many hit-over-the-head characterizations. The clear breakout character is Quinto’s Harry, a raging bull whose infrequent soft touches are slammed to the ground by his many excesses. The Slap would have been wiser to temper him with a little more feel. Not that many or any of its other characters are likely to overly charm you.

GRADE: B-minus

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