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‘The Slap’ Review: NBC Miniseries Drama Hits Hard and Fast

”Brothers & Sisters“ creator and all-star cast make for provocative storytelling

NBC miniseries “The Slap” is impressive on the performance side and provocative in story. The premiere plants enough seeds to get viewers to return.

Veering from its long-standing tradition of Thursday night comedies, NBC premieres the new drama written by playwright Jon Robin Baitz (creator of ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters”) and starring an ensemble cast comprised of actors from theatre, film and television: Peter Sarsgaard, Thandie Newton, Zachary Quinto, Brian Cox, Thomas Sadowski, Melissa George (the only holdover from the original Australian cast) and Uma Thurman.

The impressive auspices of the drama are what attracted me to it in the first place, but I have to make a disclaimer: I’m a single gal, and as such I’ve never had children (though I’m happy to be an aunt to a handful), so I tend to be very careful whenever I talk about parenting. I’ve learned that parents do not like to be questioned or criticized about the way they parent their children. OK, moving on.

You’ve probably heard by now that the inciting incident on the opening episode involves a young child misbehaving at a backyard gathering of friends and family. And when one of the adults at the gathering goes to handle the situation, he reprimands the child verbally and with a slap on the face. It’s a jarring moment, but one that doesn’t seem horribly wrong given the child’s behavior. Many people who watched early screeners of “The Slap” premiere episode thought the kid deserved the slap. So is there a show here or not?

Yes, there is. As the premiere episode quickly establishes, “The Slap” is about more than that one disciplinary act toward a child. It’s about the circle of friends and family involved, some well off financially, some not. It’s about class status, values and codes of conduct. For the slapper, it’s also about anger management and his particularly entitled worldview.

I don’t want to spoil any of the drama for you. I will say that “The Slap” may have limited appeal, because it’s easy to see it as yuppies whining because they’re still not satisfied with their lives – see Peter Sarsgaard’s Hector.

What the show does well in the opener is give us a quick peek into each of the character’s headspace and most of the characters are easily identifiable types (hippie-ish mom, driven businessman, artist, to name a few), so you know what you’re dealing with and the tension lines are drawn. You’re not guaranteed to care about all of them at the outset, but the acting kept me interested.

The show also uses a voiceover that doesn’t strike me as necessary, even though it’s the voice of Victor Garber, and it’s always nice to hear his dulcet tones. It’s only minimally distracting from the storytelling.

Where “The Slap” gets more involved (I’ve watched the first two episodes) is in how quickly the incident divides the group into warring factions. The show’s promos ask “Whose side are you on?” and while it looks like it might be easy to choose, you quickly realize that because of the way Baitz has drawn his characters, it’s not a clear-cut choice. It’s in this gray area Baitz excels, as the members of the group talk to the slapper and each other about the potential outcomes of the incident’s fallout. It quickly becomes apparent that this one explosive moment can and will have serious and damaging impacts on the entire group.

It has to be said that “The Slap” is not an eight o’clock broadcast network show; it’s a 10pm show and the drama has much more of a cable feel. It seems like a show NBC chief Bob Greenblatt would have ordered when he was the head of Showtime. If you were thinking “The Slap” might be something along the lines of the late, lamented “Parenthood,” that’s not true either.

So why watch? In the end, it’s all about the stellar cast and the insightful and sharp writing. Peter Sarsgaard never has false moments and he’s a solid center to the show. There’s a lot going on with Sarsgaard in scenes even when he’s not speaking. Zachary Quinto is also particularly strong in a pivotal role. Thandie Newton, star of the DirecTV original series “Rogue,” has a very different type of role here and her chemistry with Sarsgaard is nuanced and interesting. Melissa George is also intriguing in an entirely offbeat way – to say more would be giving too much away.

Overall, “The Slap” is a solid effort, even if it doesn’t blow you away from the outset. Additional note: it’s part of NBC’s new strategy of building a Thursday night drama lineup: Note that “The Blacklist” has its new home at 9pm, between “The Slap” and new series “Allegiance.” Personally, I’d rather see NBC develop new comedies. But as an avid TV watcher, I try to sample everything. I plan to stick with “The Slap” for at least a few more episodes to see where they take the story.

“The Slap” premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC.