`Slap Maxwell' brings to prime time a life of unquiet desperation

The `Slap' Maxwell Story ABC, tonight, 9:30-10. Premi`ere of new comedy series starring Dabney Coleman. ``Six clich'es in 10 seconds! ... takes your breath away''

Slap's friend the Dutchman, a local barkeeper, has Slap's character down pat as he delivers this line during the premi`ere. Slap not only talks in clich'es, he carries on a rapid-fire '30s-style repartee with his girlfriend. And with the editor of the small Southwestern newspaper where's he's a sportswriter, Slap is in a permanent state of verbal warfare.

If it adds up to Dabney Coleman in your mind, it's because this brash title role is a successor to ``Buffalo Bill' and other semi-obnoxious types Mr. Coleman has played so skillfully in the past.

Slap's harsh chemistry with nearly all around him - implicitly including an estranged wife unseen in this episode - are the basis of the show's often entertaining but usually hard-won comedy points.

Actually, Slap's obnoxious ego is part of a much older dramatic tradition of jaunty males whose attitude probably symbolizes a universal reaction to ``outrageous fortune.'' On the surface he sasses his editor and generally leads a reckless life of unquiet desperation. Underneath you detect self-destructiveness. It takes comic form almost every time every time he opens his mouth - or writes one of the scurrilous columns that make his paper the object of lawsuits and cause its editor to come near to firing him.

In this premi`ere, Slap quits in the middle of one of their fights, and later - on his way out of town by bus - changes his mind when a black couple make him feel good about himself and his work. It's a key to Slap's outlook and to the show's thesis: that a small town is where Slap belongs, and that, despite his bravado, he knows it. The show may ridicule him, but it lets him fight back at life with a feisty tongue, defining a character that could prove worth watching in future episodes.

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