The Big Apple, circa 1977, packed more melodrama than even the most jaded New Yorkers could ignore: The Son of Sam killer was on the loose; a fierce mayoral battle involving an embattled incumbent (Abe Beam) promised endless headlines; and a blackout let loose a parade of hoodlums bent on destruction.
Meanwhile, over at the House That Ruth Built, the New York Yankees were embarking on a season that would later give rise to the term “The Bronx Zoo.” ESPN brilliantly captures the latter in “The Bronx Is Burning,” a new eight-part miniseries starting at 10 p.m. Monday.
The behind-the-scenes baseball bits are as good as anyone can expect from a made-for-cable project. Based on Jonathan Mahler’s book “Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx Is Burning,” the miniseries lights the match in the opening seconds. Testy New York manager Billy Martin (John Turturro, a terrific doppelganger) yanks star Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata) for loafing. Fists nearly fly, but a little prologue is in order …
Time shifts backward a year, and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (District native Oliver Platt) is trying to cajole Billy into taking over as Yankees manager. He’s trouble, assistant Gabe Paul (Kevin Conway) warns George, but the man known as the Boss can see the PR bonanza from such a hire, and dominating the New York tabloids’ back pages is nearly as vital as a World Series ring.
Next, George signs Reggie to a then-record $2.9 million deal, and the Bronx Bombers get the “straw that stirs the drink,” as Reginald Martinez Jackson would memorably describe himself later.
“Burning” is like a three-character play with plenty of distractions. Reggie’s ego was as big as anything the Bronx had seen before, but when he crushed a fastball, none of that mattered. Billy remained a drunk with a chip on his shoulder bigger than George’s wallet, forever feeling he wasn’t good enough for the gig. Then there was George, the millionaire who saw himself as a bona fide Yankee even if he never played an inning.
The three co-existed for one season and, miraculously, made one another better. That’s what championships, and kinetic television, are made of.
It’s too bad “The Bronx Is Burning” labors to do more than retell a great sports story. The main narrative is interrupted periodically by inserts of news footage of the day and, worse, by re-enactments of killings by a murderer who took instructions from his dog.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with tracking backward from the main action to provide a broader perspective. In fact, the sequences featuring detectives hunting down the killer feel as genuine as George’s blowups. But the miniseries can’t connect the dots as of yet, and it’s a critical error in its packaging.
Mr. Steinbrenner is too fixed in the public’s eye, both from his own personal appearances and his spoofed image on “Seinfeld,” for Mr. Platt to break new ground here. Nevertheless, he captures Mr. Steinbrenner’s charm and venom with enviable slickness. Vocally, the work is spot-on, even if his pompadour is a visual irritant. Of course, any re-creation set in the 1970s inevitably carries the burden of the period’s tackiness.
As the series unfolds, director Jeremiah S. Chechik (1993’s “Benny & Joon,” 1998’s “The Avengers”) eventually might weave the city’s nightmarish elements and sports drama into a convincing whole, but early evidence suggests he’s not up to the task.
ESPN clearly wants to be a player in cable’s original-movie universe. “The Bronx Is Burning” suggests that the sports channel is earning a place alongside TNT, USA and other high-end-content channels.