The 1977 New York Yankees were more than a baseball team -- they were a phenomenon, the pinstriped personification of their flamboyant owner and one of the most tumultuous summers in Gotham's history.
That's what ESPN's eight-episode limited series "The Bronx Is Burning" (based on Jonathan Mahler's "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning") argues, only occasionally persuasively. ESPN Original's latest scripted event preaches to the Yankees choir and isn't likely to cross over beyond the audience that knows and remembers the story.
After an inauspicious loss to Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in the 1976 World Series, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt, sporting an impressive hairpiece) decided his team needed an expensive new star. He brought in slugger Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata of "Rescue Me," sporting an impressive afro), who quickly alienated the Yankee clubhouse, particularly the already embattled manager Billy Martin (John Turturro, sporting impressive fake ears). While baseball fans remember the dugout confrontations and the war of words in the media, other New York City residents may remember 1977 as a summer of municipal financial crisis, a famous blackout, the Son of Sam killings and a heated mayoral race involving Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo and Bella Abzug.
The problem is that while all of those things are certainly happening in the background, the first three episodes of The Bronx Is Burning boil down to nothing more than the George-Billy-Reggie show. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. Director Jeremiah S. Chechik ("The Avengers") does a magnificent job with the baseball action, particularly when he gets to mix archival footage from the summer's actual games. While quibblers will say that Sunjata doesn't exactly capture Jackson's cocky-and-cool charisma (much less his swing), the actor looks like an athlete and he's surrounded by a number of eerie doppelgangers including Erik Jensen's Thurman Munson and Leonard Armond Robinson's Mickey Rivers.
The non-baseball action, though, isn't nearly as well integrated. The mayoral race is entirely archival and every once in a while the story will cut to the Son of Sam shooting somebody or the NYPD's attempts to catch the killer. The effort to weave those bigger stories into the more intimate narrative -- something Spike Lee did far more successfully, with much of the same historical fodder, in 1999's "Summer of Sam" -- never develops into any kind of emotional connection.
In order for a series like this to stand up, it has to eventually dig deeper than the institutional memory of these events created by the New York media 30 years ago and perpetuated in the subsequent decades. The passage of time has to have allowed us to see these people as more than just one-note caricatures to be booed or cheered for. In its first three hours, "The Bronx Is Burning" hews to the surface nicely, but barely pokes underneath.
Of the main characters, only Turturro's Martin comes across as a person with one than one obligatory contradiction. Platt's Steinbrenner lets his bluster mask a dull insecurity, while Sunjata's Jackson has a intellectual streak obscured by his ego, both character traits that have been repeated until they felt true.
The possibility exists that "The Bronx Is Burning" is starting with the more familiar story to lure viewers and that complexity will be added in the second half. Anything could happen, I guess. At the very least, the miniseries should provide solace as the 2007 Yankees remain 10-plus games out of first despite the highest payroll in baseball. This year's squad may not be going anywhere, but I have a feeling things will turn out OK for denizens of the 1977 Bronx Zoo.
TV Review: 'The Bronx Is Burning'
The baseball works, but the history is pushed to the background
Daniel Sunjata in 'The Bronx Is Burning'