ESPN’s entertainment division will take a step up in class next week with the debut of the four-letter’s first miniseries, “The Bronx Is Burning,” an eight-hour drama about the 1977 New York Yankees set against the backdrop of that hot, dark Gotham summer.
That was the summer when Son of Sam, then known as the .44-Caliber Killer, terrorized the city and Ed Koch emerged from a contentious mayoral race. There was a heatwave, a blackout and widespread looting.
Based on rough cuts of the first three episodes, it’s a good show, though I think it fails in its attempt to portray the Yankees’ internal soap opera as somehow being an integral part of the larger, chaotic story of that summer in New York, or even vice versa.
The Yankees as a baseball team, seen from the outside, defending an American League pennant and trying to take that last step back to the top, with Billy Martin managing, newly signed Reggie Jackson in right field and George Steinbrenner lording over the enterprise: That was a huge part of what Spike Lee’s movie called the summer of Sam.
But how Jackson got along with his teammates in the wake of the famous, disastrous Sport magazine interview in which he called himself “the straw that stirs the drink,” or the Martin-Steinbrenner psychodrama, those things could have been happening in any clubhouse, anywhere, and at any time. Billy Martin didn’t need David Berkowitz prowling the Outer Boroughs to have dark days.
The series is based on a book by Jonathan Mahler, which I haven’t read. Perhaps the book does a better job of portraying the Yankees as, in the words of one of the actors in a companion documentary, a metaphor for what was happening in the city.
Still, “The Bronx Is Burning” is a vast improvement over the mostly wan, often sentimental offerings that ESPN’s entertainment division has made since debuting with “A Season on the Brink” five years ago. It’s the best drama the network has done since “Playmakers,” its entertaining soap opera series about a fictional pro football team that the network yanked off the air because the NFL didn’t like it.
When “The Bronx Is Burning” focuses on the Yankees, which is most of the time, it looks a lot like “Playmakers.” It’s a locker-room soaper, but it’s a good one, centered on three characters who are so compelling that they might not be believable if they weren’t real people: Steinbrenner, Jackson and Martin. The Yankees as a team are another principal figure, personified by their heart and soul, catcher and captain Thurman Munson.
In one of many pieces of vintage video the show weaves into the narrative, Howard Cosell, broadcasting a “Monday Night Baseball” game with Keith Jackson — kids, this stuff really happened — describes the Yankees’ turmoil: “Munson against Jackson or Jackson against Munson. Martin against the owner or the owner against Martin. Martin against the press.”
John Turturro, skinny as a rail and wearing prosthetic ears, is something close to uncanny as the tortured Martin, who says he never wanted to do anything but manage the Yankees, but had to make a deal — actually, a series of deals — with the devil, his nemesis Steinbrenner, to do it.
Steinbrenner hired and fired Martin so many times that the two spoofed the routine in a famous beer commercial. Martin managed the Yanks five separate times, and was actually preparing to do it again when he died in a car wreck on Christmas Day, 1989.
Turturro — who incidentally played Cosell in the TV movie “Monday Night Mayhem” five years ago — has the body language down. The slumped shoulders, the hand in the back pocket. He gives Martin a kind of laconic air and an on-and-off Texas accent, something the Californian picked up while managing the Texas Rangers before Steinbrenner hired him in 1975. He also took to wearing western-style clothes.
Oliver Platt chews the scenery as Steinbrenner, not really impersonating the Boss as much as giving us a version of his football-style bluster.
Daniel Sunjata is the weak link as Jackson. His performance is OK, and he somehow manages to approximate Reggie’s corkscrew swing, but he’s too slight. He just doesn’t have the physical presence Jackson had.
The best impersonation here, even better than Turturro’s Martin, is Joe Grifasi’s Yogi Berra. It’s a small part, but that’s Yogi.
But I’m only talking about the soap side of “The Bronx Is Burning.” It’s also a cop show about the investigation into the series of shootings that would become known as Son of Sam. Not a bad cop show either, though it’s nothing special. Call it “Law and Order: ’77,” with special guest star Jimmy Breslin (Michael Rispoli) reading his columns out loud to … wait, who’s he reading to?
In one early scene, the cops on the detail assigned to the .44-Caliber Killer are in the squad room and the Yankees are on TV. “Three million bucks for a ballplayer,” one says. “Schoolteacher makes 18 grand a year. Turn it off, will ya?”
That’s how a baseball team interacts with a city. It’s part of the fabric of life there, particularly the teams that have been in the same city for a century or more. And until not long before the time in which “The Bronx Is Burning” is set, when salaries escalated dramatically, the players themselves were intertwined with the city’s life.
Only a generation before Reggie Jackson came to town, a young Willie Mays would play stickball with the neighborhood kids in Harlem before walking to the Polo Grounds for the game. Reggie Jackson and his generation of players, and all the generations since, didn’t mingle like that. They were and are, in essence, a media event, something seen from the outside. Media events are separate from the life of a city where a killer is shooting young lovers as they sit in their cars.
“The Bronx Is Burning” debuts Monday at 10 p.m. EDT on ESPN, then will run on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. from July 17 through Aug. 28.
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So long, and thanks for all the toasted ravioli [PERMALINK]
I’m typing up a column in the kitchen of my house in Dogtown, St. Louis, for the last time. I’ll be on vacation for the rest of the month while my family and I move back to San Francisco. The move will make it easier for me to wash the editor in chief’s car, a requisite of my continued employment.
When the wife and I moved here six years ago, I wrote a piece about it for Salon, explaining that my lifelong love affair with San Francisco had ended, thanks mostly to the dot-com boom.
That piece made me a mini-celebrity for a while in St. Louis. I was interviewed by the local alt weekly, talked about on the radio giant KMOX, recognized by strangers when they heard my name. The wife used to joke that they were going to erect a statue of me.
I take back nothing I wrote then, and don’t regret moving here at all. St. Louis has been kind to us over these last six years, lavishing us with happy days and good friends we’re planning on keeping. Also warm nights for half the year and relatively easy access to Rendezvous ribs in Memphis.
But times change and families change. The old affair has rekindled, I guess, this time with the wife on board. So we’ve decided to go back. The short version is that we want our kids to grow up in the Bay Area. The longer answer is a little more personal than it was six years ago and not one I feel like getting into with the full class. But it’s a fond and grateful farewell we’re saying to St. Louis. We’re not escaping anything.
I expect to return to the column July 30.
Previous column: The All-American Football League
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