I originally wanted to review ESPN's miniseries after its first episode, scheduled right after the Home Run Derby game last week. I was actually not at home at the time, so I set my DVR to record at the scheduled time...and presto! No mini-series, since the Derby apparently (and unexpectedly?) went long.
Usually, this sort of incompetence--blowing the start time of your big, heavily hyped miniseries because of poor scheduling of a live exhibition event--is usually enough to turn me off of something for good, but this is the Yankees we're talking about, so I recorded a later showing. But I wasn't able to put out a review until so late last week, I figured I might as well wait to have two episodes under my belt.
The Bronx is Burning is based on real-life events in New York City back in 1977, a time which seemed a lot like the apocalypse in the Big Apple. No joke, things were so bad that year that my dad reverse-immigrated my family to the Dominican Republic. The city was in shambles and pretty much broke, it was an election year, there was a huge blackout complete with looting, the high-profile serial killer David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz was on the loose...oh yeah, and the "Bronx Zoo"-era Yankees won the World Series, for the first time since 1962.
The miniseries focuses on the Yankees, although floating newspaper headlines segway us to a separate storyline about the hunt for the Berkowitz, and will probably drag us away to other storylines as the political race heats up and the blackout happens. It's strange, and the approach of "Wow! 1977 was a weird, messed-up time all over New York!" is an approach that's reminiscent of Spike Lee's 1999 flick, Summer of Sam.
[BRIEF TANGENT (Capsule review of Summer of Sam): Spike Lee's first film without a primarily black cast was an interesting failure. The story was about the reaction to the Son of Sam murders in the Italian neighborhood of Throgs Neck in the Bronx. Because it tried to encapsulate the whole NYC in 1977 scene, it aggressively name checks all the cultural hallmarks: the blackout, Reggie, Studio 54, Plato's Retreat, and on and on. The movie fails in large part because Lee has such palpable contempt for the people of the neighborhood, that Berkowitz is probably the most sympathetic character in the story. Turns out that Lee's contempt was well-earned--the neighborhood hated the fact that he was shooting a film about the murders, and so he received a constant stream of racist hate mail and abuse from residents of the area. Still, the caricature he draws of that community is so nasty (and, itself racist) that the movie's close to unwatchable.]
The first two episodes take the Yankees very quickly from George Steinbrenner hiring Billy Martin in 1975, through the Yankees' world series loss in 1976, Steinbrenner signing Reggie Jackson, and then through sometime in May of the 1977 season. As has been reported elsewhere, two of the three leads really get the job done. John Turturro needs prosthetic ears to get Martin's look down, but he captures all the rest through pure acting: Martin's ever-present scowl, his question-mark posture, his gestures, his accent. Meanwhile, although Oliver Platt doesn't look much like Steinbrenner, and it doesn't seem like he's doing an impression, but he's pitch-perfect in portraying the way that Steinbrenner talks and expresses himself--and the script does a good job of giving him a steady stream of Steinbrennerspeak to repeat.
That leaves Daniel Sunjata, who plays Reggie Jackson, as the weak link in the starring cast. He just doesn't evoke Jackson's larger-than-life presence, physically (Sunjata's a bit too lean for the part) or otherwise. His performance lacks the conviction that Jackson's always displayed in his public appearances, and that makes his Reggie seem more like an empty braggart than a true egotist.
He's not bad, by any means. He's just not Reggie.
For comparison's sake, the real Reggie Jackson makes an appearance after the first episode in a postscript interview in which he denies having made the infamous "straw that stirs the drink" comment that fuels the action of the second episode. When it comes to vehemence, there's no contest--true or not, you get the feeling that you could polygraph Reggie Jackson about his interview with Sport magazine that year and the needle wouldn't twitch as he denied the comment.
That postscript featurette is also interesting for another reason. The first episode features the scene in which we see the Spring Training barroom interview that caused all the ruckus, with Sunjata faithfully intoning the boldfaced highlights of the interview. In the featurette, we learn that the actor who was interviewing Sunjata in that scene is Robert Ward--the author of the Sport magazine article. I don't know why, but that struck me as an odd decision by the series producers. I guess maybe Ward's presence is intended to lend legitimacy to the scene, but to me, the whole thing felt terribly self-serving, right down to the way that Ward intoned "Are you sure you want me to print this, Reggie?" at the end of the inteview scene.
I wasn't there, maybe that's the way it actually went down. But in retrospect, Ward's presence in the scene is a bit of a distraction. It wouldn't have hurt anybody to have an actor play the part, and if Ward insisted on participating, maybe make him the bartender in the scene, who gives Sunjata his drink.
Overall, I'm sticking with this miniseries. I haven't read the book, yet, and we haven't gotten far enough into the other storylines for me to say for certain whether there's enough payoff to them to make the clunky segways between baseball and real life worthwhile. Still, it will be odd to have a project like this, focused around Martin, Steinbrenner, and Jackson, that ends in 1977, without taking in the remarkable events of 1978 and 1979. Maybe we'll get a montage of these events in the final episode, or maybe ESPN has a sequel in mind for next year, the 30th anniversary of the '78 team. I guess my point is that there was plenty of material on Yankees that they could have done this as a straight sports story, rather than enlisting the Son of Sam's help.
I'm recommending the Bronx is Burning, if only for Turturro and Platt's performances.