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THE BRONX IS BURNING (ESPN)
(Premieres tonight at 10:00/9:00c; Tuesdays at 10:00/9:00c starting July 17)
The network's description: ""The Bronx is Burning," produced by ESPN Original Entertainment in association with Tollin/Robbins Productions, and starring John Turturro ("Quiz Show" and "The Good Shepard"), Oliver Platt ("Huff" and "The West Wing") and Daniel Sunjata ("Rescue Me" and "The Devil Wears Prada") will debut on ESPN Wednesday, July 11. In addition, ESPN Classic will air the series each Wednesday in July at 10 p.m. The eight-episode drama is adapted from Jonathan Mahler's non-fiction bestseller about the tumultuous summer of 1977 and the New York Yankees, and will mark the 30th anniversary of the Yankees' first World Series championship under George Steinbrenner's ownership."
What did they leave out: Keep an eye out for cameos by Yankess past and present, such as Jason Giambi as a mouthy cab driver in part one. Maury Allen, Marty Appel, Steve Jacbson, Phil Pepe and Graig Nettles also turn up over the course of the eight-part mini-series.
The plot in a nutshell: A lack of hustle by famed Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata, complete with Jackson's trademark sunglasses and mustache) during a relatively meaningless game on June 18, 1977 causes manager Billy Martin (John Turturro, complete with Martin's trademark ears) to bench the right fielder mid-game. None too pleased, Jackson throws a fit in the dugout as the pair nearly come to blows. Equally as upset is the team's owner George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt, channeling Donald Trump), who doesn't like that his star player will be riding the pine the rest of the game. We then flash back to two years earlier as the seeds for said events are planted. A relatively wet-behind-the-ears Steinbrenner wants a World Series ring more than anything as the team hasn't won a pennant since 1964. To that end, he's willing to take a chance on the recently fired Billy Martin, whose storied history has made him a pariah throughout the league. And sure enough Steinbrenner's risk pays off - the Yankees win the pennant that year only to end up being swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Feeling let down by Martin, Steinbrenner opts to throw himself into the team's day-to-day operations, including signing the aforementioned Jackson for a then record $3 million contract, much to Martin's chagrin. Jackson as expected proves to be something of a prima donna, refusing to run laps during spring training, claiming phantom injuries when his stats flop, trash talking the team to the press and generally rubbing the team's captain, catcher Thurman Munson (Erik Jensen), the wrong way. His behavior forces Martin to bench Jackson, which in turn pisses off Steinbrenner, which leads to Martin being even more annoyed, which leads to Martin being even more difficult with Jackson, which leads to Jackson being an even bigger head case. It's an endless cycle that doesn't resolve itself by the end of the three parts available for review, which cuts off as Steinbrenner tries to fire Martin and Jackson asks to be traded elsewhere. Intercut between the action is the usual mix of headlines, clips and music from the period as well as a somewhat haphazard subplot involving the police's manhunt for the ".44 Caliber Killer" (a.k.a. The Son of Sam).
What works: As always in these types of pieces, it's the little details that prove to be the most interesting - Whitey Ford once asked for the shirt off Jackson's back, a frustrated Martin began picking the batting order using pieces of paper in a hat and Steinbrenner recorded motivational speeches for Martin to play for the team. Director Jeremiah Chechik also - for the most part - wisely forgoes any attempts of recreating the action, opting to use real game footage instead, while the three leads - Sunjata, Turturro and Oliver Platt - prove to be lookalikes and soundalikes in a "squint and don't think about it too much" kind of way.
What doesn't: The project's length actually proves to be its biggest obstacle as once the central Jackson-Martin-Steinbrenner conflict is established, it's just a bunch of wheel spinning until the conclusion. Their endless variations on the same fight gets so monotonous that ESPN could literally switch part three with part two and the audience probably wouldn't notice. Making matters worse is that fact little attempt is made to get into what makes Jackson, Martin and Steinbrenner tick. The only person who's even remotely humanized is Martin and even then it's just to show he was a workaholic and a general dick to his wife and kids. The rest is exactly the shtick you'd expect - Jackson mouths off, Martin screams and Steinbrenner fumes. It's actually quite stunning how redundant it gets. The rest of the Yankees - aside from Munson - surprisingly don't factor much into the action as they seem to exist for "name checking" purposes only rather than as supporting players. Even stranger is the aforementioned "Son of Sam" subplot, which feels like something out of a completely different mini-series. All of said scenes - which feature Dan Lauria as Captain Joseph Borelli - are police procedural creaky at best and prove to be a distraction from the main plot rather than the organic facet of the time period that they are intended. In the end, there's nothing in the first three hours that doesn't discount the idea this might have worked better as a two-hour movie rather than the bloated eight-hour fest it becomes.
The bottom line: All in all, I'd go into the mini-series with a skeptical eye and even then probably only if the subject matter appeals to you at all.