Over the weekend I took a look at the first three episodes of the eight-part ESPN miniseries about the '77 Yankees, which premieres tonight -- and, if nothing else, was pleased to see "Rescue Me's" Daniel Sunjata get a chance to show how very good an actor he is ...
To be sure, as the womanizing Franco, he's been impressive enough. But his Reggie Jackson in "Bronx" is a model of delusion, constantly perplexed by others' misunderstanding of him -- when others in fact understand him all too well. (Canton's Thurman Munson, played by Eric Jensen, is all too clear-eyed about Reggie and his ways.
(And let me pause here for a moment to note the ways that this saga resonates in Northeast Ohio. Not only do you have Munson, but native Clevelander George Steinbrenner, played by Oliver Platt, and former Indians exec Gabe Paul, played by Kevin Conway.)
Sunjata has to be on his game, considering that he is working often opposite John Turturro as Billy Martin, and Turturro takes no prisoners. There's one shot of Turturro/Martin in a bar, about to lose his temper, that might as well be the real Martin, so precisely is that much-photographed scowl replicated.
But what about the production as a whole? Well, as fun as it is to watch the main actors in action (and Platt gives a full measure of a performance, too), the piece itself is awkward, trying to balance the Yankees' turmoil with the larger chaos in New York at that time, especially from the Son of Sam serial killer. So between baseball battles, we are taken off to see how the police are investigating that case, and how Jimmy Breslin covered the case. (Breslin, played with eerily perfect intonations by Michael Rispoli, is also one of the advisors on the series.)
If this is to make the point that New York had more serious concerns than the Yankees soap opera, then it could have been made more briefly. If the idea is to offer a more textured look at New York in 1977 (as the book that inspired the miniseries apparently does), then it's not successful.
Still, there are many things that recommend "The Bronx Is Burning" besides the Martin/Steinbrenner/Jackson saga. It's keen on showing how baseball decisions get made, for good or ill, whether it's Steinbrenner's ridiculous pep talks to the team or Martin, frustrated with the boss's interference, having his lineup chosen at random. It's the marvel that is Mickey Rivers (Leonard Robinson), and the tight-lipped but ever-present Yogi Berra (Joe Grifasi).
I don't know if I'll be back for more. But I'll probably pause if I happen upon it.