Tuned In

Miniseries, Mini Review: The Bronx Is Burning

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I don’t know if people who live outside New York City can understand the phenomenon of nostalgia for the city’s sleazy days of the 1970s. Maybe it’s a combination of high real-estate prices in the newly-cleaned up “America’s safest large city,” hipster irony and old-fashioned NYC contrariness, but it’s not uncommon to find people occasionally longing for the days when The Ramones played CBGB, Times Square was dirty and Central Park was a war zone. (This kind of nostalgia is even–or especially–common among people who didn’t actually live in the city at the time.)

For these people, plus baseball fans, ESPN offers up the eight-part miniseries The Bronx Is Burning, starting tonight at 10 p.m. E.T. Based on a nonfiction book by Jonathan Mahler, the show captures the era when NYC was at its nadir (the budget crisis, the ’77 blackout and riots and the Son of Sam killings) and the Yankees were at their apex. Since the story was adapted for a sports network, the miniseries focuses far less on the wider social picture than did the book (or for that matter, its forerunner, the Spike Lee movie Summer of Sam), and far more on baseball. (The episodes cut away rather jarringly to scenes of lovers being shot in parked cars and to the Son of Sam storyline involving legendary NYC newshound Jimmy Breslin.)

But as far as it goes, the early episodes sent by ESPN are an involving story about the incendiary relationship among manager Billy Martin (John Turturro), George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt) and Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata). Turturro fans will probably not be surprised at how well he loses himself in Martin’s volatile personality, while those who know Sunjata may well be surprised at how thoroughly he disappears into the cocky Jackson–there’s hardly a trace of Franco in him once he dons the pinstripes. As for Platt–his blustery style can grate on me sometimes, but it’s hard to argue that he’s perfectly cast here; it is probably impossible to overact the role of Steinbrenner, and its a delight to watch him and Turturro take turns throwing gasoline on the fire of their clubhouse showdowns.

In any case, the timing of the debut couldn’t be better. It’s going to hit 97 degrees in New York today and, for that matter, it’s pretty sultry coast to coast. Not a bad night for anyone nostalgic for Blackout Summer to turn off the A/C, turn on the TV and relive a time when the mustaches were big, the mean streets were hot, and so were the tempers.