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John Turturro (left) as Billy Martin and Oliver Platt as George Steinbrenner in 'The Bronx is Burning.'
John Turturro (left) as Billy Martin and Oliver Platt as George Steinbrenner in "The Bronx is Burning."

'Bronx is Burning' revisits Yankee soap opera of '77

It might be hard, around these parts, to drum up sympathy for Billy Martin, but a better tragicomic figure there may never have been in sports. As played by John Turturro in ESPN's miniseries "The Bronx is Burning," the New York Yankees manager is a snap-jawed little fish who fancies himself a shark -- an epic ego who comes up against a pair of equally huge personalities, in the form of owner George Steinbrenner and star Reggie Jackson.

With his prosthetic ears and outsized pinstripes, Turturro is the highlight of this eight-part tale about the summer of 1977, which begins at 10 tonight after the All-Star Home Run Derby. It's supposed to be a story of New York and its many demons, but it works best as a tale of loud, proud, surprisingly brittle men.

The series is based on the well-received 2005 book "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning," which interweaves the Yankees' season with the other dramas that roiled New York that summer, from the heated mayor's race to the Son of Sam murder spree. ESPN does cursory service to history, using archival footage of the mayoral candidates and other sideshows of the era, including a long-ago-forgotten guy who decided, one day, to scale the World Trade Center.

Son of Sam gets far more airtime, perhaps because Jimmy Breslin, who had a famous correspondence with the killer, is one of the series' advisers. But the murder-mystery sequences, meant to be ominous, feel tacked-on and tonally ill-fitting. This series wants badly to be about baseball, and its portrayal of the Yankee drama is so meticulous and rich that everything else feels like an afterthought.

Anyway, it's much more fun to dig into Yankee clubhouse culture, the way the players love and razz each other and -- more strikingly -- the way they tolerate, use, and get used by the reporters in their midst. Baseball writers are ever-present here, treated partly like therapists, partly like functional furniture. In one scene, a reporter sits patiently next to Yankees captain Thurman Munson , who is lounging on a couch, opining as he eats from a plate balanced on his bare belly.

Still, Martin takes up most of the energy in the room, and in the dugout, and on the field. He knocks over furniture, kicks dirt , and sobs on occasion. According to a least one esteemed source, who covered the team as a baseball beat reporter, Turturro gets it right, down to the hunch and the swagger.

As Steinbrenner, Oliver Platt isn't quite so convincing, my source reports. I had guessed as much, in part because this seems an impossible acting task; the man is so mythic that "Seinfeld" probably lit on the best way to handle him -- as a waving arm and disembodied voice. Platt has great fun with his hairpiece and his period suits, but he plays Steinbrenner as Donald Trump, all bombast and no subtlety. He gets little help from the script, which requires him to deliver too many expository speeches about commercialism and baseball.

As Jackson, Daniel Sunjata , a star of "Rescue Me," is also no match for Turturro; he seems to hide behind his afro, moustache, and aviator shades. He's suave, or tries to be, but lacks the spark you'd expect from a man who requested -- and got -- a Rolls-Royce upon signing.

That's a true detail, as hilarious and maddening today as it must have been back then. And if such Yankees lore is already imprinted on your brain, this series will have a special resonance. It's filled with winks for baseball devotees, from an early cameo by Jason Giambi to the foreshadowing of baseball events to come: At one point, we see Bucky Dent complaining to his wife that he isn't getting a chance to swing the bat.

The actual swinging, when we see it, seems respectable, and director Jeremiah Chechik deftly mixes archival footage with shots of the actors at work. But ultimately, this series isn't about home runs or missed fly balls. It's about talking: snide remarks and summit meetings and breakup fights and makeup lunches, an all-male soap opera that would put "Desperate Housewives" to shame. These men, at the height of their power, are the ultimate drama queens, larger than life, and maybe even bigger than New York.


The Bronx is Burning


Time: Premieres tonight, 10-11