Whether you've watched every match-up on "Monday Night Football" or never tuned in to see a game, TNT's "Monday Night Mayhem" is magnificent drama, a revealing glimpse inside the often raucous broadcast booth.
The film, which airs Monday, chronicles the creation and rise of the broadcast, its highest-rated years, followed by its eventual decline. At the center of its success is Howard Cosell (John Turturro).
Because it's been so long since Cosell was in the spotlight (he left the show in 1983 and died in 1995), when Turturro first appears in "Monday Night Mayhem," Cosell comes off as a ridiculous caricature. It doesn't help that Turturro is made up to look more like Andy Garcia than Cosell. But it doesn't take long before you remember Cosell was such a character that the real guy bordered on caricature anyway.
The story begins in the late '60s. The NFL proposes an expansion into prime time. ABC, ridiculed as the "Almost Broadcasting Company" (the UPN of its day), decides to get into the game. Led by ABC president Leonard Goldenson (Eli Wallach) and ABC sports president Roone Arledge (John Heard), the network decides to put together a broadcasting team. Cosell is not an immediate lock for the show, though he wants it desperately.
"Maybe they can't put a Jew from Brooklyn in prime time," Cosell says to his doting wife, Emmy (Patti LuPone).
Keith Jackson (Shuler Hensley) is hired as play-by-play announcer, and Don Meredith (Brad Beyer) and Cosell join him in the broadcast booth. Rehearsals go horribly, with everyone talking at once. Initial reviews of the first broadcast in September 1970 are tepid, too, but the ratings are through the roof.
For its second season, Arledge drops Jackson and substitutes Frank Gifford (Kevin Anderson). The terrific trio is in place. It's just not as terrific inside the broadcast booth as it may appear to viewers at home. As the only non-jock in the booth, Cosell feels left out. It's the jocks vs. the brains.
"Some nights, I swear, it feels like he's speaking Chinese," Gifford complains of Cosell.
Seen through this prism, it's much easier to understand why Dennis Miller was added to "Monday Night Football" two years ago. Cosell was chosen because he was seen as "the provocateur" and because "prime time needs storytelling." Adding Miller was no doubt an attempt to replicate that formula.
Based on a book of the same name by print journalists Bill Carter and Marc Gunther, Carter wrote the "Mayhem" screenplay while continuing to cover the TV industry for The New York Times. His script concentrates on Cosell, who comes across as well-meaning but insecure, and Arledge, who created the "Monday Night Football" franchise.
Cosell won't suffer fools - particularly Gifford - gladly. He craves the attention and support of Arledge even after Arledge has left to run ABC's news division. Arledge would simply like some gratitude for putting Cosell on the air.
Turturro lays claim to Cosell early on. You believe him as the character and you grow to like him. His close relationship with his wife comes to the fore late in the film. Carter has written a lovely scene in which Cosell offers play-by-play description as Emmy slowly applies her lipstick. It's touching without being maudlin, playful without being silly.
The golden age of "Monday Night Football" comes to a close when Cosell quits and is replaced by O.J. Simpson (Chad L. Coleman), depicted here as an incomprehensible mush-mouth.
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle (Jay Thomas) complains to Steelers owner Art Rooney (George Greif) that the Farrah Fawcett TV movie "The Burning Bed" beat "Monday Night Football" in 1984.
"There's something wrong, Pete," Rooney says. "The NFL doesn't get beat by Farrah Fawcett."
"Monday Night Mayhem" is like a "Behind the Music" episode, but instead of chronicling the rise, fall and resurrection, the story ends after the fall.
"Monday Night Football" still exists, but it will probably never regain the chaotic glory days depicted in this winning telefilm. As Cosell would say, I just have to "tell it like it is."