"Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth" certainly is a documentary, helmed by two veteran journalists in Martin Dunn and Marie McGovern.
But make no mistake: It also is a show, with a veteran showman as its front man.
That would be Craig Carton, whose rise and fall are told by a variety of relevant characters, but mostly by Carton himself, who narrates the HBO documentary that premieres on Wednesday night.
In fact, the entire project was the former WFAN morning host’s idea.
He reached out to Dunn and McGovern in January of 2019, in between his conviction and sentencing on federal fraud charges, and spoke to them at length before spending a year in prison. (He was released in June.)
The result is a stark tale of childhood sexual abuse, gambling addiction and suicidal thoughts mixed with happier themes such as his rise as a radio personality and his evident talents as an entertainer.
More than once it is noted Carton’s on-air persona is an act, or at least an embellished version of his true self, including by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
That’s OK. It’s part of the job, what helped make him a success over his decade at WFAN and what now makes him a valued free agent on the sports talk market.
WFAN has been speaking to him for months about a potential return, presumably in afternoon drive time, and there is good reason to make that happen to enliven an increasingly stale genre.
But it is impossible not to wonder during the film precisely what to believe. Not that I am accusing Carton of making things up. One would hope he is beyond that, and others corroborate much of what he says.
Still, he brings his storyteller’s touch to what he discusses, both good and bad, which gives the film much of its entertainment value but leaves one wondering about dramatic flourishes.
That includes stories about his extremely high-stakes, high-risk gambling exploits, which eventually resulted in the debts that led him fraudulently to defray funds intended for his ticket brokerage business.
It gets a little complicated. But again, it is a rollicking ride, one a viewer could imagine him recounting as an opening monologue when he returns to radio in the coming months.
"He’s a media guy; he knows how to talk," Dunn told Newsday. "But I think the other thing is we were very clear with him that if he talked, he had to talk honestly and candidly, and he did that."
Carton did make off limits detailed questions about the impact of his behavior on his wife and four children.
The timing for the premiere is challenging, to say the least, especially given that interest figures to be highest in the New York area. It will be up against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Rays.
There also is a wee bit of political news these days, and there is a Vice Presidential debate at the same time as the "Wild Card" premiere.
But that’s OK. It is why God created DVRs and HBO replays.
As to whether this will play in Peoria, that seems like a stretch. But Dunn said, "I think people are fascinated with stories of people who’ve climbed to the top of the mountain, then hit a downfall. I think that sells everywhere.
"I think also that even if Craig himself is not a hugely recognizable figure in Seattle and L.A., Boomer (Esiason, his former partner) certainly is. He’s very, very well-known across the entire country."
A review of the film on Uproxx that illustrated the challenge began this way:
"East Coasters’ apparently endless appetite for caffeinated townies shouting lukewarm sports takes loudly in the morning is as strange and exotic to the rest of the country as their obsession with bodegas and bad coffee."
Yikes! Anyway, one of the highlights of the documentary is the candidness of Carton’s former colleagues, including Esiason, Al Dukes, Jerry Recco and Eddie Scozzare, which Dunn and McGovern said pleasantly surprised them.
Dukes told Newsday, "When Craig asked us if we would be involved with it, he just said, ‘Tell whatever you know; don’t feel like you need to hide something.’
"I don’t think any of us went in there with any sort of things we were afraid to talk about."
For the rest of us, it’s a good listen.